Tuesday, September 11, 2007


It was a sunny Tuesday morning - a morning much like this one - when everything changed. It was six years ago today.

As I left the Local Bagel and Smoked Fish Emporium to head into the office, I turned on the radio only to hear the horrifying news that a plane had struck the World Trade Center’s north tower.

At first, the news reports were fragmentary, confusing. What kind of plane? No one knew. A small private aircraft, people were saying. The idea that a commercial passenger jet, fully loaded with passengers and fuel for a transcontinental flight, could smash into one of the two tallest buildings on Manhattan Island was too horrifying to contemplate. That such an event could be the result of deliberate actions by human beings was beyond imagination.

But when, within minutes, a second aircraft struck the South Tower, there was no longer any way to hide from the truth: This was a deliberate attempt to murder thousands of Americans. What other unsuspecting targets were out there?

It was not long before we knew. The Pentagon was struck by a third jet...and later, reports of an airliner that had augered its way into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania made it clear that we had been the victims of a monstrous plot. Only the actions of a handful of courageous passengers on that last plane had prevented the White House from becoming a smoking ruin.

It was as though a Tom Clancy novel had come to life. Hadn’t he written about a Japanese pilot deliberately plowing a 747 into the Capitol? Now we watched and listened as imagination, in all its perversity and evil, became real.

Religion has long been a motivation for warriors, and here we had the unholy result of a Raw Desert Religion coupling with modern technology at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It probably should not have come as a surprise.

A thousand years ago, Western Christianity, replete with triumphalism and supersessionistic hubris, marched forth in a series of Crusades to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims under whose control it lay. In the process, scores of thousands of people were murdered - many of them Jews who just happened to be in the way.

Five hundred years ago, the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing, operating ostensibly to keep the Church free from heresy and backsliding, again murdering thousands - many of them Jews.

But nowadays the idea of Christians murdering nonbelievers for the sake of God is unthinkable. [The Nazi atrocities of the twentieth century were not the acts of Christians doing the work of the Church, aided and abetted though they may have been by official silence at high levels.] What happened?

Moderation of virulence happened.

To use a crude analogy, the most successful diseases are the ones that do not kill their hosts before they can spread themselves. Syphilis, when it first appeared in Europe, was extremely virulent, killing its victims quickly. Over time, less virulent strains became more prevalent: they were favored by natural selection because they allowed their victims to live for years, doling out doses of spirochetes the whole time.

The disease analogy, as I said, is crude, and I hesitate to use it, for it has been used against Jews many times - most recently, by Arab and Iranian Islamists. Nevertheless, in one critical respect, religion behaves like a disease, for religions, too, lose their virulence as they evolve.

Christianity, for example, is largely a benign force in the world today, having been moderated by the theological and social sea-changes of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. You may see people wearing those obnoxious “One Way” buttons that show an index finger pointing skyward (the implication being that there is only One Way to Heaven, and it rhymes with Beezus Price), but these same people are not likely to disembowel you if you disagree with them. They’re more likely to build schools, hospitals, and universities. And, despite efforts by certain segments of the Religious Right, ecclesiastical law and civil law are very different things in the West.

Islam, alas, has not yet had its Enlightenment, save for those parts of it that have had the most cultural intercourse with Western society. It is still the Raw Desert Religion it was fourteen hundred years ago, in some ways comparable to Judaism back in the time of Moses and Joshua. It countenances practices and behaviors such as honor killings that Western civilization has evolved beyond. There is no separation of Mosque and State, for in the Islamic world Sharia law applies - or something close enough to it to constitute a distinction without a difference. And it, too, is triumphalist and supersessionist: if you ain’t a Believer, you are a Worthless Infidel, not quite human.

Not a lot of schools, hospitals, and universities have been forthcoming from the Islamic world. Not a whole lot of Nobel prize winners. A cure for cancer? Don’t hold your breath.

I hope and pray that Islam will have its own Enlightenment, and that, damn quickly. Because unless and until it does, we are in a fight to the death - Western Civilization versus Raw Desert Religion - and we had damn better make sure Civilization wins.

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