Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reflections on September 10

The Attacks of September 11, 2001 happened 15 years ago Sunday.

In the days that followed the September 11th attacks, I thought of these words by the devoutly Catholic Blaise Pascal:
“Men never do evil so willingly or so happily as when they do it for the sake of conscience.”
I also thought of this from the great anticlerical skeptic Michel de Montaigne:
 “When men try to become angels, they become beasts.”
 Both men witnessed the religious violence that plagued France in the 16th and 17th centuries. I witnessed from the roof of my building in the East Village probably the most public sectarian massacre in history, the attacks of September 11th 2001 on the World Trade Center in New York.

A photograph that I took of the September 11th attack from the roof of the building where I lived at the time, 256 East 10th street in Manhattan.

While many flocked to religion in the wake of the September 11th attacks, I had the opposite reaction. I fled from it. I fled from all religious and ideological commitments. Religion and I have since become reconciled over the last 15 years. It turns out that belief in God and religion are not necessary to become a fanatic, even a murderous one; that all fanatics are ultimately the same no matter what they believe in or don’t. However, I still think there is just cause to that graffiti I saw around New York in the weeks following the attacks that said “Religion is the problem, not the answer.” More often than not, all religious and political doctrine, all the “—isms,” even anarchism, devolve into excuses for dominating people.

I think the problem is people who are sold on the idea of absolute certainty in matters that are always open to doubt and skepticism; matters that should be approached with a large measure of doubt and self-doubt, with humility as well as skepticism. It is arrogance, ignorance, and dogmatism that drive people to the worst sorts of crime. These things can make people self-righteously and gleefully murder each other all in the name of the Lord, or the Revolution, or the Nation, or whatever else you can think of.

While a lot of people around the world these days are singing war chants and baying for blood, the events of the last 15 years have transformed me into something very close to a pacifist. There is no rational violence. The demand for vengeance always trumps the most carefully planned strategy. Revenge and counter-revenge end only in exhaustion and death. Those fiery passions and the violence they cause stop only when their fuel is spent. No one ever “gets even.” People just keep murdering each other until everyone is dead. Conquest and empire that always promise peace and order to a benighted world are just theft on a grand scale. In our moments of intense rage, the devil whispers in our ear, “Why bother with freedom and peace when you can have victory and revenge?” At the end of all of our fighting is only the peace of the grave.

The events of September 11th call something else to my mind, the Treaty of Westphalia from 1648. For more than eighty years, different religious factions (Catholics versus Calvinists in the Low Countries, Lutherans versus Catholics versus Calvinists in what is now Germany) – each one convinced that they had the One True Revelation, the Pure Doctrine, and that all others were heretics, apostates, and the legions of Satan – tried with all their might to murder each other. Few conflicts are more ruthless and brutal than religious wars. People believe their souls are at stake and fight with a tenacity and savagery that no king or flag could ever summon. In 16th and 17th century Europe, fanatics drew each other’s blood while the ambitious took advantage of the shifts in power, and criminals took advantage of the chaos. Eight decades of such warfare devastated and depopulated the Low Countries and central Europe. Each One True Faith figured out that military victory was impossible, that they had fought themselves to a stalemate. The scale and depth of the misery created, and the extent of the destruction, eventually persuaded all sides that each One True Faith would have to find a way to live with all the other One True Faiths. After four years of negotiations among 109 delegates from Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Sweden, France, several principalities and a number of city states , the signatories to the Treaty of Westphalia for the first time in history made a multilateral agreement that created mutual tolerance between faiths, guaranteed the rights of religious minorities, recognition of the sovereignty of each other’s states, inviolability of borders, and prohibited such “extra-legal” practices as state sponsored piracy (the terrorism of its day).

No one in the world hates Americans more than other Americans.  The biggest and most lethal threat to Americans is other Americans.  We kill far more of each other every year than any foreign terrorist group ever did.

I hope that our own era also plagued with tribal, sectarian, and ideological conflict, can find some way to live with each other, and end the grief that is the sole fruit of such warfare.

Burning "the enemies of Heaven" at the stake from "The Miseries and Misfortunes of War," etchings by Jacques Callot, 17th century.  Reproduction from here.

Soldiers looting and burning a village from "The Miseries and Misfortunes of War," etchings by Jacques Callot, 17th century.  Reproduction from here.

The Rathaus in Münster where the negotiations for the Treaty and the signing took place in 1648.
My photo from July 2016.

A grim reminder of what was at stake just up the street from the Münster Rathaus; the corpses of Jan of Leyden and 2 other leaders of Anabaptist Uprising from over a century before hung in iron cages like these from the steeple of Saint Lambert's Church (these are 19th century replicas).

The room in the Münster Rathaus where the Treaty of Westphalia was negotiated and signed.  On the wall on the left are portraits of all the signatories.  The German government still uses this room for formal treaty signings.
My photo from 2014

Gerard Terborch's painting of the signing of the Treaty in Münster in that very room.  Reproduction from Wikipedia.

1 comment:

JCF said...

O/T (sorry, Doug, I am hideously BEHIND in catching up on your European travel blog posts):

Doug, I read this, and thought of you. I believe to be filed under "Irony: Bitter"?

Gays Who Lived Through Anne-Imelda Radice's Tenure as NEA "Decency Czar" Aren't Celebrating Her Gay Wedding

"Powerful gay people have been accorded a certain level of protection, D'Entremont said—unlike poor and struggling gays and lesbians, including artists such as [David] Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, just when Radice decided the government couldn't touch him."