Ian On Sunday… Stoics will have to take charge, by Ian McDonald

Not the mindless killers they employ and brainwash but the brutal masterminds themselves know exactly what they are trying to achieve. Two things. First, a backlash against all Muslims (and indeed all “others”) which will have the effect of creating a much larger reservoir of radicalised young people and especially young Muslims. Secondly, societies frightened out of their wits and therefore susceptible to more and more stringent security measures leading in turn to increasingly tense, suspicious, divided, disturbed and distracted – and therefore considerably weakened – populations in the “enemy” states.

The world is terror-stricken. The slaughter of journalists in the heart of Paris is going to ramp up paranoia exponentially around the world. Already a condition of advanced paranoia is spreading everywhere. The fastest growing business in country after country is the security business. If you travel at all frequently you get a hint of this as at proliferating checkpoints you are made to cast off belts and shoes and no doubt explosive water bottles and colognes and anything suspiciously sharp-edged while increasingly invasive machines seek to discover the contents of your luggage and examine the secrets of your person if not yet quite your soul, though no doubt that too will come. The big brothers watching us are getting bigger and much better equipped. Now they are going to be throwing their investigative muscle around much more oppressively.

Democracy used to be associated with freedom from the rigours of security checks and the insistent demands of powerful and pervasive investigative bureaucracies. No longer so. The democracies of the world are rapidly succumbing to the paranoia that once was associated with dictatorships and iron-clad authoritarian regimes. The apparatuses of pre-emptive surveillance and interdiction are being institutionalized in even the most hallowed halls of freedom.

This hugely dangerous malaise is spreading frighteningly fast, particularly in America. The lights of that shining city on a hill are dimming towards darkness. There restrictions on freedom and suspicion of the foreigner insidiously grow because of obsessive fear of being attacked by that once ultimate bogeyman institution, al Qaeda, but now overtaken by blood-stained IS, both now increasingly equated by millions of Americans with all of the Muslim faith instead of being dismissed as basically small and fanatic bunches of extremists.

It is astonishing how easily gangs of brutal fanatics can knock the mighty off balance. An initial and huge mistake was made by comparing and even equating the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 with the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The massive attack on Pearl Harbour involved a very formidable, economically powerful and well-armed nation rising in the world starting a full-scale campaign for domination of the Pacific and Asia; 9/11 was a raid by 19 religious fanatics which caused a great deal of localised mayhem. Pearl Harbour necessitated a mighty war; the Twin Towers atrocity deserved no more than a massive manhunt. How America, followed by Britain and the rest of the West, can have mixed up the two is beyond comprehension. A pinprick which drew some blood was mistaken for a deadly thrust at the heart. The consequences have been hugely detrimental to the peace and progress of the world.

It is time for a complete reversal of approach. I recommend that the philosophy of the Stoics be adopted and translated into actions which release the generality of citizens from the threats and burdens of the over-mighty Security State’s tightening hold on our lives. An attitude more like that of the Duke of Wellington and Lord Uxbridge at Waterloo is advisable. They are standing together on the field of battle. A bouncing cannonball knocks off Lord Uxbridge’s leg. After a short pause, Wellington says, “My God, Uxbridge, you’ve lost your leg!” At which Uxbridge, looking down, agrees,” My God, so I have!” They frowned upon over-reaction. Wellington won the battle and the war. Uxbridge survived.

Though far from possessing the personal capacity to emulate them, I think I admire the Stoics most of all the philosophers. Probably we would all like to be able to approach disaster, illness, bereavement and eventually death with the unflinching restraint of the Stoics. Certainly it must be very rare for any man or woman not to need the strength of a Stoic sometimes in a life since, the truth be told, we really have about as much control of what is going to happen to us hour by hour, day by day, as one of the Stoics remarked, “as a dog tied to the tail of a cart – he can run a little from side to side, and bark loudly, but if he tries to stand still his lead will strangle him since he has no power over the driver of the cart.” It is not an easy philosophy to live up to in practice, but it is very useful in terrible times.

The Stoics took catastrophe, and the threat of catastrophe, in their stride. They believed that to be virtuous involved being unaffected by pain, pleasure, desire or fear, which were emotions belonging to a lower level of existence. To them the ends most men pursue so eagerly – wealth, power, success, comfort – have no importance. The revered Stoic Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations wrote that it was man’s duty to forgive injuries, regard all men as brothers and await death with equanimity.

That does not sound very similar to what Americans, in particular, regard as an acceptable approach to life. Yet one nation which, I believe, is going to have to adopt the Stoic philosophy as quickly as possible is America. Basically, Stoics think and act on the basis of ‘what will be will be.’ Americans are going to have to learn that philosophy or spend their lives in desperate daily trepidation worrying constantly about what might be going to happen, taking over-elaborate, stifling and costly precautions against the hundred million to one chance of a terrorist strike affecting any individual American, sensing danger in every shadow that passed unseen before, changing lifestyles in ways that contradict their culture, undermine their economy and threaten their freedoms, existing permanently on anxious tenterhooks. Living as if you are about to be struck by lightning at any time is absurd and is anyway unlikely to divert the lightning strike. Paranoia in a nation spells much greater trouble than what caused the trouble in the first place.

Far better, like the Stoics, to shrug off the fear of awful Fate, rise above anticipated pain and look upon the prospect of suffering with indifference if not disdain. But are Americans, with no experience in living memory of the dreadful brutalities of war on their soil and accustomed to thinking of comfort and plenty and safety as a right, likely to adopt a philosophy so foreign both to their experience and their ambitions? It hardly seems likely. But at least they better get used to living with threats and the suggestions of threats without being paralysed by nervousness.

This war against al Qaeda and IS is not going to be easy to control, limit and reduce to high-tech skirmishes against evil in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. It is a war which the American leaders claim to understand will last for years. However, it is not at all certain that the vast majority of Americans really appreciate the implications of such a contest. The Americans have overwhelming military superiority, of course, but their shadowy opponents have a tremendous psychological advantage. This advantage is summed up in the confusion and fear and clumsy fluster which a simple sentence broadcast from a primitive hideout once brought about: “Muslims amidst the infidels are warned not to ride in aeroplanes or go into high buildings.” The overreaction to such a simply produced threat is symptomatic of what is happening. Are they going to jump high every time a shadow voice murmurs boo? Even without the capacity to implement, it will be easy for terrorist spokesmen to express any threat they can think up – suitcase nuclear bombs, smallpox bacilli in air-conditioning ducts, nerve gas in the subways, overturned chemical trucks in the long tunnels, poison in the water supply and so on and on – and life, business, daily routines and the ordinary sense of personal security of hundreds of millions will be disrupted and every neighbourhood psyche made fragile as an eggshell.

And just a few actual incidents, even though on a smaller scale than the strikes against the World Trade Centre on 9/11, will create disproportionate terror, dislocation and rage. This in turn will increase the danger of lashing out indiscriminately. And this will then hugely escalate the danger of that “clash of civilizations” which everyone, well nearly everyone, fears and which lunatics desire with all their heart and soul.

It is not that we can return to normality. Pre-September 11 normality is lost in America, and on this earth, for the foreseeable future. But a great effort must be made to calm down, regain balance and proportion, pick up the threads of life and weave them again into ordinary patterns of love and work and play in freedom without nameless dread burrowing into the heart of everything governments think and do and hideous suspicions spoiling how they treat strangers and even friends. The world must learn to breathe easier again.

Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, has said that the problem of this new time “will be to reassert the ordinary, the trivial, and even the ridiculous in the face of instability and dread: to mourn the dead and then try to awaken to our small humanities and our pleasurable nothing-much.” The Stoics would have agreed.

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