Manifest Destiny: We Are Death

Oppenheimer: Now I Am Become Death

Oppenheimer: Now I Am Become Death

Is nuclear holocaust inevitable?  Can we back away from the cliff we have been anxiously gazing over for 70 years – or in many cases, simply trying to ignore? Some say there’s no turning back. The German philosopher Günther Anders noted, after his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1958: “Now that humanity is is capable of destroying itself, nothing will ever cause it to lose this ‘negative all-powerfulness,’ not even a total denuclearization of the world’s arsenals. Now that apocalypse has been inscribed in our future as fate, the best we can do is to indefinitely postpone the final moment. We are living under a suspended sentence, as it were, a stay of execution – a reprieve.”

Not everyone is so pessimistic. California Governor Jerry Brown joined Stanford historian David Holloway, who studies atomic energy during the Cold War years; Stanford cryptologist Martin Hellman, known for his risk analysis studies on nuclear threats; and Stanford philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who writes about the nexus of ethics and technology, for a conversation on “The Nuclear Menace” this week. Jean-Pierre was the principal reason I accepted the invitation to the event in Stanford Libraries’ Bender Room. He credited the man he called his mentor, René Girard, for some of his insights, which were also drawn from his recent book, The Mark of the Sacred, from Stanford University Press.

It was a dynamite panel all round, and Jerry Brown’s presence was enormously cheering. Why a California governor on a panel discussing nuclear deterrence? Brown reminded the group that, decades ago during his first stint as governor, he had been nicknamed “Governor Moonbeam” for his tendency to roam outside “the very narrow range of permissible topics. … The end of humanity ought to be a permissible topic.”

Back to the “Mark of the Sacred”: Jean-Pierre described how, in our world, “rationality appears to have relegated all remnants of the religious mind to the past” and yet is still greatly influenced by it. “The problem is not to reconcile reason and faith. It is to recognize the marks of the sacred in the most outstanding and the most terrifying achievements of the rational mind.”

Wait a minute. That’s where René Girard’s influence comes in. “The sacred” is a term that carries a lot of baggage, but it’s used here in a very precise Girardian way. “The sacred” is the way archaic societies bonded through rituals of sacrifice and violence. Jean-Pierre reminded us that the Latin root of sacred is sacer, which gives two faces to the sacred: a saint on one hand, the accursed on the other; the veneration on one, an abomination on the other. “One of the marks of the sacred is radical ambivalence. It is infinitely good, as it protects us from our own violence; it is infinitely evil, as it is intrinsically violent.” Elements of the archaic persist into our postmodern era for, as Hellman noted, we have powers that were once considered godlike. ”Only God could destroy a city; we can do that now,” he said – but would anyone consider the human race godlike in its maturity? he asked. Crickets.

Our attitude towards nuclear weapons matches this ancient pattern: “Their only usefulness today is said to be the fact that they protect us from others using them against us. In Biblical terms: Satan casts out Satan, and he is the only one capable of casting out Satan, that is, himself,” said Jean-Pierre.

While our nuclear arsenals are said to protect us against nuclear war, their absence would arguably be an even greater deterrent – a modern paradox. Dupuy cited military strategist Bernard Brodie: “one of the foremost factors making deterrence really work and work well is the lurking fear that in some massive confrontation crisis it may fail. Under these circumstances one does not tempt fate.” Jean-Pierre considered the interplay of accident and fate in our nuclear future – Oedipus’s fate required an “accident” at the crossroads for fulfilment, said Jean-Pierre. We are now dealing with “blind mechanisms, which make human passions, moral categories, intentions and strategic planning obsolete,” he said. In today’s world, “it may be rational to pretend to be irrational.” For example, Putin seems to prefer a chaotic, dangerous Ukraine rather than a democratic one that tilts towards European integration. “Putin’s behavior is a powerful generator of unpredictability. Strategic or not, this card may trump all the others.”

According to Dupuy, a nuclear holocaust could occur even without hatreds or passions. He reminded us of the dozens of times we were on the brink of nuclear war during the Cold War. Anders anticipated a “paradise inhabited by murderers without malice and victims without hatred. … No war in history will have been more devoid of hatred than the war by tele-murder that is to come … this absence of hatred will be the most inhuman absence of hatred that has ever existed; absence of hatred and absence of scruples will henceforth be one and the same.” (Sounds like warfare by drones, doesn’t it?)

A nuclear holocaust can occur even if no one wills it, given the automatic human tendency of escalation to extremes, as military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted, and as Girard elaborated in Battling to the End. The stakes that trigger such reactions can be ridiculously small – witness our entry into World War II, or the bickering between China and Japan over small islands in the Pacific. “All of this points to a new regime of violence in which human intentionality and human agency have become irrelevant.”

Dupuy noted,”Linking Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Hannah Arendt and Günther Anders probed the scandalous reality that immense harm may be caused by a complete absence of malignity; that a monstrous responsibility may go hand in hand with an utter absence of malice. Our moral categories, they discovered, are powerless to describe and judge evil when it exceeds the inconceivable.”

Philosopher David K. Lewis summarized the situation this way: “You don’t tangle with tigers – it’s that simple.” The “tigers” are our own violent tendencies. Luck, chance, fate, and the tiger “point to a world in which humanity itself has become irrelevant and miscalculation can carry the day.”

Another Girardian note during the question-and-answer period: Jean-Pierre suggested that not all nations, even belligerent ones, aim for the annihilation of the other – for example, Iran may not be nuking up to destroy Israel, but rather because, in mimetic fashion, nations imitate each other, and “to be taken seriously on the world scene, you have to be nuclear.” He recommended that we “sever the link between prestige and nuclear possession.”

Someone quoted Whole Earth Catalog’s Stewart Brand, who updated his comment from 40 years ago, “we are as gods, we might as well get good at it” to the more imperative ”what I’m saying now is we are as gods and have to get good at it.” Jerry Brown offered what might be considered an “action point” for the afternoon: “Techno-optimism is a view that leaves out the virtue of humility. Optimism can be as lethal as pessimism,” he said, recalling the Tower of Babel. “Humility is in short supply among scientists and politicians and others as well.”  Well, that’s something we can start working on today.

Mahdi Means Messiah

Escalating crisis drives surge in Iraq’s messianic movements

Author Ali Mamouri Posted June 19, 2014

The Mahdi Army Prepares For ISIS

The Mahdi Army Prepares For ISIS

Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during a military-style training in Najaf, June 16, 2014. (photo by REUTERS/Ahmad Mousa)

The radicalization of Iraqi politics that has contributed to the current crisis in the country can be better understood with an appreciation of the role of Islamic messianism, especially among Iraqi Shiites. This trend may even be more prominent, because if there is a battle for Baghdad, it will be fought along religious and sectarian lines.
Summary Political and economic hardships in Iraq have contributed to the rise of radical Messianic movements that claim to represent the return of the Mahdi.

The advent of saviors is one of the salient features of all Abrahamic religions, and is an idea that manifested itself differently in all three of those religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This idea grows and evolves throughout history, usually as a result of harsh social and political circumstances that drove people into seeking divine intervention from a heavenly emissary that would restore the tide of history back onto the righteous path.

In Islam, the concept of a savior appeared in the form of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandchildren named Mahdi, who would return at the end of times to save the world. The Shiites are not the only sect who believe in the Mahdi (the Guided One), for Sunnis also have similar — yet slightly different — beliefs that led to Sunni models of Mahdism. The latter includes the Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi movement (Al-Mahdiyya), which was established in Sudan in the 19th century, and the Juhayman al-Otaibi movement in Saudi Arabia, which occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for two weeks in 1979.

Mahdism garners greater acceptance and attraction in Iraq, where the social, political and economic tragedies that have befallen the country for a long time have led people to despair and seek solace in mythological solutions that promise salvation from widespread corruption and injustices. The Salafist tendencies that have permeated Shiite society in the past decades have strengthened the appeal of Mahdism in those societies and confirmed the imminent arrival of the Mahdi — a momentous event that those movements consider themselves responsible for paving the way for. Among the most prominent examples of this undertaking is the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which built its state on the basis that it represents the Mahdi, with the supreme leader who serves as deputy to the Mahdi, thus paving the way for the latter’s arrival.

In Iraq specifically, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, played a major role in reviving the idea of the Mahdi within Shiite society. Toward that end, Sadr wrote three large tomes that revolved around the concept of the Mahdi’s advent, imbuing them with modern details in the context of general political and military analyses that confirmed the arrival of the Mahdi as being imminent. The publishing of these tomes coincided with Sadr opening the doors of his religious school to large numbers of young people who came from southern provinces to study in Najaf, having grown despondent about the miserable political and economic situation that prevailed during the 1990s. The result was the emergence of a great potential to enshrine the Mahdist idea among Sadr’s pupils in subsequent years.

Notable among Mahdists is their anti-traditional view of religious schools, which can also be attributed to Sadr, who established the concept of a “vocal” Shiite seminary, instead of a silent one. He aimed to critique traditional religious schools that did not interfere in political affairs, and thus digressed from the true teachings of Shiism. This means that Sadr succeeded in merging Mahdist ideology with political Shiism and producing a dangerous form of Shiite Salafism, the consequences of which prominently took center stage after 2003.

The first of these consequences was the emergence of the Soldiers of Heaven, established by Diyaa Abdul Zahra al-Karaawi, who endowed himself with the title of “Heaven’s Judge.” Karaawi belonged to the Sadrist school of thought and claimed, in the 1990s, to be affiliated with Imam Mahdi, when he began developing his ideals during many travels to Iran and other countries. He also penned a book titled “Heaven’s Judge,” in which he claimed to be the direct son of Imam Ali, who miraculously traveled in time to the present day in the sense that the sperm of Imam Ali had been safely kept to be transferred to his mother. Beginning in 2003, Karaawi managed to attract many followers until his became a dangerous movement, establishing camps to train an army to prepare the world for the Mahdi’s resurrection. His initial plans included killing the grand Shiite authorities of Najaf for the negative role that they played in Shiite society, in keeping with the Sadrist idea of a nonsilent religious school of thought. Karaawi and his followers were killed in a major engagement with Iraqi forces backed by US troops in January 2007.

Concurrently, a man by the name of Ahmad Ismail Kateh established a Mahdist movement built on the premise that there were 12 Mahdis and not just one, and that he was one of those 12 and a grandson of Shiism’s famous Mahdi. Kateh succeeded in gaining many followers in Iraq and Iran as well. He leaned toward espousing cultural, rather than confrontational, ideals to avert the same fate suffered by the Heaven’s Judge. Despite that, his followers and the Iraqi government clashed on many occasions. He ultimately disappeared, and his representatives in major Iraqi Shiite cities — such as Karbala, Najaf and Basra — began making propaganda for him in religious schools known as the seminaries for supporters of Imam Mahdi.

A third Sadrist-inspired movement emerged, in which leaders did not outwardly claim to be the Mahdi, though they did resort to religious symbols that implied Mahdism. Most prominent among them was Mahmoud al-Hassani, also known as al-Sarkhi, who currently lives in Karbala, southwest of Baghdad. It is worth noting that “Sayyed al-Hassani” refers to a main personage in Shiite lore expected to pave the way for the Mahdi’s return.

Wide-ranging disagreements have now emerged between the latter two types of movements, leading to violent protests by both sides on May 15. The atmosphere remains charged between the two movements in many Shiite cities such as Karbala, Basra, Diwaniyah, Al Kout and others.

The Iraqi Shiite community still possesses great potential for the emergence of Mahdist movements, as a result of the difficult security and living conditions, the decrepit educational system — which fails to develop Iraqis’ rational thinking — in addition to the spread of ignorance, and the varied social and economic problems that continue to plague the country.