Why We Have No ISIS Strategy

Why We Have No ISIS Strategy
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The slaughter of James Foley was a watershed moment. Going forward, it will be far more difficult to avoid framing things within a Clash of Civilizations context -- even if by that we mean something different than did Samuel Huntington.

What a jury might then find indictable is the contortion-act that is Western resistance to it.

The terrorist snuff-video exploiting Foley illustrates several things, beginning with its "casting." The victim, an American, felt there was something sacred about using his talents to expose aspects of a proliferating evil. The murderer, an apparent British national, cast his lot proliferating that evil, signing up with a jihadist army the way young men of earlier generations did the Merchant Marines.

The Obama administration seems predictably intent on managing a policy of denial. To repeated declarations by ISIS that they are at war with the State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, essentially proposed: Just because they say they're at war with us, doesn't make it so. The president too, acting perhaps as, Theologian-in-Chief, professed, "...No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day."

I have removed his words from a broader condemnation, but it doesn't change the fact that there are serious disconnects here, of which these are relatively minor examples.

ISIS may be dead wrong, but they are clear. The president may be right, yet, very unclear. In each instance, the combination is dangerous. And, I would suggest that the case represented by the administration has much to teach us about the degraded state of contemporary Western culture, while pointing to some remedies for it.  Like his predecessor, Barack Obama has at times made religious appeals to justify policy. His Nobel acceptance speech, for example, was a veritable seminar on Just War Theory; an anomaly so surprising, critics seemed at a loss for objections, and supporters for plausible denial.

In terms of content, however, it was a rare moment of clarity, sinking since in a deepening miasma. More familiar is the domestic theater of patriotic boilerplate, as actions, or their lack, speak a language disturbing to allies, and emboldening to foes. It is near impossible to overstate the degree to which the problem is rooted in culture -- a confusion regarding national identity that runs from ambivalence, to embarrassment, to outright repudiation. Something we might call, trickle-down self-loathing. 

Decades back, heirs of The Enlightenment scaled the Olympus of Academia where, in the purity of its clouds, they discovered the Tablets of a New Law. Descending to the masses, they took it as their mission to overturn the idols that had scourged all hitherto existing society -- at least since the Edict of Milan. Chief among them was, and is, the golem known as the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Indoctrinated generations, in their turn, have climbed to dominant positions across the heights of institutional America, seeding clouds that daily penetrate the water tables of culture.

It has ever been an elitist project, advanced by those eager to spare, not people but society, the burdens of choice. For such, issues of church and state evanesce -- provided the religion of record is the State. In this, they see themselves the standard bearers of Enlightenment humanism.

The fact is that, though the leading Enlightenment figures were almost unanimously anti-clerical, few were atheists -- fewer still, anti-theists. This is no small thing for perhaps the truth most inconvenient to agents of trickle-down is that the philosophical foundation of American constitutional democracy is rooted ultimately in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This leads directly to a term that would surely be among the first marched to the lexical guillotine: exceptionalism.

The United States is exceptional. Every culture, nation, and individual is. It is a transcendent truth, endowing each with inalienable rights. It does not mean that every culture, nation, and individual arrives at the table bearing equal gifts. Albert Einstein and I are each exceptional. Neither of us would claim we've contributed equally. The array of rights, freedoms, and opportunities we tend to regard as "givens," are not an inevitability of evolution. They are the fruits of a particular experience -- namely, the Judeo-Christian tradition. No other culture in history could have led to this except the one that did.

Yet, trickle-downers go to impossible lengths denying it. In the words of scholar N.T. Wright, they want, "to reap the fruit, but sever the root." In so doing, they refuse to see what Nietzsche so clearly did -- the real, horrific consequences of a world finally free from the God of Moses and Jesus. Alexander Schmemann elaborates: "Here, in this paradox, is the whole absurdity of contemporary civilization, its internal dead end. Contemporary civilization speaks a religious language, and at the same time, hates religion." It is a foolish, recklessly blind insistence.

We should ask, "Why?" Why this wanton rejection of what should plainly be cherished? An important part of the answer might be found in the term, enlightenment itself.

In the West, we tend to associate it with an historical moment, the Enlightenment, one that marked the liberation of the individual from that tyranny of idols. From DesCartes's Cogito on, the individual became the point of reference for all else. Curiously, in the wisdom traditions of the East, which include Judaism and Christianity, things run in rather the other direction, with the first-person subjectivity we call the self, regarded with deep skepticism.

There's a formula that helps illustrate this, "In the West, it is the world that must be proved; in the East, the self must be." It is an aspect of the Judeo-Christian genius that the creative tension between the two is held in exquisite, protected, balance. Sartre famously remarked that, "Hell is other people." I'd say he had it backward. Hell is staring into an endless mirror of one's own mind -- and for all time. In that reduction, self becomes a torment, breeding resentment, and self-loathing unto despair.

A culture that chooses, however imperceptibly, to cut itself off from its wellspring, can likewise experience a corporate sense of resentment, self-loathing, and despair. Such a culture, lacking recourse to the transcendent, would be unable to seek the reconciliation that comes from genuine repentance.

In a world of such atrocities as James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and the many thousands they represent, self-loathing is an untenable indulgence. Antipathy for the enormous gifts of our cultural heritage isn't cool, isn't true, and won't cut it. The world needs better. Now.

Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things.

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