A+ A A-

Is The World Falling Apart?


It is a nice day, I said to a lady in jogging togs as she ran past me in the park. But she said that she could not enjoy it. Why? I asked. Well, I am so upset, she replied. I have been watching CNN News and the world seems to be falling apart. Later, as I was reading Aristotle with my class, it was amazing how he was able to put things into perspective.


While walking down Prospect Street just outside the campus here at Georgetown, a lady in jogging togs, someone I did not know, caught up with me, said hello. I said something like "it is a nice day." But she said that she "could not enjoy it." "Why?" I asked. "Well, I am so upset," she replied. "I have been watching CNN News and the world seems to be falling apart."

I told her what the simplest solution to that problem was: "Don't watch CNN news! It thrives on upsetting you; that is its business-plan." Then I added that I could take her back through the centuries to show her someone in every century of our existence as a human race who thought "the world was falling apart." It is not a new sentiment for our kind. Our education should prepare us for this fact of abiding turmoil. And if we add to that current political feeling of "things falling apart" the religious overtones of "the end of the world," we can, perhaps, begin to put things in some better perspective. But connected to this feeling of the lady on Prospect Street, we have the students. I am asked, "how are the students taking all this?" The presumption seems to be that this situation is another internal American war or problem. The main enemy is ourselves. We can solve it at home. Indeed, some concern exists that these happenings will interrupt students' life planning. We hear of masses of Arab young men rushing to join bin Laden forces, but we do not yet have many army recruiters on campus, though I hear that applications to the FBI, CIA, and the military services are sharply up.

During the first days after the WTC and Pentagon attacks the authorities on campus saw fit to call in sundry psychologists to be available for students. The Jesuit rector suggested that priests, dressed in Roman Collar, be also seen on campus. An ex-student who had worked in the upper floors of the WTC, clearly upset, came by. He had been transferred to DC only two months previously. Evidently the whole New York headquarters of the company he worked for was wiped out. Another ex-student sent me an e-mail from New Jersey. He was an Indian (from India) young man, whose mother had called him on his cell phone just as he got to work on September 11. She informed him of the attack. He worked in the WTC. He told me that his best friend, a Muslim, was killed, so that the whole thing seemed doubly ironic to him.

What troubled me initially, of course, was the "subjectivity" of many approaches, particularly the psychological one. That is, the problem was treated mainly as if the anguish or concern were independent of objective events in the world. Emotions and feelings were prime in the minds of too many. The question was not what was happening? Not was there a real cause of fear? Not what objectively do we do about it? The question was, "how do I feel about it?"

As I was reading Aristotle with my class at that time, it is amazing how he was able to put things into perspective. Fears arise from what is out there attacking us. There are frightening things that happen in the world, in our world. Evil actions happen whether we like it or not. But we need to control our fears for our ends. Courage looks to our being, how we stand, in the face of death. It deals with the efforts to continue in existence in spite of real fears and pains. It is, in this sense, action-oriented to keep us in being.

In the initial days of these events, I took the position that these men attacking us were not "terrorists." They were soldiers in an army with its own goals and ethic. They were following orders. Begrudgingly, we had to admire them while deploring their deeds. My brother out in California, perhaps more realistic than I, rather thought that the attackers were cowards. No one openly took responsibility. They took full advantage of an unarmed people to attack and kill essentially innocent human beings. No matter what the attackers' supposed justification, using the theory that in the West, "every one was guilty," this act was profoundly corrupt.

Once the men in the plane that crashed near Pittsburgh knew via cell phone what the hijackers were up to, not ransom or political demands but destruction of our centers, they too showed great courage. A young man, a former high school line backer, was cited in the paper (October 11) as saying that if he were in a plane and he sees someone attempt to get into a cockpit, he is "going after him." I suspect no hijacker will ever have such an easy time again in this country. Their knives won't do it. The pilots too will be allowed to defend themselves.

But, even amidst these very unsettling events, "is the world falling apart?" Someone sent me a column from Catholic San Francisco (September 21), with the headlines, "Dark Day in Human History." The sub-headline read, university "students ... look for alternatives to war." The block within the text read, "Persuasion rather than coercion and violence are the best tools for creating a world of justice and peace." Notice that a just effort to defend oneself is here called "violence and coercion" with no moral qualifications about the objective nature of the situation. Everyone, to be sure, would like an "alternative to war." But that is the question, is there one here and now that still protects society? If not, talk of "alternatives" to war is not especially productive or anything more than escapism.

Evidently, the "dark day in human history," referred to in the article, meant not the attack itself but the subsequent "failure" to use "persuasion" as an alternative to war. That is, it seems actually to be believed that the men who flew into the WTC and those who planned the operation, including bin Laden himself, just needed some "persuasion" to be talked out of their equally "violent and coercive" deeds.. The days may be darker than we think if we know so little of what goes on in the human soul or what goes on in our time, or perhaps any time.

But "is the world falling apart?" It helps to know something about the classics. What are we to make of the some six thousand who were killed? Were they just at the wrong place at the wrong time, as if some meteorite had just fallen on them? Should our security and political forces have seen this attack coming? Surely the killing of the six thousand people in itself was an act of injustice, however it might be subjectively "justified" by bin Laden's self-proclaimed denial of a distinction between innocent and guilty. We certainly do not accept this distinction. Bin Laden conceives these days in terms of total war. Everything is justified. He actually wants a holy war and thinks he knows his chief enemy — namely, us. We may not like this thinking, but we better come to terms with it.

Our present philosophy often forbids us from imagining that such a man can exist. We think everyone can be bought off, that there are no vast and universal purposes carried out over time, however outlandish. Thus when a bin Laden comes along, we are unprepared, intellectually unprepared. This is how Herbert Deane sums up Augustine: "The heavy hand of the state and its dreadful instruments of repression are necessary because they are the only methods by which sinful men can be restrained; the fear of punishment is the only safeguard of general peace and security" (Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine, 138). What seems to be new, even for Augustine, something President Bush seems to understand, is that here we encounter a movement in which neither the "fear of punishment" nor the fear of death restrains. I venture to say that very few university students in recent years are ever confronted with these possibilities that Augustine took for granted.

Even Machiavelli, echoing a passage in Aristotle, wrote, "murders, ... which follow from the deliberations of an obstinate mind, cannot be avoided by princes; for anyone who does not care about losing his life can harm him (the ruler); but since such cases are extremely rare, it is well for the prince to have little fear of them." How odd it is that even the most ruthlessly pragmatic and immoral of the political philosophers could not himself imagine that men willing to lose their lives in killing others would be rather common and available to modern Islamic forces.

I mentioned the classics. I also had in mind, besides Augustine, something from Shakespeare and something from Aristotle. On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Henry, the King, is among his men in disguise (IV, 126-75). The ordinary soldiers are discussing the upcoming battle. Who will be responsible for the souls of those who die? Surely, the soldier Bates says, that we are the kings subjects. "If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us." But Williams worries that the king may not have a just cause. In that case, "the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at a later day to cry out: 'We died at such a place,' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them.... I am afeard that there few die well that die in a battle." This result will not go well with the king.

But Henry does not buy this line of thought that makes him responsible for even the souls of his men. "The king is not bound to answer (for the particular supernatural) endings of his soldiers.... Every subject's duty is the king's but every subject's soul is his own." These famous lines, plus the reading of Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Re, are the first ones that I advise students to consider in these days, plus C. S. Lewis' sermon, "Learning in Wartime," in his Weight of Glory. Those six thousand who were killed by the terrorists died, as it were, "subject to the king," that is, subject to our laws whose main purpose ought to have, but in this case wasn't able, to prevent such actions. But their souls, including those of the hijackers, remained their own. The room and place of divine justice remains, without which our world is simply incoherent.

The immediate moral lesson that the seemingly arbitrary killing of six thousand people, including a Muslin friend of one of my former students, of the continued warnings of new attacks, is that we should look first to our every day lives, to how we live. We know not the day or hour, even as we take steps, following Augustine, to use "the dreadful instruments of coercion," yes along with persuasion, to prevent further such attacks.

And I think too of Aristotle. In the third book of his Rhetoric, he cites a passage, perhaps from Isocrates, which reads: "A country pays a heavy reckoning (moral burden) in being condemned by the judgment of mankind." To this observation, Aristotle adds, "for a reckoning (condemnation of mankind) is a damage deservedly incurred" (1411b18-21). We think of our efforts, following a phrase in the Declaration of Independence, to appeal to the judgment of mankind, to make the moral heinousness of this attack morally clear and acknowledged by every nation, an effort bin Laden sought to parallel with his famous speech claiming us to be enemies of all of Islam. Aristotle's notion that such condemnation itself constitutes "damage deservedly incurred" reflects the reality of an ability, on objective grounds, to distinguish right and wrong, good and evil. We are a culture that has almost forgotten the validity of such distinctions in everyday discourse and the objective grounds on which they are based. Ironically, we have bin Laden and his friends to thank for restoring some of our moral discourse to the heart of civil and university life.

The first step in any "falling apart" of the world is an intellectual one. We must grasp the breakdown of the fundamental distinctions needed to describe what goes on in our souls, or those distinctions necessary even to know that we have souls. These attackers, these "terrorists," as they are called, are dangerous enemies. We have underestimated them. We should understand that they are precisely "enemies" with their own view of reality and what constitutes it. We would be happy to change their minds on certain basic points by persuasion. But we have to be alive and free to persuade. Those who are to be persuaded need to listen and grasp what we say. They can refuse to hear. Those who insist on attacking us at the cost of their own lives can only be prevented by stopping them first. This is a grim law. We would prefer not to face it. But we avoid facing it at the cost of our lives. It is in this context in which we are asked to be brave. The world that will certainly fall apart, as my brother hinted, is the one that yields to cowards who use our laws and freedoms to kill innocent peoples by denying, in justification, that there are innocent peoples.

We have before us two major kinds of worries. The first has to do with avoiding a greater war, if indeed it can be avoided, something that is not altogether clear. Better to do nothing, it is said, better to accept the blow than to instigate a war of religions or civilizations, even though this may well be what we already have. Bishop Caesare Mazzolari of Rambek in the Sudan remarked:

Islam has powerful forces and it wants to unleash a war to change the world — I hope Washington does not provide the opportunity. Fundamental Muslim groups play on the fact that the West is unfamiliar with Islam. World leaders must realize that this war could degenerate into a world war. Maximum prudence is necessary to prevent further tragedies (National Catholic Register, Oct. 21, 2001).

Of course, if Islam "wants to unleash a war," it is difficult to see how doing something about its initial efforts to do so can be unjustified or imprudent. One needs to ask the question also whether it is better to put up a fight or passively to allow the world to succumb to such power. If we are "familiar with Islam," what does "prudence" recommend? The first "worry" then might be "fear of a greater war," or it might also be the worry of succumbing to a way of life that excludes the possibility of our own principles and culture on the grounds that we can morally do nothing to stop it.

The second worry, no less serious, is what might be called "incremental" warfare within our borders and those of our allies. Thus far, the WTC and Pentagon bombings with the postal anthrax spread have proved to be astonishingly "economical" methods to engage in a war. The enemy has had no need of large armies, large expenditures, or secret or fancy weapons. Knives, commercial planes, and the mail system have worked to spread a havoc, confusion, and terror far beyond anything we have seen within the United States in its history. By now, trillions of dollars in business, buildings, and political and economic systems have been lost, enough to pay for any world humanitarian program that even the most optimistic governmental spender could imagine. As a cause of increased world poverty hardly any more damaging blow can be conceived. This attack was made in the name of perceived injustice.

The Islamic attackers, let us admit it, have been geniuses at destruction. They have calmly surveyed a society lying between the Atlantic and Pacific. What did they see? A regime utterly unaware of its own vulnerability. Also, it was a society easily panicked. First the airline attack, then anthrax. What to expect next? More bacteria? Poisoning of water supply? Attacks on food and drug supply? On communications? Smashing of bridges and symbolic buildings? Small or particularly dirty nuclear weapons delivered by trucks or ships or missiles? There seems to be nothing in the minds or morals of those who planned the initial WTC and Pentagon attacks that would rule out any of these means. We must be prepared for them.

A particularly cunning mind seems to be behind these initial attacks. While we were busy with other things during the past decade, this mind has carefully examined our infra-structure and realized its fragility. It has watched closely as we disarmed and neutered our defense and intelligence services. In this new war, no attacks on our army bases or air fields are needed. It is not necessary to fight battles. What is targeted is the civilian population with the lines of communication and trade on which it depends. Armies can be neutralized and crippled by impairing the industry that gives them their technological superiority and support.

A bit outside this current attention to Islam, we see too the restlessness of China, India, and Russia, with populations more vast than ours. Islam sits on the frontiers of each one of these powers. Its members are well within the frontiers of Europe. Amir Taheri has written,

All but one of the world's remaining military regimes are in Muslim countries. With the exception of Turkey and Bangladesh, there are no real elections in any Muslim country. Of the current 30 active conflicts in the world no fewer than 28 concern Muslim governments and/or communities. Two-thirds of the world's political prisoners are held in Muslim countries, which also carry out 80% of all executions each year (Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2001).

All these blocs see the weakness of Western nations in terms of population and vigor.

The idea that technological superiority alone will be the deciding factor is at least questioned in the light both of the non-sophisticated means with which the recent attacks are carried out and of the rules that the West has set for itself about what it can and cannot do to find and eradicate those attacking it, before they carry out further damage. No one has yet spoken of a "paper tiger" but the Russians, in the light of their own failed experience with this same bin Laden, are at least struck that it is in precisely Afghanistan at the beginning of winter that we are engaged in war. President Bush has warned of a long-term, carefully fought war wherever we find terrorist cells — something that may include as many as sixty nations.

The classical question of democracy has been the popular will to endure such a war. No doubt, this anticipated fickleness of the democracies too is what the enemies are betting on. It is not without interest that we are called "cowards" by our enemies and some of our own for our technological methods of retaliation. The terrorists can afford to be patient.

"Is the world falling apart?" We certainly have wars and rumors of war. Things certainly can get worse. The question of our eternal destiny remains the same whether we be in war or at peace. It depends on how we live, what we hold. We have been quick to deny that our own civil moral condition had anything to do with our current situation. We call those "fanatics" who suggest that this relationship exists. Indeed, such people are often considered worse enemies than the Muslim "terrorists." No doubt this is because we do not like to think there is a relation between how we live and our ability to know our enemy and defend ourselves.

To be sure, many have said that the attack on New York and Washington has served to reestablish a sense of moral and historical seriousness to our lives. Both Victor Hansen and Peggy Noonan have remarked on the relative strength of common workers, firemen, and police for this endeavor than the more effete media and university classes. Moreover, few nations last, in the same form of polity, for more than a couple of hundred years. We are already the oldest continuous government in the world, assuming that the Constitution that governs us is really the same one which was signed in 1789, a proposition that many doubt.. Islam, though it goes back to he seventh century, is a power on the rise, a power at struggle with itself about what it is. On TV on October 27, Colin Powell pled with American Muslims to explain to the rest of the Muslim world what we are about, but it is not clear that the rest of the Muslim world would listen or consider Muslims here who praised America to be little more than traitors to Islam.

The immediate purpose of the war, from our point of view, is to convince, if not coerce, Islam to be peaceful, as at least some of its apologists claim that it is, whatever its history. This "convincing" has, thus far, required the force of arms. But the purpose of the war from the viewpoint of our enemies, as bin Laden has maintained all along, is rather to convince Islam itself to be militant, to take full control of itself, to expel aliens from its territories and to continue to expand on its borders. Much of Islam understands "peace" in terms of everyone living under its own laws. This is why it is so difficult, if not impossible, to have reasonable discourse with it or find actual political tolerance within its borders.

"Is the world falling apart?" No doubt radical changes in the configuration of nations and power is at hand. The world's number one super-power seems vulnerable. In one sense, we have already to some degree fallen apart or this situation would not be forced upon us. "Eternal vigilance" has not been our watchword. The price has been the loss of real liberties that we have taken for granted. But we were genuinely surprised that we were so exposed.

Of democracies, it is said, that they react slowly, but when they finally act, they are very stern. The Vice-President, Richard Cheney, at the Al Smith Banquet in New York, remarked that there are some people to whom one cannot talk because they will not listen. This situation is not as new as we think. And the world has never yet been fully put together. If it is falling apart, it is because we have here no lasting city, a lesson that needs to be learned, it seems, in every generation. But, what we can do, we should do. This too is a question of honor, courage, and prudence.



James Schall, S.J. "Is The World Falling Apart?"

Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

The Author

Schall3Schall6Father James V. Schall, S.J., is emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of many books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy; The Order of Things; The Regensburg Lecture; The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking; Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes; Another Sort of Learning, Sum Total Of Human Happiness, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Copyright © 2001 James V. Schall, S.J.
back to top