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After Osama bin Laden: Do we require a new devil?

The killing of Osama bin Laden removed a terrible human being from among us. It also made me think of what Eric Hoffer had to say about devils. While trying to understand the relationship between a mass movement and its doctrine, Hoffer asked whether any mass movements had “holy” books, and immediately came up with a list of them: the writings of Karl Marx, Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” the Quran and the Old Testament. Then he attempted to figure out what these books had in common, and he came up with a startling answer: Mass movements could arise and spread without a God, but could not do so without a devil. In other words, mass movements require a personification of evil to focus their followers on what needs to be destroyed or overcome. I think that Hoffer was correct in that conclusion, and that, in the wake of bin Laden’s death, Hoffer’s insight raises important questions for us. Without a devil to pursue, should we continue to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan? If we are going to continue such fights, will we need to find or establish another devil to stay motivated? How much of our politics is devoted to finding devils and raising them to high satanic status in order to move the masses in a particular direction? Time will tell whether we, like a mass movement, will require a new devil. I hope the United States does not need one. We don’t need a devil to determine what the United States should do going forward in Iraq and Afghanistan. As for that, I would be ecstatic if our politics in general would no longer depend on demonizing anyone but instead would debate real issues in a way that had each side respecting the other side’s right to a differing viewpoint and looking for points of agreement between the sides. That is hard to do, of course, but it is a worthwhile goal to aim for. A couple of other devil references have floated into the forefront of my mind in the wake of bin Laden’s death — phrases and ideas that have long resonated with me. One is the saying that “the devil is in the details.” Looking up its origin, I found that it is derived from its obverse, the statement that “God is in the details,” which has been attributed to architect Mies van der Rohe and, even earlier, to French novelist Gustave Flaubert. I take the phrase to mean that broad strokes do not reveal something’s essence; only the minute details can provide that. The second devil reference comes from the 1950s and 1960s playwright Jean Kerr; it’s the title of one of her books, “The Snake Has All the Lines.” Her children were in a Garden of Eden play at school, and one complained that in such plays, the snake character always seemed to have not only the best lines but the majority of them. The playwriting lesson for Kerr was that badness always takes focus. It sure does: Witness our fascination for Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs,” or for any number of other on-screen villains, including Susan Lucci as Erica Kane in the long-running soap opera “All My Children,” or Orson Welles as the essence of evil, Harry Lyme, in “The Third Man.” Everyone else on stage or on screen becomes forgettable when these villains are in the frame. That the snake has all the lines can be salutary, as when it directs our attention to an evil and the need to eliminate that evil; but it can just as often be a trap, pointing our attention at a smaller, more specific instance or person when we ought to be dealing with the larger issue. That’s our difficulty today: We need to deal with the larger matter of how to exist in a world in which fundamentalist Muslims have some power, and we must find ways to come to arrangements with them and with the greater number of moderate Muslims. For me, this means that we must not be Muslims’ Great Satan, and that we must not permit them to be ours. Now that our particular radical Muslim devil, Osama bin Laden, is dead, perhaps we can begin to reach toward the solution to the larger problem of improving our relations with the moderate and vast Muslim world. Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.

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