T he mass murder of September 11, 2001, was an act of idealism. It was idealism in the worst sense, but is there another sense that can be given to what we commonly call idealism? The concept that mankind and society could and should be perfected depends, for its moral value, on the definition of perfect, and every definition of human perfectibility is evil. Ideals are not to be confused with principles, with the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments. Idealism means that ideas are more important than people, which ordering of priorities means that people die.
September 11th didn’t change things. To say so is painful but precise. People aren’t things. People were changed in awful ways. Two thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven innocent people were killed, thousands more were injured or sickened, tens of thousands were bereaved, all decent people were saddened, and a few people without decency experienced whatever hell’s equivalent of satisfaction is.
People were changed, things were not. Among the things that weren’t changed were those ideas, starting with the idea that human nature and the nature of the relationships between people are tabulae rasae waiting to be scrawled upon, in blood-dipped pen, by elites with inexhaustible knowledge of exactly what humans and their politics and their economics and even their homelives should be.
Zealots have always existed. Sometimes they’ve done real damage, as did the founders of dreadful Sparta or the Emperor Shih Huang-ti, of obsessive-compulsive terracotta warrior fame, who burned the literature of ancient China and four hundred and sixty of its scholars to tidy up the sociology of the Ch’in Dynasty. But, historically, the threat of a utopia was held in check by simple lack of power to effect one. Thus Zeno’s and the Stoics’ idiot anarchist notions remained notional, and no votes were ever polled in or for Plato’s stupid Republic.
Then came the rise of the great nation-states, great examples of how—with taxes, legal structures, and bureaucratic organization—power could be expanded to shape life. This coincided with the Enlightenment and its many ideas, too many of which seemed applicable to life-shaping. Maybe the thing could be done. Wispy thoughts about what might be ideal turned into hardened idealism as we know it. Paul Johnson blames Jean-Jacques Rousseau for whitewashing the tabla rasa and maintaining that man is naturally good so, naturally, it’s good to force him to be so. Richard Pipes, historian of Russia, where idealism is always popping up, blames Rousseau’s contemporary Claude Helvétius for politicizing the tabla rasa with his dictum, “It is . . . only by good laws that we can form virtuous men.” There was blame enough to go around by the time of the highly idealistic French Revolution.
After the Terror, “idealist” should have become an epithet, but it didn’t. It’s a compliment for us to pay to our politicians, for teachers to pay to our children, for me to pay to myself when others aren’t seeking their own perfection as perfectly as I am.
Hundreds of millions are dead from the idealism that drove Lenin, Trotsky, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot and enabled Mussolini, Kim Il-sung, and the filth in authority in Bosnia, Serbia, Rwanda, and scores of other places. The sensitive plant of idealism never grows without the nihilistic twining vine. Everything must be scratched to start from scratch. To begin time anew, clean the clock. It’s appropriate that the poetic political leveler Shelley had a wife, Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein , a better prediction than Marx made about what the “New Man” does when re-creation of humanity is undertaken.
The horrors of destruction are easier to realize than utopias, and more immediately thrilling. Since 1798, we’ve been watching idealists seduced by nihilism. (The term was first used by Ivan Turgenev to describe the Russian idealists in Fathers and Sons .) The French Revolution seems to have taught the nihilists what they wanted to know. There is no point to acts of terror—as there was supposed to be to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima. The terror is the point. One of the first modern theorists of terror, German radical Karl Heinzen, wrote an essay titled “Murder” in 1849: “The greatest benefactor to mankind will be he who makes it possible for a few men to wipe out thousands . . . Even if we have to blow up half a continent or spill a sea of blood, in order to finish off the barbarian party, we should have no scruples about doing it.” Osama bin Laden seems to have done his background reading, for all the good it did him.
Idealism still fails, and so does terror. This wasn’t changed by 9/11. For three hundred years or more, people have been succeeding with realism. People have been working on a liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan society based on real politics, real economics, and real life (and only a dash of cynicism). The business has been slow and halting with frequent backslides, but the invention and melioration, the crafting and compromise continue. The reaction of this society to terrorism is realistic, as we saw after 9/11. Action is taken if action appears to be called for. And life goes on—if anything, a little more realistically than before.
The scale of what happened on September 11th was a shock, but not the fact. Nihilism and the ideals that feed it are as persistent as the sins they claim to excise. I was shaken out of my own 1960s idealism when the Weather Underground faction of the SDS turned to nihilism with an unpleasant self-righteous ease. On March 6, 1970, while trying to make bombs, they blew up a townhouse on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, around the corner from where I’d been staying with my cousin. Three of them got killed. I got a haircut.
Five years later, I lost my last sentimental respect for Rousseau and Shelley and for George McGovern and for anything resembling idealism. I was at LaGuardia airport on December 29, 1975, when a bomb went off on the arrivals level, almost directly below me. Which terrorists planted the bomb has never been determined. Confused by the noise and concussion, I thought it was a plane crash. I walked to the guardrail on the departures level and looked down at the jagged yellow rocker panels of a Checker cab torn off its chassis. Pieces of flesh and bone were scattered on the pavement. Eleven people died and seventy-five were wounded. The death was sickening, but more than that, and still today, it’s sickening that some random, not even knowable, ideal inspired the killing.
P. J. O'Rourke is an author and correspondent for the Weekly Standard.