Ignorant Certainty

By Robert C. Koehler

Now that the end of the world didn’t happen, I can’t stop thinking about it. What chutzpah, what a diminished worldview, not simply to make such a prediction, but — even more incomprehensible, to my relentlessly self-questioning mind — to know you’ll be among the saved.

In 1011, a guy like Harold Camping would probably have been able to generate more panic than bemusement. A millennium later, with science taught in the public schools and all, we have a little more collective resistance to such thundering certainty leaping from highway billboards. I confess, however, to feeling a deep, reptilian tug last Friday morning, as I saw the sign — SAVE THIS DATE, MAY 21, 2011, CHRIST IS COMING — while driving through eastern Wisconsin. Yikes, that’s tomorrow.

What lingers for me in the aftermath of “life goes on (at least for a while)” is an alarmed sense of the power of ignorant certainty. Fanatical preachers are nothing more than the caricature of this power, which, in 2011, thrives like a virus in the American body politic.

“Today we presented legislation that advances our national security aims, provides the proper care and logistical support for our fighting forces, and helps us meet the defense challenges of the 21st century.”

Thus spake U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a press release two weeks ago announcing the committee’s approval of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 — which contains provisions so alarming it has been dubbed, by David Swanson, “arguably the worst bill ever considered likely to pass into law,” and even sparked an editorial in the New York Times.

Among the egregious provisions in the legislation, which awaits a vote on the House floor, as Swanson and many others have pointed out, are a crippling of the implementation of the new START treaty and a halting of the process of nuclear weapons reduction, keeping our nuke stockpile at Cold War levels; a total allotment of $690 billion for the Departments of Defense and Energy (including $119 billion to fund the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $18 billion for ongoing nuclear weapons research and development, and funding for various other highly questionable weapons programs and systems); and allowance for the indefinite detention of current and future Guantanamo prisoners.

But the big, scary thing about this piece of legislation — the thing that summons a newer, deeper irrationality from the pit of our collective paranoia — is the provision that would expand the “war on terror,” at presidential discretion, to the whole world.

As the Times editorial put it: “Osama bin Laden had been dead only a few days when House Republicans began their efforts to expand, rather than contract, the war on terror. Not content with the president’s wide-ranging powers to pursue the archcriminals of Sept. 11, 2001, Republicans want to authorize the military to pursue virtually anyone suspected of terrorism, anywhere on earth, from now to the end of time.”

The bill circumvents Congress and the Constitution and would allow the Executive Branch to wage war solely at its own discretion. “It would allow military attacks against not just Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” the Times explains, “but also any ‘associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States.’” It authorizes, with its excruciatingly vague language, a sort of global manifest destiny.

And this brings me back to the idea of ignorant certainty — a certainty about who should live and who should die — that is the driving force not just behind religious fanaticism but, far more dangerously, behind the politics of empire.

The ignorant certainty of Harold Camping is essentially innocuous. He wasn’t calling on believers to dispatch suspected sinners to their just deserts in eternity, simply to relax in the belief that God would do it himself. But the ignorant certainty of the politically powerful leaves nothing to God. The killing is done on their initiative and at their discretion — and it’s real.

This is war, and it has thrived as vibrantly in democracies as it has in autocracies. It could even be argued that the democratization of war and glory, the promotion of everyman from squire to swordsman, has fanned the flames of war. Consider the history of the 20th century (and the first tenth of the 21st). Democratic governments, while generally holding themselves blameless, have been responsible for a large percentage of the carnage wrought by modern, industrial wars.

And the United States of America, the original democracy, now devotes about two-thirds of its energy and treasure to war and defense. With the invention of the “war on terror” — a term as vague and meaningless as “war on evil” or “war on sin” — the political true believers and the economic beneficiaries of war found a way to keep the game alive indefinitely. NDAA 2012 would create the legal framework to disconnect “terror” from the 9/11 atrocities and guarantee the future of war, at the mere cost of the national soul.

Something feels like it’s about to end. It’s not the world, just what’s left of American democracy. Once an interesting experiment in human sanity, it may prove unequal to its internal forces of fear and greed.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist. His new book, “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound” (Xenos Press) is now available in bookstores. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.


Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now out.

The book is a collection of my essays fused into several narratives. They run the gamut from the highly personal (dealing with grief, the death of my wife, single parenting) to the acutely political. The book is about the quest for both inner and outer peace, the urgency of both, and the fragile future we are giving birth to.

“Koehler’s points are made with a combination of journalistic acumen and spiritual precision. He takes you by the brain and will not let you go to sleep, will not let you shut down, will not let you look away – and yet, in the same essay – will not let you lose hope, and will not let you stop believing in the spirit of goodness that lies within us.” – from the foreword, by Marianne Williamson

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One response to “Ignorant Certainty

  1. Sorry to say, this article does little to gild your “respected author” laurel. To take a few examples, I suggest that it would be well to reconsider the following phrases:
    (a) ” … [war] has thrived as vibrantly in democracies as it has in autocracies …”
    (b) “… the promotion of everyman from squire to swordsman, …”
    (c)” … the United States of America, the original democracy, …”

    As you seem to be beginning to notice, the self-proclaimed democracies are actually autocracies – some of which (notably the US) are now pulling down much of the window-dressing. The US does not promote squires to swordsmen. It strategically uses financial scams in order to demote its squires to peasants, and economically to press the peasants into imperial military service. Only an American could believe that the US is the original democracy. Everyone else – including many Americans – knows that ancient Athens has a much better claim to the title.

    Even your account of Harold Camping is oddly skewed. According to Camping’s teaching, the world is due to end “in fire” only on 21 October 2011. It’s not altogether clear to me whether or not there’s still time to repent. 21 May 2011 was the date he set for the last judgement.

    Assuming my case hasn’t already been heard in absentia, perhaps I could still influence the result while waiting for the Judge to work his or her way through the fantastically long court list …

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