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The Last Man Complex

Any time that an unfamiliar idea is forced onto society, some political schlepper will invariably say something like this: "We all want the same things: safe communities, fairness and equality, and the ability to provide our essential needs. Through tolerance and understanding we can achieve these goals together."

Would if it were so. Contrary to common belief, not everyone's priorities align with those of the Last Man -- a person who aims to satisfy only the needs of comfortable quotidian existence; someone content to avoid all of the great battles over right and wrong, beautiful and vulgar, sacred and profane. Who needs them? These things only cause "polarization" and distract from "putting food on the table" and enjoying a quiet life.

Try telling that Ted Kaczynski, the infamous "Unabomber" who committed acts of domestic terrorism in the service of opposing the technological and industrial society, or to Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 people at Oklahoma City. His grievance: the tyrannical federal government. The Norwegian Anders Breivik killed 77 to market his manifesto, calling for the deportation of all Muslims.

We unfailingly say that these perpetrators were "crazy." No doubt they were, in some sense of the term. But it remains rather absurd to compulsively attribute acts of profound evil to deterministic happenstance like mental illness. Not only are we open to these explanations, we positively depend on them. But why is it so unpalatable to us that someone's fervent and chosen commitment to a cause could result in violence?

This is primarily a coping strategy. We have an idealistic hope that at there is an intrinsic goodness in everyone -- in this way, "craziness" serves as a secular substitute for the Christian concept of the fallen angel. But it is also a cop out, which avoids the possibility that an ideologically-motivated killer may actually be doing what he claims to be doing: employing power in the service of a cause.

We profit from noble causes such as individual rights, yet we act as though these things have just fallen into our laps. Everyone seems to agree that contemporary bourgeois life constitutes the "end of history" -- the final point of political evolution where all that remains is for us to enjoy the fruit. People who think they disagree just need some good explaining about how, fundamentally, we all want and believe the same thing.

But if we and the Unabomber-types both have causes, it follows that the only difference between us is their willingness to forgo comfort to exert power. In the absence of an omnipotent guarantor of justice or an invisible hand of History to intervene, what -- besides the exertion of power -- will guarantee that the "right" side wins? I ask you, dear reader: for what cause would you give up your settled life to support? Democracy? Human rights? Protecting children from chemical weapons? Americans have been debating the idea of employing missiles to punish Bashar al-Assad for using sarin gas. Yet if every person had to sacrifice his own comfort -- let alone his own life -- for such a project, there would be no debate whatsoever.

Make no mistake: Kaczynski, McVeigh, and Breivik were all waging wars of principle. Their problem was that they were fighting with armies of one. Had they managed to convert hundreds of people before engaging in war, we'd have denounced their tactics while trying to alleviate the "root causes" of their grievance. And if they'd had support from thousands of people, we'd have doubtless capitulated. Last Men have an extraordinarily low pain tolerance -- just ask the British, whose "war-weariness" in the 1990s brought about an effective surrender to the Irish Republican Army, a group too large to be written off to evil-by-madness.

This all makes a person wonder who the "crazy" ones really are: the people who employ deadly force for nefarious purposes, or the people who think that the principles which underwrite their comfort will never have to be defended through any effort of their own? The other side has no such qualms: Just ask the middle-class kids who have travelled to Somalia to join al-Shabab, the youth wing of al-Qaeda responsible for the shopping-mall massacre in Nairobi last month. Call them the College Jihadis, whose ambitions we attribute only to "brainwashing." But what if they aren't brainwashed? Maybe they do care more about imposing Islamic law through holy war than about living cushily in the post-historical West.

Life will not be the same as it is now -- let alone as it was in more prosperous times -- if we do not recover a sense of collective responsibility for maintaining society's fundamental principles, requiring of commitment and sacrifice from every citizen. It doesn't matter how big the army is when ideas rule the world, and when civilization is entrusted to the will of the Last Man.

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