The many dangers of apocalyptic thinking

Pakistani police stand near what's left of the Danish embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, after Tuesday's bombing.
REUTERS/Mian Kursheed
Pakistani police stand near what’s left of the Danish embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, after Tuesday’s bombing killed eight people.

It’s a terrible thing to say but undeniably true: There are at least two ways to look at Tuesday’s horrifically routine bombing of Denmark’s embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.

One way is from the civilized perspective, which condemns this kind of act as terroristic murder. Eight people died, and 25 were wounded. That the target was Danish adds to the probable religious fervor behind the attack, coming 2½ years after Danish newspapers published images of the Prophet Mohammad in editorial cartoons, a blasphemous act from the Islamist point of view.

The other way to look at the event is from the radical side, which elevates the suicide bomber to heroic and heavenly status and sees an attack against Denmark’s embassy as justified revenge or even, perhaps, apocalyptic cleansing.

The point here isn’t to swim in the murky waters of moral relativism, but to emphasize that apocalyptic views have been cyclical through human history and seem now to be rising again at a moment in which technology makes the possible consequences catastrophic. That’s the topic British writer Ian McEwan tackles in “The Day of Judgment,” an essay in the Guardian Review.

Other writers, too, have taken on “end of the world as we know it” subjects of late. Lawrence Wright offers a more hopeful view in his New Yorker piece, “The Rebellion Within: An Al Qaeda Mastermind Questions Terrorism.”

And in The New Republic, Anne Applebaum demolishes Nicholson Baker’s new book, “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.”

The ‘inventory of morality’
Let’s begin with McEwan. He starts by recalling Susan Sontag’s comments about the essence of photography. It shows the “vulnerability of human lives headed towards their own destruction,” she said, meaning that no photo of us, no matter how full of life and glorious memory, can forestall our own death. Photography, she said, is the “inventory of mortality.”

As for stepping back to view our larger collective demise, McEwan writes that throughout history people have “mesmerized themselves with stories which predict the state and manner of our wholesale destruction, often rendered meaningful by ideas of divine punishment and ultimate redemption; the end of life on earth, the end or last days, end time, the apocalypse.”

He continues: “Many of these stories are highly specific accounts of the future and are devoutly believed. Contemporary apocalyptic movements, Christian or Islamic, some violent, some not, all appear to share fantasies of a violent end, and they affect our politics profoundly.”

McEwan describes the apocalyptic political mind as despising other groups for worshipping false gods. It tends toward totalitarian, he says, meaning that ideas are intact, all-encompassing, founded in supernatural belief and immune to fresh data.

Over time, predictions of demise fail and new futures must be devised and old enemies replaced. Americans cannot be smug about these trends, he says, given their devotion to the Bible’s book of Revelation, which, he notes, is similar in content to Islam’s revivalist theology. These beliefs in end times are “a medieval engine driving our modern moral, geopolitical and military concerns,” he says, and they wind themselves “around our politics and our political differences.”

But Lawrence, in his New Yorker piece, examines a possible thaw within Al Qaeda. He quotes a shadowy jihadist philosopher, Dr. Fadl, who 20 years ago wrote texts used by Al Qaeda to indoctrinate recruits. One lengthy text preached that even the slightest misstep prevents a good Muslim’s salvation. Purity is the point. An infidel’s prayers are invalid and “his blood is legal,” Fadl had written. But now he renounces violence and urges other Muslim leaders to do likewise. “We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that,” he wrote in a fax from his prison cell in Egypt,” according to Lawrence.

Lawrence contends that Fadl’s words confirm rumors that there’s an anti-violence trend afoot among jihadists. “There is a form of obedience that is greater than the obedience accorded to any leader,” Fadl wrote, “namely obedience to God and His Messenger.”

The end times, of course, come in many forms: atomic fire, germs, environmental collapse. The New York Review of Books examines treatment options for global warming, for example. Freeman Dyson’s review is of William Nordhaus’ book, “A Question of Balance,” and Ernesto Zedillo’s “Looking Beyond Kyoto.”

End of authentic information?

But there’s another kind of apocalyptic danger, Anne Applebaum suggests in The New Republic. It is the end of authentic information. Her review is less about the so-called content of Baker’s book “Human Smoke” than about the manner in which it was assembled. It is little more than snippets — pieces of random information from newspaper clippings and other sources thrown together in a way that “empowers” the reader to his own conclusion about whether World War II was worth fighting. It is, in other words, a lot like trying to concoct history via blogs and email traffic.

Applebaum admits that she decided to review the book only after a conversation with friends. “We arrived at the topic of Nicholson Baker not because we were talking about the war, but because we were talking about the contemporary cult of the non-expert, or rather the anti-expert: the bloggers who assume that the ‘mainstream media’ is always wrong, the Wikipedia readers who think that a compilation of random anecdotes is always preferable to a learned study, and of course the college students who nowadays prefer to get their news in emails from friends because it is too bothersome to read the newspaper.” Baker’s book belongs to this cult, she says.

” ‘Human Smoke,’ in other words, is not a conscientious pacifist tract,” Applebaum continues. “It is not a clever contribution to today’s debate on warfare and it does not add anything to what we know about World War II. It is a cheerful contribution to the movement against scholarship — a movement which has advanced so far, in fact, that I fully expect these observations, too, to be condemned as ‘elitism.’ As one who does contribute (it’s pathetic, I know) to the mainstream media on a regular basis, I know that any author who expresses a sliver of doubt about the wisdom of amateurs risks bringing down a torrent of recrimination and insult upon his head. But if we have arrived at the point where a solemn and excited individual can cobble together anecdotes from old newspapers and Nazi diaries, and write them up in the completely contextless manner of blog posts, and suggest that he has composed a serious critique of America’s decision to enter World War II, and then receive praise from respected reviewers in distinguished publications, then maybe it is time to say: Stop.”

This appears to be a case of unintended consequence. By writing a bad book, the author has inspired the reviewer to address a more important and, arguably, apocalyptic subject: Can we in the information age survive on information alone, or do we need actual knowledge?

Steve Berg, a former Washington, D.C., bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Joe Musich on 06/05/2008 - 07:00 am.

    Yes it’s the mundane self-focused behavior the brings destruction on any level. Death maybe at the end for all of us but who was it who said something about not being a part of a revolution where they can’t dance ? In the words of Mike Veeck, “Have fun ,” on the way to the end !

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