H: The idea of spreading, deliberately, terrible violence, toxic…
A: Why do you think this hasn’t happened? I mean, obviously it hasn’t happened because they can’t have gotten the serious weaponry, the WmDs, right? Otherwise it would’ve happened.
H: I don’t believe they’d have it and be hoarding it, no. Though I could be wrong about that, though: it seemed to me that upon acquisition, Saddam Hussein as a regime or al-Qaeda as a movement would use it at once, or as soon as possible, in a way that, oddly, I don’t think the Iranian regime would. I think they would have it to hoard it and use it as a threat. But, this is a very short gap of time between acquisition and use and it comes to the same thing.
A: But what we saw on 9/11 was sort of the existential fact that these people have been sanctioned, partly by their own eschatology, to believe that it is in fact a sign of the coming apocalypse. That they can act like the zealots acted in ancient Israel under the understanding that the end of the world was imminent—
H: And desirable.
A: And desirable, and that one’s actions were therefore…
H: Yup, they have that in common with all religions. They got the idea from perfectly respectable holy books that are available everywhere and are given to schoolchildren.
A: But at no point in human history have those kinds of people been able to access this kind of power, of destructive power. One isn’t even talking about the need to construct something difficult and enduring like a state or a civilization. One isn’t even talking about the ability to invent these things, it is to copy them or to steal them and deploy them in the crudest manner fashionable to kill as many—
H: To bring on the end, to prove that death is more adorable than life.
H: Again a necessary religious belief.
A: The one thing I just want to come back to is how does one summon up the energy to fight this knowing it’s inevitable?
H: That’s an excellent question. Well, in the same way as one seeks, knowingly, to stave off or postpone death while accepting its inevitability. In the same way as one has, in some sense, a conscience. Because we, without these faculties, wouldn’t have progressed to the point where you and I could be talking and it could be on tape. Hah, “tape.” See how primitive I am.
H: That it could be recorded and transmitted.
A: On some .mp3 file.
H: All we know is that without these qualities we wouldn’t have advanced the small distance that we have. I’m content to leave it at that. The mystery to me is that those who are impatient for it to be all over on the illusory belief that the next world, which by their own definition will be created by murder and torture — the transition to it will be accomplished by this apocalyptic, indifferent, pitiless destruction — will be better than the one we’ve got.
I have no idea what it’s like to believe this sort of thing, I think, but I think I can recognize evil when its staring me in the face. And so my resolution, to answer your question, would be not to not give an inch to it and in particular, not to make any excuses for it, not to say, “this is a protest against real human deprivation or suffering”—I won’t have it said that Osama bin Laden is a spokesman for the poor. I’m not having that.
A: We’re not going to have the slightest scintilla of disagreement about that. And I think it’s partly because I actually understand—in some ways, I think, your understanding of religion comes from a hostile point of view, mine comes from a less hostile point of view—but I do understand it. I do understand its power. I do understand why it can lead people to do these things.
H: I understand its power. But whereas I can — in a debate with, say, any kind of Republican or any kind of Leftist — I can back myself to be able, if I had to, or for money, or for a joke, or just as demonstration, to put their case for them, to make their speech, if I had to…I cannot imagine what it is like—
A: To like actually believe it.
H: No. Well, in some cases, I can, but in the case of the religious believer, I cannot. I don’t think it’s a limitation, either, on my curiosity or my mental power.
A: But in this country the biggest selling book is the Left Behind series, the biggest selling series.
H: But I’m sure the least read. It’s totally unreadable.
A: I can honestly testify to seeing people reading it on planes, in airports,
H: Do you see them turning the pages?
A: (Laughs) Yes!
H: Are they holding it the right side up?
A: You read this stuff and it’s like a terrible, terrible, sort of hackneyed, cribbed version of a Frederick Forsyth novel.
H: I’m serious, Andrew, actually, it’s torture for a literate person to read. And I don’t think that by making it written by illiterates it makes it easier for people who don’t read for pleasure to read. I say it’s technically unreadable; they maybe holding it and looking at and they may put it back reverently on the shelf when they get home—it’s not possible they’ve read all but eight words. It can’t be done. The Da Vinci Code is bad, but at least you want to find out what happens next. It’s bad beyond description…
A: Well of course—the Left Behind plot is riveting! Because, you know, you’re on an airplane then suddenly your best friend has disappeared…
H: Once. I can read that once. On a plane, particularly, or on a Greyhound bus. I presume the same is true on a bus or on a camel train.
A: (Laughs) But what I’m saying is, in this country—let’s say they haven’t read them. For the sake of argument I concede they haven’t read the whole bloody thing. They certainly bought it, that requires a certain commitment to the worldview that this thing represents, and what this thing represents is that, not only is the end of the world coming but it is a very desirable thing for it to come. I mean, you see these people rushing to a red heifer in Israel.
H: Indeed, they’re trying to grow the red heifer and in Iowa, now, they find a pseudo or corrupt geneticist who thinks he can grow one without a single white hair. But I hope it succeeds, I hope they get the heifer that doesn’t have a single white hair and it’s pure red, and I hope they do sacrifice it and scatter its ashes. It’ll be the same as every other messianic enterprise, it will end in a hideous disappointment for the morons.
A: No, you know what happens then! What happens then, is there’s a dictatorship of the proletariat and what happens then, is there has to be a vanguard of people who ensure that it occurs!
H: But Andrew, I’ve got to tell you that none of this would occur, even if all the preconditions are met, it will not happen—the temple will not come down from Heaven, the rapture will not take place, the Messiah will not come. The Messiah will not come and will not even call. This is axiomatic to me. The other form, in the secular right in the 50s, which you were recalling also – the John Birch Society was really quite strong, and it was made up of people who believed that President Eisenhower was a conscious agent of the communist conspiracy, that he was a paid enforcer of the Kremlin. Now, okay, you get up in the morning and you believe that, and then you still have to go down and get the groceries.
H: You still have to page through the newspaper. You still have to go and keep your doctor’s and dentist’s appointments. It doesn’t matter what you think, you can believe that if you like. That’s what Omar Khayyam says,
And do you think that unto such as you
a maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew
God gave the Secret, and denied it me?
Well, well, what matters it! Believe that too.
It doesn’t matter what they think. Unless they’re willing to use deadly force to try and advance the process. Well, the same would be true if they were a secular movement, like fascism. I’m sorry, we’re not gonna be talked to in that tone of voice. We won’t negotiate at gunpoint, if you declare war on us you’ll be sorry, your people will be killed at a greater rate than ours. We promise it. We guarantee.
A: When you say, “your people” — let us say that Osama gets a suitcase, or some al-Qaeda group gets a suitcase.
H: We’d lose a city. We’d lose a city in a war against fascism.
A: And who do we fight? Where do we go? Who do we attack? I mean, that’s — who suffers for this? Do you take out the entire Middle East? What do you do?
H: No, that is indeed the worst aspect of the new situation. It’s—
A: Well it’s not just the worst aspect, it’s the central aspect, it’s the central conundrum.