By Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University
It is an unexplored and ironic combination. The commonality of death for human beings – an incontestable end often regarded as the prototype of all injustice – is also a latent source of human security. The conspicuous fact that we all must die, a timeless and universal truth, is a pertinent signal. Even if expressed sotto voce, it reminds us that we ought to care much more about each other.
Empathy is good.
“We are all,” quite plainly, “in the soup together.”
There is more. These are complex metaphysical linkages, not suitable for analysis by the intellectually faint of heart. Among other things, they call upon capable scholars to acknowledge that our common human mortality has led not to any visibly productive empathy, but rather to its very opposite. All too often, we simply can’t reasonably deny, we humans have supported only “the one true faith.”
All too clearly, this has created not peace and tranquility, but endless wars of cruelty, exploitation and extermination.
Through the ages, and with “God on our Side,” each conflicting state and religion has believed that personal immortality can sometimes be achieved, but only at the sacrificial expense of a thoroughly despised other, of the “heathen,” the “blasphemer,” the “apostate.” When he painted The Triumph of Death in ca. 1562, Peter Bruegel drew upon his direct personal experience with both religious war and disease plague. In the sixteenth century, he already understood that any intersection of these horrors (one man-made, the other natural) could be ill-fated, “force-multiplying” and even synergistic.
By definition, when war and plague are “in synergy,” the whole negative experience is greater than their simple sum. This means, among other consequences, that death counts can more easily become exponential. It may also mean, at least in principle, that death can seem more “even handed” and ubiquitous; that any once presumed immortality-benefits of war are simply an illusion.
Ultimately, viable preparations for any promising national security policy must begin with the “microcosm,” with the individual human being. In this connection, more than anything else, the primal death fear of simply “not being” is determinative. When considered together with the understanding that human death fear can create darkly irresistible inclinations toward collective violence, this difficult insight can reveal a long overlooked foreign policy opportunity.
Above all, we humans still fail to understand something absolutely primary: The always universal apprehension of death, taken as a common human anguish, could help to prevent war, terrorism and genocide. More specifically, if creatively “exploited,” this fateful apprehension could invite a steadily expanding ambit of human empathy and worldwide compassion.
At least in principle….
Any such positive and welcome expansion would represent the literal opposite of “America First.” This chosen posture of US President Donald J. Trump draws wrongly upon centuries of belligerent nationalism, including the genocidal Third Reich dynamics of “Deutschland űber alles” (Germany over all.) To explain what lies behind such pernicious affirmations, we should be reminded of Heinrich von Treitschke’s published lectures of Politics. Citing approvingly to Fichte, Treitschke clarifies usefully: “Individual man sees in his country the realization of his earthly immortality.”
“America First” remains a deformed and deforming US policy, one based not upon any measured analytic foundations, but instead on a narrowly visceral and incrementally caustic celebration of human self-centeredness.
Left in place, it is apt to prove injurious to US national interests, and to the afflicted world as a whole. Reciprocally, at this point, only a serious eleventh hour attempt to understand the imperative obligations of global “oneness” can save the United States and other nations from the hazards of a foreign policy built upon sand. Sometimes, these hazards are apt to be existential and irremediable.
In all such vital matters, policy posture reflects provenance. The United States can never be assisted or saved by rancorous political solutions fashioned ad hoc, without any historical understanding or anchorage, and as the evident antitheses of authentic analytic thought. Whether for the United States or any other country, foreign policy is not, as Mr. Trump doggedly maintains, “about attitude, not preparation.” On the contrary, it should always represent the well-reasoned product of comprehensive historical and scientific understanding.
To succeed in meaningful ways, US national security policy must steer clear of presidential calls to express endless belligerence; instead, it should reflect a primary collective commitment to expanding global cooperation and human species singularity. Only then, together with all others, could America hope to become recognizably “first.” With early prescience, already back in 1758, Emmerich de Vattel noted, in The Law of Nations (Or the Principles of Natural Law): “Nations, being no less subject to the laws of nature than individuals, what one man owes to other men, one Nation, in its turn, owes to other Nations.”
Later, the justly celebrated eighteenth-century jurist continued: “The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of Nations, is that each Nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.” In other words, as we may learn from the Swiss legal scholar, narrowly nationalistic or nativist foreign policies represent the diametric opposite of what is actually required.
What is required? In global politics, appropriately durable remediations will demand , inter alia, more penetrating depth of theoretic thought. Accordingly, this American president or his successor will have to accept a fully imaginative and broadly global set of security policy understandings. This challenging compilation would then express a subtle but unavoidable intellectual awareness: The outer worlds of politics and statecraft are a predictably mirrored reflection of our innermost private selves.
In aptly scientific or philosophical terms, these “outer worlds” are epiphenomenal.
As all world leaders will soon need to fathom, it is only within the deeply opaque mysteries of individual human mortality – mysteries focused on the effectively timeless and universal preoccupation with securing an earthly power over death – that we can discover the central truths of human interdependence and national security. Whenever we look toward more secure management of terrorism, war, and genocide, any stubbornly continuous posture of “America First” or its crude equivalents elsewhere would undermine our most sacred human survival objectives.
In the United States, there is much left to learn. At a minimum, the American President ought not draw any credible hopes for creating an improved and lawful national security policy by clinging to well-worn and hackneyed examples of American “exceptionalism.” Though gleefully unacknowledged in even our best schools and universities, there remains a noteworthy and palpable gap between humankind’s advancing technical understanding and its persistently uncontrollable passions.
It could become a fateful gap.
Where then shall we go from here? Exeunt omnes? This current American president seems to have demonstrably few original ideas, and, correspondingly, a never-ending panoply of bewilderingly backward and law-violating policies. Among the latter have been manifestly unhelpful distortions of global trade programs, and a blatantly counter-productive interference with assorted law-based immigrations.
We must return to the microcosm. Leaving aside certain incontestable intellectual advantages, we humans are assuredly not the same as other species. There is rampant killing among the “lower” animals, of course, but it is only residually willful or gratuitous. Mostly, it is survival driven. Such killing may simply be “natural.” Biologically, at least, it can often “make sense.”
What sort of human species, we shall soon need to inquire, can tolerate or even venerate purely hideous and generally maladaptive sources of gratification? To what extent, if any, is this markedly venal quality related to our steadily-diminishing prospects for building modern civilizations upon premises of human oneness? And once more, we must inquire, to what extent, if any, does human murderousness derive from an utterly primary and more-or-less ubiquitous human death fear?
This last question is more important than it is obvious, even for the rational formulation of American foreign policy and for implementing certain corollary obligations of global consciousness and world legal order.
“Our unconscious,” wrote Freud, “does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.” What we ordinarily describe as heroism may in some cases actually be nothing more than denial. Still, however widely disregarded, an expanded acceptance of personal mortality could effectively represent the very last best chance we still have to endure as a once-enviable nation and species.
Already evident during the Trojan War, we may learn from Homer, Achilles led his Greek warriors to battle against Troy with the rallying cry: “Onward, for immortality.” It has remained an incomparable rallying cry. There can be no more compelling objective.
Can an American president and his advisors learn something here that might benefit both the nation and the wider global community, something that could move us gainfully beyond Schadenfreude (taking pleasure from the sufferings of others) and toward certain viable forms of a wider human cooperation? To be sure, the latter represents the only plausible path to the former. These core orientations are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are mutually reinforcing.
Death “happens” to us all, but our potentially useful awareness of this expectation is blunted by multiple deceptions. To somehow accept forthrightly that we are all authentically flesh and blood creatures of biology is basically more than most humans can comfortably bear. “Normally,” there is even a peculiar embarrassment felt by the living in the presence of the dead and dying.
It is almost as if death and dying had been reserved exclusively for “others.”
Further, it is as if death were an “affliction” that can never darken our own personal and presumptively “eternal” lives. Judged by a now near-universal obsession with social media, and with being very recognizably “connected,” this view may be rooted, at least in part, in the potent idea of personal death as the last and most insufferable extremity of being left “alone” – a desertion, moreover, in a disconcertingly pointless universe.
That we, as individuals, should still cleave so desperately to various allegedly sacred promises of redemption and immortality is not, by itself, a global-survival or national-survival issue. It becomes a truly existential problem, and one that we may convincingly associate with war, terrorism, or genocide, only when these various promises are forcibly reserved to certain selected national segments of humanity, and are then openly denied to other “less-worthy” nations.
In the end, all national and global politics are merely reflection, a thinly symptomatic expression of much more deeply underlying and compellingly troublesome private needs. Undoubtedly, the most pressing of all these accumulated needs is the avoidance of personal death. Such avoidance, of course, is presumptively in literally everyone’s overriding interest.
It is finally time to look closely behind the news. In all global politics, it now warrants further repeating, there is no greater form of power than power over death. What can we learn from this assessment?
For the most part, it is not for us to choose when we should die. Instead, our words, our faces, and even our irrepressible human countenance will sometime lie immeasurably beyond any discernible considerations of conscious decision or individual choice. Still, we can choose to recognize our shared common human fate and thereby our derivative and unbreakable interdependence. This uniquely powerful intellectual recognition could carry with it an equally significant global promise, one that remains distressingly distant and wholly unacknowledged in major world capitals.
Much as we might prefer to comfort ourselves with various qualitative presumptions of societal hierarchy and national differentiation, we humans are really pretty much the same. This incontestable sameness is already manifest to all capable scientists and physicians. Still, our single most important similarity, and the one least subject to any reasonable hint of counter-argument, is that we all die.
Ironically, perhaps, whatever our more-or-less divergent views on what might actually happen to us after death, the basic mortality that we share could still represent the last best chance we have for global coexistence and a more viable world community. This is the case, however, only if we can first accomplish the astoundingly difficult leap from acknowledging a shared common fate to actually “operationalizing” our more expressly generalized feelings of empathy and caring.
Across an entire planet, we can care for one another as humans, but only after we have first accepted that the judgment of a resolutely common fate will not be waived by palpable harms that are deliberately inflicted upon “others,” that is, upon the presumptively less worthy or “unworthy.” While markedly inconspicuous, modern crimes of war, terror, and genocide are often “just” conveniently sanitized expressions of religious sacrifice. In the most starkly egregious instances, corresponding instances of violence could represent a consummate human hope of overcoming private mortality through the mass killing or exclusion of specific “outsiders.”
It’s not a new thought. Consider psychologist Ernest Becker’s famous paraphrase of Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti in Escape From Evil: “….each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.” In the same vein, playwright, Eugene Ionesco writes in his Journal (1966):
I must kill my visible enemy, the one who is determined to take my life, to prevent him from killing me. Killing gives me a feeling of relief, because I am dimly aware that in killing him, I have killed death. My enemy’s death cannot be held against me, it is no longer a source of anguish, if I killed him with the approval of society: that is the purpose of war. Killing is a way of relieving one’s feelings, of warding off one’s own death.
There is a deeply insightful observation and idea here. It is the notion that killing another can confer an immunity from one’s own personal mortality. In his Will Therapy and Truth and Reality, psychologist Otto Rank affirms: “The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the Sacrifice, of the Other. Through the death of the Other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of being killed.”
What is being described here is the greatest form of power discoverable anywhere: power over death. Americans and other residents of a deeply interconnected planet have a right to expect that any president of the United States or major world leader attempt to understand these complex linkages. All of our national policies must build upon more genuinely intellectual sorts of understanding.
Always, our just wars, counter-terrorism conflicts and anti-genocide programs must be fought or conducted as intricate contests of mind over mind, and not just as narrowly tactical struggles of mind over matter.
Only a dual awareness of our common human destination, which is death, and the associated futility of sacrificial violence, can offer an accessible “medicine” against more-or-less foreseeable adversaries in the global “state of nature.” Only this difficult awareness can relieve an otherwise incessant and still-ascending Hobbesian war of “all against all.”
More than ever, history deserves a reasonable pride of place. The United States, America’s president should recall, was founded upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. But this means something very different in 2020 than it did back in 1787.
What should this particular history now signify for American foreign policy preparation ? This is not an insignificant query, but it does presuppose an American democracy founded upon authentic learning, and not on flippantly corrosive clichés or abundantly empty presidential witticisms.
Human death fear has much to do with a better understanding of America’s national security prospects. Only a people who can feel deeply within itself the unalterable fate and suffering of a much broader global population will be able to decently embrace compassion and empathy.
In the end, a “triumph of death” is irresistible and inevitable, and attempts to avoid death by killing certain “despised others” are both futile and inglorious. Going forward, therefore, it is high time for new and creative thinking about global security and human immortality. Instead of denying death, a cowardly and potentially corrosive emotion that Sigmund Freud had labeled “wish fulfillment” (The Future of an Illusion, 1927), we must finally acknowledge the obvious and view it as a too-long-overlooked blessing. Ultimately, with such an eleventh-hour acknowledgment, all people and all nations on this imperiled planet could begin to think more purposefully about our immutably common destiny. In turn, this means using that always-overriding commonality as the basis for expanding empathy and worldwide cooperation.
To be sure, it is a visionary and fanciful prescription, one rather unlikely to be grasped in time. But there is still a plausible way to begin. This way would require the leaders of all major states to recognize that they are not in any meaningful way “world powers” (all are equally “mortal;” none have any “power over death”) and that a coordinated retreat from Realpolitik or traditional geopolitical competition is now profoundly self-interested.
The primary planetary survival task is a markedly intellectual one, but unprecedented human courage will also be needed. For the required national leadership initiatives, we could have no good reason to expect the arrival of a Platonic philosopher-king; still, even some ordinary political leaders could conceivably prove themselves up to the extraordinary task. For this to happen, enlightened citizens of all countries must first cast aside all historically discredited ways of thinking about world politics, and (per specific insights of twentieth-century German thinker Karl Jaspers) do whatever possible to elevate empirical science and “mind” over blind faith and “mystery.”
“In endowing us with memory,” writes philosopher George Santayana, “nature has revealed to us a truth utterly unimaginable to the unreflective creation….the truth of mortality….The more we reflect, the more we live in memory and idea, the more convinced and penetrated we shall be by the experience of death; yet, without knowing it, perhaps, this very conviction and experience will have raised us, in a way, above mortality.”
Though few will easily understand, such an elevation of memory and idea, such a propitious intellectual “raising,” is necessary for human survival. Taken as a starting-point for greater worldwide caring and empathy, this plain fact of human mortality could prove immeasurably gainful for planet-wide security. The most worrisome impediment here would likely concern far-reaching acceptability of this basic fact.
If not sufficiently general, reason-based denials of human immortality – rejections of power over death – could fall victim to the various allurements of philosopher Karl Jaspers’ “mystery.”
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in Horasis