“Syria’s Descent into Madness” is the cover story of the May 27 Time magazine, recounting the act of ritual cannibalism by a Syrian rebel commander that transfixed the West last week. The sort of atrocities viewable on YouTube – the slaughter by government troops of entire families including infants in Tartus province this month, mass rape of women in rebel-held zones, or the rebel leader Abu Sakkar eating a piece of the lung of a dead government soldier – are becoming Syria’s new normal.
Westerners cannot deal with this kind of warfare. The United States does not have and cannot train soldiers capable of intervening in the Syrian civil war. Short of raising a foreign legion on the French colonial model, America should keep its military personnel at a distance from a war fought with the instruments of horror.
There is nothing new about the use of atrocities to persuade one’s own forces to fight to the death because defeat would entail a dreadful retribution. The Nazis “deliberately insinuated knowledge of the Final Solution, devilishly making Germans complicit in the crime and binding them, with guilt and dread, to their leaders,” as the Atlantic Monthly’s Benjamin Schwarz reviewed the latest research.  Both sides in Syria perpetrate crimes against humanity for the same reason. The Assad government encourages its irregulars to rape as many women as possible in towns controlled by the opposition.  Abu Sakkar’s videotaped cannibalism was allegedly retaliation for such rapes.
Something more sinister is at work in the killing fields of the Middle East, however. The danger that Islam would conquer the West attenuated after the Ottomans’ failed Siege of Vienna in 1683. Muslim birth rates are falling faster than those recorded for any people at any time in history, and two of the prospective Muslim powers, Iran and Turkey, will become geriatric shells within a generation. But Muslim societies in their death throes offer a different and deadly threat to the West. It was in response to this threat that I began writing these essays. A month after the 2001 attack on the World Trade center, I warned:
The grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this and pursued a policy “des Schreckens” (to cause horror) and “Entsetzens” (terror, literally: dislodgement).
Horror was not merely an instrument of war in the traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or psychological warfare on the grand scale. Hitler’s tactical advantage lay in his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine. The most horrible thing of all is that he well might have succeeded if not for his own megalomaniac propensity to overreach.
America, as Osama bin Laden taunted this week, lost in Vietnam. But it was not military setbacks, but the horrific images of Vietnamese civilians burned by napalm, that lost the war. America’s experience in the war is enshrined in popular culture in the film Apocalypse Now, modeled after Joseph Conrad’s story, The Heart of Darkness. The Belgian trading company official, Paul Kurtz, sinks into bestiality and dies with these words: “The horror! The horror!” It was a dreadful film, but a clever reference. At the close of World War I, T. S. Eliot subtitled his epitaph for Western civilization, The Hollow Men, with a quote from the Conrad story: “Mr. Kurtz, he dead.” 
Pre-modern societies competed as a matter of course to commit acts of cruelty horrific enough to paralyze the will of their enemies. The Mongol conqueror Tamerlane – the Boston bomber’s namesake – killed almost all the city’s residents and piled their heads into a pyramid. The Romans lined the Appian Way with 6,000 crucified slave rebels after crushing Spartacus’ revolt in 71 BCE. During the Siege of Jerusalem in CE 76 they crucified 500 victims a day. Among all the ancient peoples only the ancient Hebrews prohibited the public display of executed corpses (Deuteronomy. 21:23), because an atrocity inflicted on the living image of God is an offense to God.
That is what holds the West together. The Christian West summoned the pagans out of pre-history on the authority of a God whose love extends to every individual, so that as individuals they might abandon the collective identity of tribe and instead embrace an individual identity as Christian converts. The bright line that separates pre-modern collective identity from the covenantal identity of the Western individual is nowhere clearer than in the matter of atrocity. Pagan tribes feel no compunction about torturing and desecrating the cadavers of members of another collectivity; Western societies cannot abide such acts without going mad. We cannot even observe them from afar without feeling a touch of madness.
We in the West already are more than a little mad. A gauge of our madness is our preoccupation with horror in popular entertainment. The horror genre supplied one in eight feature films released in the United States in 2009. When Universal Studios made its classic supernatural thrillers during the 1930s, the ratio was 1:200, and in 2000 it still was 1:25. Since 9/11, the volume of horror films has expanded from a trickle to a flood.
Proportion of Feature Films Released in the US from the “Horror” Genre
Source: International Movie Data Base
Horror films are not merely repellent, but stupid and repetitive. There aren’t enough possible variations on subject matter like vampires, werewolves and zombies to permit much originality, except, perhaps, in the realism of their depiction of mayhem. American audiences watch horror obsessively, the same way they watch pornography.
It is probably not a coincidence that that first big jump in the proportion of horror films (from the 2% to the 4% range) came towards the end of the Vietnam War (with Night of the Living Dead” and Rosemary’s Baby), and the second big jump (from the 4% range to 12%) came after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Americans are horrified because something has horrified them.
That was not always the case. In an essay on the horror genre for First Things magazine in October 2009, I noted that the old classic horror films were viewed as an exotic import:
Hollywood gave us a small run of exotic-origin horror films in the 1930s, all drawn from European fiction: Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. After the Second World War, however, these nightmares of tormented Europeans were mostly naturalized as sight gags for American adolescents. And that was how it was supposed to be. The monsters had a different meaning in their Old World provenance. As Heinrich Heine once observed, the witches and kobolds and poltergeister of German folktales are remnants of the old Teutonic nature-religion that went underground with the advent of Christianity. The pagan sees nature as arbitrary and cruel, and the monsters that breed in the pagan imagination personify this cruelty. Removed from their pagan roots and transplanted to America, they became comic rather than uncanny. America was the land of new beginnings and happy endings. The monsters didn’t belong. 
Horror became an American genre with local themes after Vietnam. The monsters have taken out citizenship papers and are no longer subject to deportation. The pre-modern roots of horror remain evident-every haunted house seems to be built over a Native American burial ground-but they now stem from our own past rather than the remote legends of European tribalism.
Why did Americans display a psychic immunity to the horrors of the European wars, but show such susceptibility to the Black Breath wafting from the World Trade Center? There are many reasons, but chief among them, I believe, is that we have forgotten what makes us different. President George W Bush told us that Islam is a religion of peace, and President Barack Obama told the world in 2009 at Cairo that America and Islam “overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. Our clergy inform us that all adherents of the “three Abrahamic religions” are brothers under the skin sharing the same principles, and our political theorists assure us that democratic institutions eventually will make Muslim countries more or less like America.
We were told, and most of us believed, that the so-called Arab Spring of early 2011 portended a great democratic transformation of the Muslim Middle East. As the images of tech-savvy Facebook friends in Tahrir Square gave way to video clips of ravaged bodies, our faces turned gray.
It will get much, much worse. There is a reason that Syria has labored under brutal minority regimes for half a century, since the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963 led by the Christian Michel Aflaq, followed by the Alawite Assad dynasty’s assumption of power in 1971. The colonial cartographers who drew the modern map of the Middle East after World War I understood something that America’s political mainstream does not: states composed of the tribal remnants of pre-modern society can be stable only if the ethnic and sectarian melange is ruled by a minority. Syria’s Alawites ruled over a Sunni majority with Christian support, while Iraq’s Sunnis ruled over a Shi’ite majority, also with Christian support.
Tyrannical as a minority regime might be, it is constrained by the fact that it is a minority. The minority cannot exterminate the majority, so it must find some sort of compromise arrangement. A majority government, though, can (and frequently will) exterminate an ethnic or religious minority. That is why the Sunni majority in Syria long tolerated the Alawite minority regime while the Iraqi Shi’ite majority tolerated a minority Sunni regime.
Syria’s Alawites will fight to the death because a Sunni victory would mean the end of their sect, and Iran will provide unlimited numbers of weapons and fighters. Iraq’s Sunnis, divided from their Syrian cousins by the thin pencils of colonial cartographers, will not stand by and allow Syria to turn into an Iranian protectorate, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar support the Sunni rebels with weapons and personnel. What we have seen so far are the preliminary skirmishes. The real horrors of war are yet to come.
It will not help to stick our fingers in our ears and shout, “I can’t hear you!,” as Ron Paul and the new isolationists propose. America cannot abandon a region in which it retains vital strategic interests without disastrous consequences. But it must act in pursuit of these interests, rather than attempt to export democracy.
What America most requires is a renewed understanding of its own uniqueness, and the grim recognition that it cannot prevent civilizations that are determined to destroy themselves from doing so.
1. Hitler’s Co-Conspirators, The Atlantic, May, 2009.
2. Is the Syrian Regime Using Rape as a Tactic of War?, Time, July 12, 2012.
3. Sir John Keegan is wrong: radical Islam could win, Asia Times Online, October 12, 2001.
4. Be Afraid – Be Very Afraid, First Things, October, 2009.