Elie Wiesel and the Cult of Death
Last night (May 30, 2010) I attended an event featuring Elie Wiesel and Salman Rushdie at Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto. During a discussion about the relatively new phenomenon of ‘suicide bombing’, the conversation turned to the obligatory issue of the ’72 Virgins’ that the martyr is promised in Heaven. Rushdie pointed out that recently ’72 Virgins’ has been translated ’72 Raisins’, much to the delight of the crowd.
But Weisel tried to steer clear of making light of the issue, and suggested something striking: that the modern phenomenon of suicidie bombing – which originated in Israel – is a “death cult”. In fact, he rebuked Rushdie and explained that suicide bombing is not really about “transcendence”, rather, it is about death. All our talk about ’72 virgins’ is really obsfucating what is really at issue, and that is the fast rise of a new cult of death, which is not concerned with metaphysical issues of heavenly transcendence.
It sounded like Wiesel was claiming that suicide bombers are themselves a product of Modernity (or Post-Modernity) rather than a throwback to a time of archaic religousity and metaphysical speculation.
Given this, perhaps sucidie bombers ought to be thought of less as ‘religious fundamentalists’ and more as ‘nihilists’ who will destruction for its own sake, or what George Grant called “willing for the sake of willing”. In this sense, suicide bombers are our dark twins: both our mothers are represented by the waning of the Aristotelian ‘Final Cause’. (For instance, we find nihilism on the left and the right of our Western political and social spectrum: In the way that Libertarian, Wired reading young technogeeks seek the next best thing for the sake of its novelty, or many on the Left wing of the political spectrum seek revolution for its own sake, or a recent politician who used the all-too-simple slogan: “change” during his campaign.)
What is most important to me about Wiesel’s rather theoretical point is its political, or policy based, ramifications. If it is the case that suicide bombers are evocative of a (post)Modern “death cult” concerned less with metaphysics/transcendence than the nihilist willing for death and destruction for its own sake, we ought to cease acting as if they are either oppressed martyrs valiantly sacrificing their lives for some higher cause or brainwashed religious fundamentalists. There is no higher cause and there is no God in a “cult of death”; there is only the dark twin of the nihilist “for its own sake-ness” that is so common in the technology saturated (post)Modern cities of the West.