Thursday, July 07, 2005

Marching Zombies Strike London

I write these words as the press digs into its bag of clichés to tell us what to think about today’s terrorist attacks on the people of London. Around the world, officials scramble to protect their busses and subway systems against attacks from “Islamist extremists”. We are again reminded of the terrible truth that we’re at war. Even more unsettling is the obvious fact that we are totally defenseless. Anyone who gave a passing thought to the situation over the last few years has shaken his head at security checks that confiscated nail clippers and had us remove our shoes as if the enemy was somehow magically deprived of imagination, forced to repeat past strategies and give themselves up to minimum wage security guards.

To my mind, the most alarming element of all this is that we have still failed to come to grips with who the enemy is and where the battle must be fought if we are to have the slightest chance of winning. We are not going to end this war by checking each other’s shoes.

In the 11th Century 100,000 bloodthirsty, illiterate barbarians descended on the civilized world of the Middle East, destroying entire cities, killing and sometimes eating the inhabitants. The Church in Rome had encouraged them to suspend their disbelief permanently and commit themselves to the slaughter of anyone they came across in exchange for an assured seat in Heaven. Just as "insurgents" in Iraq are happy to kill 100 Muslims for every American, the Crusaders killed a lot more Christians than Muslims.

As far as I know, this is the first instance in history of a genuine zombie army.
What is so scary about a zombie army? Well, you can’t kill them because they’re already dead. And if you blow one up, ten more will take its place. A zombie has no soul. It’s just a body rampaging around with nothing to lose.

How do you make a zombie? You convince a regular human being that this world isn’t real. True reality is paradise, where you and your pals will party forever. Your own physical existence is meaningless except as a ticket to paradise. With the meaning of your own daily existence faded to shades of grey, the lives of others become similarly insignificant. Among your tight little circle of friends, you can spend the last few days celebrating your immanent departure from this world of corruption and your joyous transition to eternal reality. Of course, this is pretty crazy. Few people will suspend disbelief to the point of committing suicide and/or killing innocent people. But that’s OK. A few poor souls will have the ability to surrender their normal mental faculties and convert themselves into mindless weapons.

All Muslims are not zombies and not all zombies are Muslim. We need to be clear about this. Transition to the zombie state is an extreme case of a natural process. In fact, it is an aberration of a state of mind that is uniquely human. It’s called “suspension of disbelief”.

We are the story telling ape. We love to tell each other stories. Our pulses quicken as fictional heroes battle imaginary villains in fanciful environments. I have personally watched eight movies in the last week and enjoyed them all. These include “Alien”, a totally preposterous story that nonetheless “pushed my buttons” and got me gripping the arms of my chair. But there was no chance whatsoever that I would think that this story could actually happen in the “real world”.

I’m not offended by the annual hoaxes of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I don’t expect to see real ghosts or goblins at Halloween. When I was a child, I wore a coon skin cap like Disney’s version of Davy Crocket, but I would be alarmed to board a jet aircraft and see the pilot wearing a coon skin cap. Those of us who have their brains working normally have an easy and automatic ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. However, like all abilities, this ability to suspend disbelief (or not) is not equally distributed among the population. Like any ability, it can be exploited and used for destructive purposes. Some unfortunate people are unable to suspend disbelief. They are bored by movies. They don't read novels. Others spend their lives completely lost in fantasy worlds.

Sadly, there are many on “our” side in this conflict who are very nervous about this point. This cripples our response to the emergency, turning the conflict into a war between “Islamist Extremists” and “Right Wing Christian Fundamentalists”. The fact is that the enthusiastic extremists of any religion are reluctant to admit that they have abandoned their citizenship in the real world and pathologically abandoned disbelief. In my experience, people are offended when you refer to religious myths as “just” stories. While professional religious personnel (priests, ministers etc) are educated to appreciate the deep value of these “stories”, this appreciation is not communicated to the masses, who are left without the intellectual tools to understand (and value) their own suspension of disbelief. They are left without the understanding that this ability is extremely valuable (essential, even) but also uniquely dangerous.

If we are to win this war, we need to respectfully disentangle people from their abandonment of disbelief. While we need to draw on our rich cultural heritage of stories and mythical images, we also need to take up full citizenship in the real physical world. There will always be people who abandon the real world in favor of a mythical world. We can never disallow such mental journeys. However, we should understand that people who pull up stakes in the real world can be very dangerous to those of use who are left behind.


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At March 03, 2008 10:49 PM, Anonymous Dave Brown said...

I don't agree that the attack on London counts as a war. Our grandfathers would be unimpressed if it is. A bomb going off here and there is just a consequence of living in a world that has bombs in it. Afghanistan is a real war, but has no contact or consequence to the lives of anyone whose family isn't fighting it. Nobody's turning over their kitchen pots to make tanks for it, nobody's going to get drafted.

And yet, our critical faculties have somehow been eroded just as if this really were a war. Somehow, we convinced ourselves in WWII that Japanese soldiers were all nearsighted, lousy shots, so 400 Canadians could defend Hong Kong against thousands of them. It was delusional, but we believed it until it became one of Orwell's battlefield collisions between belief and reality.

Today, some of us (though I have yet to actually meet one!) have convinced ourselves that surrendering shoes and nail clippers at the airport makes us safer. We think it makes sense to have We've convinced ourselves that a "terrorist watch list" with 750,000 names on it has some collection with reality.

As delusional as was our confidence in our own invulnerability in 1939, our delusions have gone to the opposite extreme today if we think the terrorists might someday "win." They'll keep on getting a dozen here, a dozen there, for the rest of our lives. Yet as significant threat, they will never rival such scourges as the bottle, the antidepressant, or the tall ladder.


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