Apocalypse Now?

May 9, 2009

9 min read


The terrorist's power is psychological. What will happen to the Western world when its bubble of security and control is pricked?


See now, that I, I am He -- and no god is with Me. I put to death and bring life, I struck down and I will heal, and there is no rescuer from My hand. (Deut. 32:39)


The above verse is from Moses' poetic eulogy of human history. The message this verse conveys is that human history cannot culminate until humanity acknowledges that God has exclusive control over life and death, over sickness and health.

On the surface it would therefore appear that this culmination is steadily receding. With each passing day, humanity gains increasing control over the processes of life and death, sickness and health -- through the steady advance of scientific knowledge and medicine.

But appearances can be deceiving.

Last week the world took a giant step toward attaining this clarity. To fully appreciate the impact of these terrible events, we must understand the profound importance that modern society places on the feeling of being "in control," and how this feeling influences our attitude towards God.


In the conception of sociologists, human religious feeling is inversely proportional to our sense of control. Thus primitive man was intensely religious because he understood very little about the workings of the universe, and consequently had zero control over natural processes. He didn't know how or why people were born or died, why the seasons changed, or why people got sick or how to cure them.

It is difficult for humans to live with mysteries because facing the unknown puts one into a state of anxiety. We can only plan for the future and invest today in a better tomorrow if we are confident that the world will exist tomorrow. But if we control nothing in our world, then we have nothing on which to base this confidence.

Consequently, according to the sociologists, human beings invented God.

The God-hypothesis was the perfect answer to our primitive anxieties. We invented a man-like God Who created the world and controls it. We understand His motives to be very like our motives, and consequently, because He is predictable and He is in control, we are able to face the future with a sense of security.

Of course, He invariably has some demands, but meeting God's demands is a small price to pay for the security of a predictable future. While God is only predictable in a very broad sense (since you can never say for certain what God will do in each individual case), nevertheless inventing God was the best method primitive man had for staving off anxieties. And on the whole, it worked.

In the last 5,000 years, we have come an enormous way from primitive man. We have unraveled the mysteries of the physical world, and are well on our way to unraveling the complexities of the human character as well. We have even managed to get a grip on the world economy through the developments of post Keynesian economics. We are in control of our futures. We no longer need the God-hypothesis to feel secure.

Consequently, Western society has abandoned the hypothesis and turned sweepingly secular.

It's not a matter of whether modern man believes in God or not. The issue doesn't even arise today; the possibility of the existence of Divine control has become irrelevant.


There is another non-religious dimension to this notion of control as well. Our Western society is liberal, tolerant, democratic. We look with a favorable eye to our neighbors; we are genuinely dedicated to helping everyone attain a share of the good life.

The bedrock of Western democracy is based on the assumption that it is within our power to keep our economies ever expanding.

This attitude, the bedrock of Western democracy, is based on the assumption that it is within our power to keep our economies ever expanding, so that the social pie will continue to grow endlessly. Since more and more will always be available, we can generously include ever-increasing numbers of people within the "American dream."

But what if our confidence in this bubble of optimism were pricked, and the Western world would be filled with anxiety and uncertainty about the future?

To the degree that the average person would grow concerned about the welfare and security of his immediate family, his generosity toward others would fade. A feeling of "either you or I" would prevail, resulting in policies of exclusion. This would destroy the fabric of the social contract that underlies our liberal Western system.

Thus, being in control not only determines how we feel about God, it is also the life blood of the modern world we have constructed.


Now let us study the enemies of society, the radical fundamentalist Moslems who are responsible for terrorism. What is their interest? Do they merely desire destruction for its own sake?

As long as these terrorist activities were directed mainly against Israel, much of the liberal intelligentsia of the Western world managed to persuade themselves that this terrorism had a rational basis. For a deprived people lacking military resources, their only chance was to demoralize their more powerful enemy through savage acts of terror that would rob that enemy of his sense of security. The effects of terrorist acts might be unpleasantly gory, but from a distance the intelligentsia found a way to justify the terrorist.

This theory was upended with the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Thousands of innocent lives were wiped out for no apparent positive purpose. The United States was not at war with any of the countries or peoples responsible, who had no apparent strategic gain from planting the seeds of fear and terror in the streets of America. So why did they do it?

The uninterrupted success of the Western world is an existential threat to the continued existence of radical Islamic fundamentalist societies.

The answer is that the terrorists also subscribe to the sociologist theory of religion.

The uninterrupted success of the Western world, especially now that it has emerged triumphant over Communism, is an existential threat to the continued existence of Islamic fundamentalist primitive societies.

In the information age, it is quite impossible to isolate pockets of the world from the main body of humanity. If the development of the Western world and the spread of its ideology continued unabated, it would not take long for the repressed populations of these fundamentalist societies to catch on to the fact that a better future was around the corner for anyone willing to master the tools to control his world. Such a conclusion is the death knell of the fundamentalist regime.

How can fundamentalists protect themselves? By exposing the weakness of Western society. This weakness, as is often the case, is the opposite side of the coin of its strength -- its lack of belief in anything other than its own ability to control the world. The minute that anxiety spreads and the sense of control weakens, Western society begins to totter.


Without control, you need something to believe in, and Western man as a social being is faithless.

Terrorism is not inherently threatening. Even if the power of the terrorist -- always at its highest when he is totally unexpected (as in this instance) -- would continue to be applied full force, he could not seriously threaten the national survival of a powerful modern nation.

But he doesn't need to.

The power of the terrorist is psychological. He destroys the feeling of control and induces a feeling of anxiety. For people who are entirely dependent on the bubble of confidence, losing the sense of being in control is a very real danger.


The troubles in Israel broke out immediately prior to Rosh Hashana one year ago. In retrospect they were a signal that one aspect of the Zionist dream was being brought to an end.

The philosophy of "never again" (referring to the Holocaust) which drove modern Jews to found the State of Israel where they could control their own fate with technological superiority and military might, was demonstrated to be an empty bubble by events of the past year. Their unquestioned technological superiority was impotent in the face of the terrorist who was willing and ready to sacrifice his life to destroy.

After one year, tourism is non-existent, foreign investment in Israeli high tech has shriveled up, and the country faces an uncertain future. It's not that the death toll was especially high -- many more Israelis perished in road accidents during the year. And it's not that there was much damage -- nothing remotely close to the collapse of the Twin Towers happened in Israel. Yet is was the simple loss of confidence that has brought a mighty, technologically advanced country to a state of anxiety.

For the Jewish people, the face of the world permanently changed in the space of one short year.

For the Jewish people, the face of the world permanently changed in the space of one short year. There may still be a lot of travail before the message penetrates, but the pattern is already set -- crystal clear to those willing to look with an open mind.

The fact that God sent another powerful signal immediately prior to this Rosh Hashana, this time to the Western world, is frightening to say the least.

American reaction has so far followed the Israeli reaction almost to the letter. Buoyed by a resurgent tide of patriotism, president Bush is getting set to take care of the problem of terrorism with American might and know how. His message is clear: "We can handle this."

But the citizen of Israel, watching from the sidelines, cannot help but tremble.


Successful societies always require a unifying idea, one that citizens can believe in. Keeping people in line by brute force does not work over time. As the breakup of the Soviet Union testifies, chaos results when the brute force runs out of steam.

The Torah teaches that there are four secular unifying ideas, each representing one of the "four kingdoms." As follows:

  1. The power of "civilization" was embodied in the Babylonian Empire. This early civilization swept the ancient world and provided the first successful alternative to a God-centered society, as symbolized by the destruction of the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem.


  2. The next unifying idea to come along was the power of "wealth." Properly organized, a steadily expanding economy can provide an ideological base without the need for conquest. This idea was symbolized by Achashverosh's empire in Persia, which spanned a federation of 127 countries.


  3. The ancient Greek empire stood for the power of "science and culture." Incorporating its predecessors' experience, it swept the world like wildfire during the short life of Alexander the Great.


  4. The fourth and final kingdom represents the power of all these ideas combined. It is a world that believes in the power of a market-driven economy and expanding frontiers of knowledge and technology to eventually deliver Utopia. This is the modern Western world, founded on the remnants of the Roman Empire which destroyed the Second Temple.

According to Jewish tradition, when this ideology falters, the world will return to the knowledge of God, as expressed in the verse quoted in the beginning of this essay. When God begins picking apart this final idea, it is a sign that the end is near. When it breaks down, there is nothing beyond but chaos.


Ideas are spiritual things. They cannot be destroyed by physical force. An idea must be logically refuted. It must collapse from within. The loss of confidence that results from impotence in the face of terror is such a refutation.

As anxious people withdraw their money from investment in equities, and are frightened into increasing their savings and putting off consumption, companies begin to shrink and contract. The result is deflation and depression. People begin to lose their jobs and then their homes when the ability to pay the mortgage is lost. Without the prospect of a better future, the political structure on which our society is based can collapse. Beyond this collapse is only chaos and void.

If God should allow the terrorists to succeed just a few more times on a mass scale, the world as we know it could crumble.

Will this happen tomorrow? No. Deeply held beliefs take time to disintegrate. People cling stubbornly to the worldview that sustains them.

But the pattern is clear. If God should allow the terrorists to succeed just a few more times on a mass scale, the world as we know it could crumble.

The most frightening aspect of current events is that God Himself seems to have become a sociologist. He seems to be saying: "Very well, you people have dismissed Me as a useless hypothesis because you feel that you can control your world. Let's see if you are right. Perhaps, despite all your vaunted science and technology, a few maddened zealots can put you into such a state of anxiety that you find yourself on the edge of the void after a single bloody day."

President Bush just signed a bill to bail out American airline companies to the tune of 5 billion dollars. Stock markets are down by 10 percent worldwide. People are not flying or traveling unless absolutely necessary. In a single day, Western man has lost much of his freedom and plenty.

If this keeps up, then by the sociologists own theory, an anxious populace will return once again to the God hypothesis to allay its anxieties -- and we will have come full circle back to primitive man.

But it needn't be this way. God really isn't a sociologist. He would much prefer that we hand Him back the world out of our own free will. He loves each of His creations with a love far greater than any parent loves even his own child. All these events are solely for the purpose of bringing us in line with reality.

There needn't be any more terror, any more bloodshed, any more shattered families and orphans. All we have to do is turn to Him and say, "Dear God, we understand your warning. We are not as much in control as we thought. At this point we freely hand you back the management of the world and we stand ready to follow Your instructions. There is no need to show us more -- we get the message. Please spare us the rest."


For I shall raise My hand to heaven and say, "As I live forever, if I sharpen My flashing sword and My hand grasps judgment, I shall return vengeance upon My enemies and upon those that hate Me shall I bring retribution. I shall intoxicate My arrows with blood and My sword shall devour flesh, because of the blood of corpse and captive, because of the earliest depredations of the enemy."


O nations -- sing the praises of His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants; He will bring retribution upon His foes, and He will appease His land and His people. (Deut. 32:40-43)



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