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Why the Empire Needs Terrorism

by Berry Friesen (December 19, 2015)

Imagine a political entity that can constantly watch everyone and everything on Earth, listen to/read every digitally-transmitted message, reach into the safety of private homes anywhere and murder the people who live there, incinerate any military/industrial target with the flick of a switch, and fabricate slanders that are repeated publicly a billion times a day.

You’ve just imagined the US-led empire.

Why would an entity such as that need terrorism?  Why might it bother to make patsies of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, two unknown and inconsequential people from San Bernardino, California?

As we think through how the world currently works, this is where we often get stuck. People find it perplexing to reconcile the grandeur of the empire with the ugliness of a terror attack. The leaders of this mighty power may be incompetent, vain, or tragically over-extended, but surely they have absolutely no need to kill innocent people at an office holiday party in San Bernardino.

So let’s go back to the beginning, 1945, when the US emerged from the Second World War as the righteous conqueror.  Next, it confronted and defeated Soviet Communism, transforming the US government and the economy in the process. Remember President Eisenhower’s 1960 warning about “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” in “the military-industrial complex?”

With the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989, the empire lost its reason to be.  Yet it was so entrenched by then—in Congress, academia and the media as well as in the economy and Pentagon—that it could invent its own reason to continue business as usual.  Saddam Hussein served as a stand-in for a time, but post 9/11 a more enduring menace called “Islamic terrorism” has justified the empire’s violence, waste and diminutions of our liberty.

Now, ever-so-often, this newly emergent villain must make a vivid and terrifying appearance.

But really, does an entity as powerful and universal as the empire need something else for us to be afraid of?  Isn’t it enough that we regard the empire with reluctant awe?

Now we’re getting to the heart of it.  Like any other god, the empire desires our loyalty and our devotion.

This desire arises in part from practical concerns such as the empire’s need for millions of functionaries to reassure us, collect the taxes, operate the technology, manage the system, fulfill the defense contracts, staff the killing machine and do the dirty work.  How would people be recruited for these roles if working for the empire and working for the mafia were morally equivalent?  People would quietly begin to resist, stop paying their taxes, turn away in disgust.

But the empire’s desire also has a spiritual aspect.  This is what the writer of Ephesians meant when he referred to the ruling authorities as “cosmic powers of this present darkness . . . spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  The “heavenly places” where this threat intrudes is not some corner of cosmic space, but our human capacity for trust, loyalty and devotion.

To occupy the heavenly places—to be our trusted leader, not merely our jailer—the empire must win our hearts.

Problem is, the world’s consciousness has been infused by Jesus and his message of compassion and sacrificial resistance to evil.  Though most people do not self-identify as followers of Jesus, many around the world measure goodness by what they see in his life and self-giving love.

Thus, the empire’s challenge is not only to maintain its position as king-of-the-hill; it also must appear to be good.  Only then will we overlook its violence and greed and give it our loyalty and devotion. Only then will we regard it to be legitimate.

This is why religious leaders are so essential to the effort to resist the empire. The empire’s legitimacy depends on its moral standing.  When faith-based leaders give it a pass, they undermine our capacity to resist.

Is this making sense?  If not, go back and read the previous two posts.  There are reasonable doubts about the guilt of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, as there are about the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers and the Kouachi brothers.  Moreover, history provides ample evidence of the US using deception and terrorism to win our trust, not only overseas (e.g., its support for and half-hearted opposition to Daesh/ISIS), but right here in America.

We do not serve ourselves well by failing to ask, “Was San Bernardino such an event?”