Acts of Forgetting after Boston

From the Boston Globe, April 24th, 2013
From the Boston Globe, April 24th, 2013

By Sean Callaghan

After the Event

The dust and wreckage have been swept clean from Boylston street, the soiled carpets torn up and replaced in front of Marathon Sports.  The memorial at Copley square now fights for its share of quiet reflection amidst the bustle of renewed business and midtown Boston traffic congestion.  Meanwhile, news outlets have turned their attention to the more pressing issues of the day – the new figures on economic growth in the US, the crisis in Syria, the continuing drama surrounding US healthcare reform.  It seems the process of forgetting the events in Boston in the last couple of weeks is well on its way; yet, as forgetting affords us some distance from the event and its ensuing madness, I’m left feeling unsettled.  In some ways, it feels like forgetting in this case comes as the final curtain to a dramatic spectacle that was rehearsed well before it went up.  The narrative of terror was structured so we could watch, be horrified, and then angered.  When violent “justice” was served with the killing of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, vengeance was satiated.  When his younger brother Dzhokar Tsarnaev was cornered in a boat in  Watertown, things were brought to their climax.  They then found their denouement as he was taken forcibly into custody, his miranda rights waived.  He would be punished as a terrorist and an enemy combatant.  The curtain could fall, the conversation end.  We could begin to forget.

Yet still, I am bothered.

I’m bothered by the nature of our forgetfulness.  In this I’m reminded of the words of German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who, at the beginning of his ruminations “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” remarks that contrary to popular belief the act of forgetting is not simply a passive endeavor.  We pull our memories from the storm of sensations that surround us, we cull them from the past, and are actively selective in the choice.  For Nietzsche active forgetting saves us from the oppressive past that would “return as a ghost and [disturb] the peace of a later moment.”  It promotes a more active and joyful engagement with the present.  In the past few days, though, we’ve born witness to a different type of active forgetfulness, one more aggressively willful in its break with the past, one that wasn’t meant to promote the peace of its later moments – how many of us felt peace at the thought of boots on the ground in an American city, of the breach of civil liberties following the arrest of the younger Tsarnaev brother? – but instead worked to emphasize anger, accentuate a shared indignation, and prolong the pain of the moment.

Amidst the emotional carnage that defined the landscape of our shared experience, a forced act of forgetting arched its outline over the event leaving us only vague questions.  How did we so easily lose ourselves to tales of violence and vengeance?  How were we compelled to forget some of the key principles that define our shared beliefs in notions of right, civility, and justice?  Does the compromise of these notions mean they were always only mere phantasms created for the benefit of the naive?  And most importantly, to whose benefit did the product of anger, indignation, and pain serve?

We Forget our Reason

It came as no surprise that the first thing forgotten amidst the flurry of news reports and commentaries following the events of April 15th was a sense of tact.  As politicians eager to gain party points off the back of tragedy mobilized the emergent spectacle of violence to push their political agendas, we were too quickly reminded that the Aristotelian distinction of man as “rational animal” privileges our beastial nature over its more rational attributes.   We are animals by nature, and only rational by happenstance.  This was none more apparent then when Iowan Senator Chuck Grassley exploited the tragedy to target immigrant legislation calling for a slowdown in reform measures that went counter to his own political agenda.  Apparently, for politicians the rules of the jungle apply where violent tragedies are concerned.  First, there is the carnage, then come the vultures.

North of the 49th parallel, things were not much better.  Having just won a landslide victory in the Liberal Party leadership race, newly inducted party leader, Justin Trudeau, appeared on a pre-scheduled CBC News interview with Peter Mansbridge only two hours following the Boston Marathon Bombings.  He was meant to speak on his plans to reform the ailing party, but the conversation turned inevitably to the recent news.  Trudeau was asked what he would do were he the Prime Minister at this moment.  His response was measured, and reasonable.  He remarked that he would first take care of immediate concerns mobilizing aid to those who needed it.  He went on to state he would investigate the “root causes” of the incident to ensure it didn’t occur again.  After all, these acts of violence do not emerge out of nowhere.  They have a history – one usually involving the marginalization of minority religious or sectarian groups, and it is the responsibility of the government to intervene on that history to ensure a halt to its reproduction of violence.

The conservative response was swift and uncompromising.  Following his Party’s lead in its attempts to stem the rising tide of the liberal leader’s popularity, Prime Minister Stephen Harper provided unsolicited criticism of his opponent from London after attending the funeral of former Iron Lady of British politics, Margaret Thatcher.  As though channeling the darker spirits of his environs, he stated,

“When you see this type of action, when you see this type of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure its ‘root causes.’  You condemn it, categorically.  And to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible.”

What disturbed me most from this exchange between party leaders was less the absence of tact from the conservative side, and more the continued appearance of fanaticism in the face of “terrorist” activity that girded the logic (or absence thereof) fueling the PM’s comments.  For any that doubted this fanaticism was widespread amongst the party, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre put those doubts to rest. In an interview with Power and Politics host Evan Solomon last Thursday night he stated, “The root causes of terrorism is terrorists. That’s how we respond.”   The tautology speaks volumes about current attitudes in government towards this perceived “evil.”  Meanwhile, the government put its money where its leader’s mouth was by passing a revised anti-terrorist bill through the House of Commons that reinforced the possibility of suspending citizen rights in cases of suspected terrorist activity.  Even in Canada, terrorism turned our formerly inalienable rights into negotiable entities.

The New Religious Doctrine of Terrorism

It seems as far as conservative opinion goes the problem of terrorism is the problem of evil, and evil should never be rationalized.  This logic is a familiar one.  The two terms terrorist and evil were made synonymous internationally through the “War on Terror” and the Bush Doctrine following the Twin Tower attacks on September 11th of 2001.  Since then, the logic presupposed by the likes of Harper and Poilievre is one that would, like their American predecessor, divide the world into good and evil.  This is not a secular or rational division.  Traditionally, this division goes back centuries to a religious doctrine put forth by a Persian prophet, Mani and his Manichaen followers.  The cosmos in Manichaeism was split by a moral division with the spiritual good on one side, and the materiality of evil on the other.  This belief system found its way into both Christian and Muslim thought to become a central tenet for religious adherents.  God or Allah came to symbolize the spiritual good, and the world with all its decadent pleasures became the sole breeding ground of evil.  This belief system persisted as religious sects promoted their own political projects through their self-proclaimed legitimacy to adjudicate between good and evil.  Witches were burned.  Heretics exiled.  Religious mysticism dominated.

But then came the enlightenment, and reason offered us a different path.

In the 17th Century when rationalist and enlightenment thinking began to supplant dominant religious doctrines, a contentious debate between two influential thinkers gave real distinction to the issues concerning the merits of secular society over religious rule.  These thinkers were Benedictus de Spinoza and his Christian critic Pierre Bayle. I think spending some time with Spinoza and his critic might offer us some insight into the logic of terrorism that circulates today.

Doubly persecuted first as a Jew exiled to Holland during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisition, and then as a heretic to his own Judaic tradition for upholding radically rationalist principles, Spinoza was intimately familiar with the insularity of religious fanaticism.  His life was dedicated to its upheaval.  Standing as arguably the most radical thinker of the enlightenment age, he wielded reason as his weapon to pierce the wild darkness of dogmatic mysticism.  His argument, enunciated most clearly in his posthumous work The Ethics, was simple.  God and his works (or substance in the philosophical terms of the day) were one.  The great Deity did not stand outside the world as absentee landlord or equivocal judge.  It, He, She was the world itself, and our actions and thoughts were all equal in access to divine substance.  This was a radical conceptualization of the world, and one that promoted an egalitarianism that could not but find expression except via democratic principles; however, it is one to which even now we have yet to reconcile ourselves.  Even Spinoza’s more famous contemporary Rene Descartes compromised his modern, secular outlook with the dualistic vision of the Manichaen’s – the split between God and his creation finding expression in the division separating an all controlling mind, from its subservient body.

The relevance of this simple principle is made clear in Pierre Bayle’s critical attack on Spinozist thinking.  A philosopher deeply preoccupied with the problem of evil, and known for the promotion of tolerance towards atheists, Bayle railed against Spinoza’s monism terming it a “hideous hypothesis.”  After all, if God and his works are one, then his infinite being “will produce in itself all the follies, idle fancies, lewd, and unjust practices of mankind.”  Good and evil collapse on each other leaving only the world itself and the hope of its rationality to aid us in confronting the injustices of our everyday.  For Spinoza, this was precisely the point.  Having first hand account of the manner in which false dualisms could be exploited to promote “human” values that only benefited those in power while affording the powerful a means to defer responsibility of their own wicked practices to the will of an ambiguous God located elsewhere, Spinoza used reason as his inhuman weapon to intervene on this hypocrisy.  It was his guide to better pastures that lay beyond the pull of our inevitable partiality to a world in which the responsibility of all action could no longer be ejected to the judgment of a mystical being.  If God and substance are one, then we have only ourselves to blame.

Returning to the rhetoric on terrorism in our own day, we can see how the Manichaen logic of religious fanaticism continues to persist in statements made by our leaders.  Harper tells us the terrorist should not be rationalized.  His evil is beyond comprehension to our own good and civil society, and any pursuit of that comprehension must be chastised.  Either you are with the righteous in their indignation or you are against them.  Trudeau at least was willing to remember his rationality.  A secular society does not defer its tragedies to mystical tales of evil.  When lives are at stake it simply cannot afford to embrace that kind of religious dogmatism.

Because the truth is the terrorist and the rest of us are one.

There is no hidden or unfathomable depth to his evil.  Rather there is a history there, and one that implicates us all in the reproduction of fanatical violence.  We can choose to ignore this history – make it part of our active forgetfulness – and abide by our own fanatical desires to derationalize those whose actions seem abhorrent to our very being.  As the last decade has shown us, nothing productive can come from this, only the reproduction of more violence.  Or we can choose to forget our more destructive and dogmatic inclinations to confront the ties that bind us all.  We can accept the responsibility that a secular world affords us and confront the real terror that lies at the heart of reason itself: that reason might not have our interests at heart, and shouldn’t.  It’s inhumanity casts its equalizing light on us asking us to do the impossible – to put aside our anger, partiality, righteous indignation, and wrestle with the world directly forever diligent in the discovery of all its hideous and gorgeous potentialities.  So we can finally look into the face of terror and say that too is us.  That too must be given the care and attention afforded to the best of us.  Only then will terror loosen its hold.

Else we threaten to be swallowed wholly by our own self-produced fears.  We threaten to forget we were all once one, and that one posed the only path away from the violence, injustice, and fanaticism of our shared nature.

Sean Callaghan holds a Ph.D. in East Asian Studies from the University of Toronto.  He is currently working on a play related to the themes mentioned above, while finishing off a YA novel.  He lives happily with his wife and two guinea pigs in Vancouver, BC.

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