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It Takes a Life Cult to Beat a Death Cult

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We have to address the political grievances terrorists exploit.

"""""""""""""""" - Barack Obama

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All week, the bully-in-chief of cable news, Bill O'Reilly, has been passionately recruiting American clergy of all ethnic and supernatural inclinations to preach from their pulpits this weekend for US troops to lead what he sees as a holy war declared by ISIS. "The problem is Islamic fanatics who want to kill Christians and Jews." The goat that gives him his vein-popping urgency is President Barack Obama who is determined to never make a reference to religion in his call for international propaganda war against the ISIS phenomenon -- to accompany his current bombing campaign and any other military action he may lead.

While Mr. Obama is guilty of a host of national security state sins and is not without blood on his hands, the president's rhetoric is smart when he emphasizes that ISIS is a "death cult" with incredible influence that should be engaged by the forces of civilization. The problem is the fine rhetoric seldom translates into action. Policy always falls back on our runaway national security state and its deep terror of losing some aspect of its power and self-image of exceptionalism.

Bill O'Reilly presses hard for the US to take up the holy, religious war declared by ISIS
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The question that needs to be asked -- and answered forthrightly and courageously for the American people -- is why ISIS is so successful all of a sudden in the geographic arc made up of the Middle East, Southwest Asia and North Africa. Ordinary Americans should realize this is a serious question that has less to do with messiahs and theological beliefs about the afterlife than it has to do with frustrated human aspirations and the power of a death cult. It's true that comforting afterlife fantasies certainly constitute fuel for a death cult; in fact, it's the religious component that makes them that much more deadly and frightening.

What we're talking about is ideas that coalesce as mobilizing thought in the mass human mind. Think of a school of fish or a swarm of birds moving as one. In this sense, then, what exactly is a death cult? My dictionary defines cult as "a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing." As for the adjective in this case, death, in line with his long 1930 essay Civilization And Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud might have defined a death cult as a group focused on a mythic and psychological obsession with Thanatos, the Greek mythic personification of death, or what he called the death instinct -- versus its counterpart, Eros, or the life instinct. The latter drive overcomes difference and pulls things together, while the former accentuates difference and tears things apart. This is how Freud put it:

"[B]esides the instinct to preserve living substance and to join it into ever larger units, there must exist another, contrary instinct seeking to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primaeval, inorganic state. That is to say, as well as Eros there was an instinct of death. The phenomenon of life could be explained from the concurrent or mutually opposing action of these two instincts. ... [T]he two kinds of instinct seldom -- perhaps never -- appear in isolation from each other, but are alloyed with each other in varying and very different proportions."

All this, Freud characteristically tells us, goes on pretty much without us even knowing it, to the point, beyond the individual, entire societies can be infused with these impulses toward unity or destruction. "[T]he struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species, ... this struggle is what all life essentially consists of."

Sigmund Freud in the early 1930s and images from World War One
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The human carnage of World War One had a strong effect on Freud and moved his thinking from sexual matters to the need to understand aggressiveness and the compulsion for destruction. This led him to what smacks of a political, even Utopian, position.

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"I adopt the standpoint ... that the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man, and I return to my view that it constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization." He went on to define civilization as "a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind."

On a pop cultural level, I recall about ten years ago cultural critics talking about a trend in which violence was overtaking sexuality as the new taboo in pop culture and pornography. One might apply Freud and see this as an example of the culture shifting its balance from Eros to Thanatos. As for ISIS's exploitation of western pop culture and cinema, New York Times reporter Anne Barnard quotes a man working in an opera house in Damascus, Syria: "It's like action movies." She writes that the man compared ISIS's intentionally provocative, real-life violent cinema to the taboo-pushing fictional work of Quentin Tarantino, calling it a macabre effort "to win the prestige of horror." The point of Barnard's article is that this high production value cinematic violence has trumped the slaughter of 200,000 Syrians with crude bombs. In the west, we're now so numbed to that kind of violence we no longer even register it.

Literature is, of course, replete with this dichotomy. One of the most famous Latin American works is titled Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism. Written in 1845 by an Argentine, Domingo Sarmiento, the book is nominally about a famous caudillo named Facunda who used violence and terror to accumulate and hold power. Civilization, in this case, was life as Sarmiento saw it in Europe. He, thus, saw Argentine life as a struggle between civilization and barbarism.

"Facundo is a type of primitive barbarism," he wrote. "Incapable of commanding noble admiration, he delighted in exciting fear; and this pleasure was exclusive and dominant with him to the arranging [of] all his actions so as to produce terror in those around him."

In War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, war correspondent Chris Hedges devotes a chapter on Eros and Thanatos. He cites Freud and talks about the attraction of war among soldiers and war correspondents. He describes how war "destroys the outside world until it is hard to live outside war's grip. It takes a higher and higher dose to achieve any thrill." He tells of a doomed photographer friend who could not stay away from the war in El Salvador. Shooting stories in Miami was boring. Drawn back to the Salvador war, "he was frightening to behold, a walking corpse." He eventually met his fate and was killed.

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I'm a 68-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and (more...)

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