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13 September 2004

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 5, No. 38

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Confronting a Cult of Death

by Jerome F. Winzig

Words are inadequate to explain the slaughter this month of over 300 parents, teachers and children at Middle School #1 in Beslan in North Ossetia, Russia. When one woman hostage offered the terrorists all of the town's money, one of the captors replied, "We don't need money. We have come here to die." The only phrase that seems appropriate is that the terrorists responsible for this evil are part of a "cult of death," the same words used by Newsweek magazine in 1978 to describe the mass suicide led by Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana and by Time magazine in 1993 to describe the David Koresh-led massacre in Waco, Texas.

This cult of death is antithetical to life and freedom. It is obsessed with death--causing it and achieving it. It is steeped in hatred and fanaticism. It is stated openly. When the Ayatollah Khomeini had thousands of Iranian boys and girls tied together to sweep over minefields and entrenched Iraqi positions in the 1980s, he said the children would go to paradise. When Chechen terrorists took more than 700 people hostage in a Moscow theater in October 2002, one of the women terrorists declared, "We love death as much as you people love life."

Writing in the London Daily Telegraph that same year, al-Qaeda's Mualana Inyadullah said, "The Americans love Pepsi-cola, we love death." After the March 2004 butchering of over 200 commuters in Madrid, Spain, Abu Dujan al-Afghani, an al-Qaeda spokesman, said, "There will be more if God wills it. You love life and we love death." In an April 2004 sermon at Finsbury Park Mosque in London, Sheikh Abu Hamza Al-Masri said, "[W]hat unites all of these operations is their love of death for the sake of Allah, their burning desire to meet Allah."

Some believe this cult of death is the fault of the West. History tells us otherwise. In The True Believer, a post-World War II book on the nature of mass movements, Eric Hoffer wrote, "All the true believers of our time--whether Communist, Nazi, Fascist, Japanese or Catholic--declaimed volubly (and the Communists still do) on the decadence of the Western democracies. The burden of their talk is that in the democracies people are too soft, too pleasure-loving and too selfish to die for a nation, a God or a holy cause."

Hoffer wrote of the importance of hatred: "Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.... Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil." He pointed out that, if a fanatical movement doesn't have a devil, it often invents one. In his 1940 book, Hitler Speaks, Hermann Rauschning reported that when Hitler was asked whether the Jew should be destroyed, he replied, "No.... We should have then to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one."

A half-century ago, Hoffer believed hatred can be misdirected: "Often, when we are wronged by one person, we turn our hatred on a wholly unrelated person or group. Russians, bullied by Stalin's secret police, are easily inflamed against 'capitalist war-mongers;' Germans, aggrieved by the Versailles treaty, avenged themselves by exterminating Jews." In our day, Saudi Arabians, denied opportunity by the Saudi royal family, flew jetliners into the World Trade Center, and Chechens, refused independence by Russia, killed children in North Ossetia.

When the Soviet Union no longer had the Nazis to hate, Hoffer explained, "The theoreticians of the Kremlin hardly waited for the guns of the Second World War to cool before they picked the democratic West, and particularly America, as the chosen enemy. It is doubtful whether any gesture of goodwill or any concession from our side will reduce the volume and venom of vilification against us emanating from the Kremlin."

Written in 1951, The True Believer provides our terrorist age with two additional insights on deep-seated hatred as a weapon. The first is that such hatred is not justified: "Even in the case of a just grievance, our hatred comes less from a wrong done to us than from the consciousness of our helplessness, inadequacy and cowardice--in other words from self-contempt." The second is that such hatred is not just reactive, but is often coldly and deliberately calculated: "There is perhaps no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than by doing him a grave injustice.... To wrong those we hate is to add fuel to our hatred."

It is clearly impossible to appease this terroristic cult of death. As one anonymous blogger wrote last year on, "Random politically motivated violence against innocent people is not about revenge, any more than rape is about sex.... Terrorists aren't fighting oppression; they want to create more of it." Therefore, in the words of Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, "The world should view terrorism as it views the slave trade, piracy on the high seas and genocide, as activities that no respectable person condones, much less supports."

Democracies can take one large additional but less intuitive step. Fifty-three years ago, Hoffer wrote: "Emigration offers some of the things the frustrated hope to find when they join a mass movement, namely change and a new beginning. The same types who swell the ranks of a rising mass movement are also likely to avail themselves of a chance to emigrate.... It is plausible, for instance, that had the United States and the British Empire welcomed mass migration from Europe after the First World War, there might have been neither a Fascist nor a Nazi revolution."

Last year, in The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji pointed out that "Half of all Arab youth surveyed by the United Nations in 2001 said they want to move, and they're eagerly looking West." She suggested that the European Union, American, Japan, Canada, and Australia--all countries needing immigrants--should encourage Muslims to emigrate in large numbers.

Perhaps then we can all heed the words of Moses, the prophet revered by Christians, Jews, and Muslims: "You can choose life and success or death and destruction" (Deut. 30: 15).

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