I'm rather astonished that Ross Douthat manages to get through his latest column without mentioning morality or religion, but to me they seem to loom as an implicit subtext -- or perhaps I'm reading something in that isn't there. In any case, Douthat clearly thinks the world has taken a dark, nihilistic turn, an opinion he bases on dubious evidence:
THE villains in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy are distinctive, even by the standards of summer-movie bad guys, in that they seek nothing but destruction. Money does not sway them, political power does not interest them, and any ideological posturing -- Bane, the villain in "The Dark Knight Rises," poses for a time as a left-wing revolutionary -- is a flag of convenience, a mask to be worn and then discarded. Some of these villains are lunatic moralists, for whom Armageddon is the purifying punishment that modern civilization deserves. Some of them are lunatic nihilists, men who (as Bruce Wayne's butler, Alfred, says of the Joker) "just want to watch the world burn." Either way, they cannot be bargained with or reasoned with, and all they want from us is death.Wait -- how does this make them different from Jason, or Freddie, or any number of nihilist-evil-genius villains? How does it make them different from the villains of, say, Speed or Seven? Or Sweeney Todd, which reached Broadway thirty-odd years ago?
Douthat ties this to James Holmes:
... his crime has probably also solidified the Batman movies' status as a cultural touchstone for our era of anxiety. Every human society has feared the anarchic, the nihilistic, the inexplicably depraved. But from the Columbine murderers to the post-9/11 anthrax killer (a literal mad scientist, most likely), from the Virginia Tech shooter to Jared Lee Loughner, our contemporary iconography of evil is increasingly dominated by figures who seem to have stepped out of Nolan's take on the DC Comics universe: world-burners, meticulous madmen, terrorists without a cause.Wait -- Jared Lee Loughner was meticulous? Jared Lee Loughner was batshit crazy, given to odd outbursts and obsessed with bizarre numerological theories. He went to a public gathering and shot a few people -- how hard is that if you've lost your moorings and have the weapon? And if you believe Bruce Ivins was the anthrax killer (I do), you know he was motivated to try to save a project he was working on to develop an improved anthrax vaccine. You also know he had a bizarre obsession with a national sorority that figured prominently in his thinking. He didn't want to destroy the world.
Now, this is where Douthat goes completely off the rails:
Indeed, even when there is some sort of ideological cause involved in these irruptions of evil -- as there was in the Oklahoma City bombing, and of course in 9/11 itself -- the main objective often seems to be destruction for destruction's sake. Calling Osama bin Laden's terrorism "Islamist" or Timothy McVeigh's terrorism "right wing" is accurate, so far as it goes. But the impulse that brought down the twin towers or blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building feels more anti-civilizational than political -- and thus closer to the motives of a group like the League of Shadows, the secret society that seeks Gotham's destruction throughout Nolan's Batman trilogy, than to the enemies America confronted in the past.Why? Because McVeigh and the 9/11 terrorists took buildings down? If your terrorist act looks like cartoon nihilism, by definition your motives can't be political?
How can you possibly have even a rudimentary knowledge of Al Qeada's brand of Islamism and ignore the deeply poitical nature of its very specific goals (the immediate demand for withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia, the long-term goal of a global Islamic caliphate)? How can you look at McVeigh and not see politics as well? He read The Turner Diaries. He wore a shirt imagining the tree of liberty being watered by the blood of tyrants. That's not a nihilist -- that's a guy who thinks there's a lost Golden Age of liberty that can be restored by, well, blowing up the day-care center in a federal building. Douthat's wish to see McVeigh as a man without values (however depraved) doesn't make him one.
Those older enemies -- Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Mao's China -- represented a different form of evil: institutional rather than individual, strategic rather than anarchic, grasping and self-interested rather than unpredictable and nihilistic. However brutal and depraved their systems, they embodied alternative models of how a political order might be structured, rather than a rejection of political order itself.By this point, Douthat seems almost Romneyesque -- he seems to crave the clarity of being in an ongoing struggle against the Soviet Union. That's a typical right-wing longing, I guess: to be fighting an Evil Empire, on the side of Absolute Good, with the world at stake. And he also seems to be in Bush territory: Modern evildoers don't want a different way of life -- they just kill us because they're evil! They hate us for our freedoms!)
By vanquishing or outlasting them, we won a great victory for civilization. But we ushered in an era in which evil seems to take on a more elusive, almost elemental form. Instead of goose-stepping Nazis, it's technology-hating recluses or furious young men with machine guns. Instead of supervillains seeking money or world domination, it's the Joker with his head leaning out of a police car, howling as a city falls apart.
Douthat's prattling on as if international conflict has been banished now, and as if there were no lone nuts during the twentieth century's decades of bracing moral clarity. For the love of God, Douthat -- the president you righties worship as the conquering hero of the Cold War was shot by a guy with a crush on a movie actress. John Lennon was shot by a Salinger obsessive. We don't have either continent-spanning evil or crazy criminals whose deeds shock the conscience. We have both -- we did in the past and we do now.
I think Douthat wanted to take this column in the direction of "We've lost our moorings as individuals now that we don't love Jesus," though he never says that. In any case, he's crazy to suggest that Al Qaeda isn't political, or that McVeigh wasn't. He goes on to say that he doesn't love Christopher Nolan's Batman movies -- but I think he takes them way too seriously as modern templates.