Osama bin Laden, Sentimentalist?

Wade Riddick riddick at mail.la.utexas.edu
Tue Mar 12 02:23:00 EST 2002

The danger with sentimentality is that, like compassion, it's easily
twisted into a fetish for satisfying the needs of the ego; it becomes a
vehicle of transcendence.  Its bent to an ideological need instead of an
emotional one.

Take the simple expression, "the good ole days."

When viewed with rose-colored lenses, the observer often sees "the good ole
days" as better than they really were.  There's a bittersweet sense of loss
- but since this is secular time, is this really true?  What about the
bittersweet sense of gain?  Since when do we look back on racist murders in
the South or Nazi death camps with sentimentality?  We don't.  We recognize
that we've made clear progress and we're living in "better" times -
although futurism sometimes falls into this trap as well.  We come to
worship at the alter of technical progress.  We'll never have another major
financial scandal now that the internet can disseminate so much information
so quickly.  Yeah, right.  And the quality of news can only go up too,
never down.

Nazis thought they had compassion for the inferior Jews, Roma, Communists
and homosexuals.  By putting these imperfections out of their misery,
Hitler thought he was ultimately doing them a kind favor.  Compassion,
though, means to suffer *with*.  They seem to have gotten it turned around
somewhere along the way.

For this reason, Percy and O'Conner came to see compassion as something of
a dirty word.  I simply think it's been misused.  Same with sentimentality.

At the far extreme with sentimentality, we have religious zealots like
Osama bin Laden, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson - you name it.  These
individuals look back on a perfect past until they construct their own
utopia.  Whether it's some imagined golden age of America or Islam, it's
all the same really.  It's irrational.  It's paranoid.  It's ego-centric
and usually hitched to charismatic cult leaders.

They imagine a perfect past and since forgiveness means admitting the past
wasn't perfect, they have to forgo the ability to forgive.  It's the
imperative driving their nature.  Examine closely those statements by
Falwell about how New York City brought the 9/11 attacks on itself due to
it's contempt for God's Will (although maybe the Will they had in mind was
really George?).  Have you ever heard any bin Laden speechs admitting to
the possibility of forgiveness?  After listing the wrongs America has done
him, does he then detail what he wants for an apology?  Of course not.  He
wouldn't remain totally committed to his absolutist goals then.  He'd lose
his charismatic following.  It's the Robespierre problem.  In this, Bin
Laden is the most modern of the lot.

If you think Naziism is in the past, you need to read Friedman's piece in
the _New York Times_ back on the 6th - "The Core of Muslim Rage."  He
starts by wondering why Muslims were upset over the death of a few
Palestinians last week but said hardly a word about the hundreds murdered
in Indian riots.  Dead is dead, isn't it?  Not if there's ideology
involved.  Some people become more equal than others when it comes to
proving a point.  There's a clue here, Percy might say.  Friedman finds it.

And to compare people in this manner isn't to say that grieving victims are
the same as intolerant folk like bin Laden.  After all, due to the attack,
I now share the same anger that motivated Al Queda.  It just doesn't
motivate me to go out and kill innocent civilians, though.  I eat like they
do and breath air too - but you'll never see reactionaries dwelling on
these commonalities either, as I am here.

You often seen sentimentality turn into iconography.  What was once a
vehicle for rememberance and reunion - a eucharist wafer, perhaps, or the
sanctity of the US constitution or Mecca itself - becomes a means to
destructive sentimentality.  What was once just a thing is no longer just a
thing.  It's now a symbol of utopia and it recalls a past world that's
somehow good or better - even though there's no such thing.  When it comes
to sin, there's no binging and purging to keep you thin.  You can't
regurgitate the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.

Now certainly people who wear crosses affixed to their necks aren't going
to bomb skyscrapers.  The fact that these are common symbols often confuses
the matter.  But the next time you see someone on the far left ranting
about the moral dangers of flag burning - or someone on the far left
actually burning a flag - sentimentality has come into play.  Call it
historical idealism, utopianism or whatever you want.  It's an extreme, but
then the only differences among us are the degrees to which we sin, not
that we sin.  What was once a loss for us in the past is an opportunity for
someone else.  Which of us is really in a position to know?  Sometimes
amnesia's not such a bad thing, you know.  I heartily commend it to those
living in the middle east.

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