This is the Age of Anxiety but it needs to become the Age of Faith

Principles of love and peace lose their force when divorced from the teaching of Christ the Lord

May 23, 2016

By Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith
The Egyptian authorities have already made it clear that terrorist activity is the most likely reason for the downing of EgyptAir’s Flight MS804, and with each new piece of evidence that emerges, it seems unlikely that some other explanation will seem more compelling. If it was terrorism, which is not certain as yet, but seems likely, then this raises further questions: who was responsible? What did they hope to achieve? And how can we ensure the safety of planes and airports in the future?

The answer to the last question is the most troubling of all. It seems that nowhere is safe these days, and we are all condemned to live under the shadow of the possibility that some once routine activity may be transformed into a theatre of violence and death. This is the Age of Anxiety, to borrow the title of a little read long poem by WH Auden, published soon after the Second World War ended.

Of course, this is exactly what the terrorists want, as we have been told many times; but that truth does not quite dissipate the disquiet many will feel. Disquiet, anxiety, fear – these are all perfectly natural, indeed sensible, reactions to mortal danger. They are reactions that school us to take avoiding actions: but in these circumstances, what actions? How can we help ourselves? How can we make ourselves safe? How can I, or anyone reading this, make streets, shopping centres, trains, airports and planes any safer, given the failure of the professional security agencies?

The only answer to this question – given that it has no practical answer – must be existential. The Romans, when faced with the threat of barbarian incursions, built walls to keep them out. We cannot do that, as walls do not really work against terrorism, given that the agents of terror our own co-citizens.

But the Romans did not just rely on walls: they also relied on their own innate sense that romanitas, the civilisation of the Roman Empire, was infinitely superior to the lack of civilisation of the barbarians. Moreover, the barbarians agreed with them: their efforts to get within the wall were made not to destroy the Empire but to get their own share in its superior way of life. This is where modern terrorists diverge from the barbarians of old. Modern terrorists are nihilists, intent on destruction; the only existential response is to reassert the value of what we have, and that which they want to destroy.

This has been the problem that has confronted us all ever since the collapse of the Twin Towers: we have granted terrorist envy a false legitimacy. Many have seen the attacks on Western targets as somehow provoked by, and due punishment for, American foreign policy: this is ridiculous, as the current wave of attacks long predates Iraq, and is not confined to America and her allies.

There has also been the unspoken assumption that the West and the values of the West are not absolutely worth defending or preserving. Western leaders have been at pains to deny any claim to moral or cultural superiority. While terrorists make asymmetrical war on us, we too willingly accept a level playing field between us and them in moral matters.

With one exception. When Anders Breivik carried out his deadly terrorist attack in Norway back in 2011, the then Prime Minster of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, said: “We are still shocked by what has happened, but we will never give up our values. Our response is more democracy, more openness and more humanity. But never naivety.” In other words, faced with a fascist white supremacist, the reaction was not to give in, but to re-emphasise all the things that Breivik hated. Yet no one accused Mr Stoltenberg of being provocative.

The challenge remains, however: even if we want to restate our values in the face of terrorism to show that we will not compromise them, in what do those values consist? The question of values and their articulation is as urgent as ever. Just what do we believe in? What are the values on which we will not compromise? Mr Stoltenberg knew what he believed in, and spoke, perhaps, for all Norwegians.

I know what I believe in – the beliefs and traditions of the Catholic Church. My creed is firm. But are there, for example, European values we can all rally round? And if not, why not? Might it be because they have been effectively undermined from within for generations?

This is the Age of Anxiety. It needs to become the Age of Confidence, or perhaps even the Age of Faith. We need moral leadership, and something to believe in. Peace is better than war, love better than hate, justice better than murder – but these principles lose their force when divorced from the teaching of Christ the Lord.--Catholic Herald

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