The Magazine

Please Say This . . .

(Advice on the State of the Union. No charge.)

Jan 22, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 18 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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"But our enemies believe in death and say so plainly. Almost 30 years ago, Shiite fanatics gathered in Tehran to scream hatred at this nation; they weren't content with 'down with America,' they screamed 'death to America' and meant it. The secular tyrant Saddam Hussein tortured and slaughtered his enemies and their little children. His terrorist friends believe in the same doctrine, 'murder thy enemy.' The random killing of men, women, and children inspires their supporters to dance in the streets. Fanatic Muslim clerics preach murder in their holy places. And on 9/11, al Qaeda accomplished what even Hitler never did: the mass murder of American civilians.

"These proud champions of death kill innocent people all over the world, and their own people at home; they have even discovered new reasons to kill themselves. Suicide murderers are in a rush to reach heaven, which they picture as a discount whorehouse. If that's not sufficiently depraved, behold the ghoulish spectacle of a mother celebrating the death of her own (terrorist) child--a brand new hero by dint of the misery he has inflicted on other mothers and other children. Theirs is the party of death indeed.

"We understand our mission. The champions of life must defeat the champions of death. We must and we will."

I wish the president would say something like this in his State of the Union address. In any case, having written my own speech, I will proceed to write my own commentary.

America the champion of life might sound like a wildly ambitious claim, but it is a fact and (partly) the result of historical accident. The fact shows up plainly when you compare America and Europe. Death shadows Europe's great cities, and some of her great ceremonies, because Europe's medieval past is ever-present; and the medieval world (during certain periods) was obsessed with death. We are free of that shadow and have made the most of our freedom.

We honor our dead--but don't inaugurate our presidents in Arlington cemetery. When the Queen of England was crowned in Westminster Abbey, on the other hand, several of her predecessors were buried just a few steps away behind the high altar, or another few steps beyond that in Henry VII's chapel. The Lincoln Memorial celebrates the man's life; Lincoln is not buried there, nor is Washington at his shrine or Jefferson at his or FDR at his. There are shrines in central London too--Edward the Confessor's in Westminster Abbey is the most famous. Edward is buried there.

There is nothing ghoulish or depressing about Westminster Abbey. It might easily be the most magnificent building in the world. It is the heart of England, is breathtakingly rich in art and history--and is stuffed with tombs. Paris, likewise, has the abbey church of Saint Denis on its outskirts, where ancient French kings and heroes are buried, and in the center of the city the Panthéon, with its secular saints like Voltaire, and Les Invalides, with Napoleon's sarcophagus.

Death has no comparable presence in central Washington, or in any great American city. Arlington cemetery is an important and sacred place, but America has nothing remotely like an official burial building for its heroes.

Europe's magnificent architectural patrimony is full of death. England's medieval cathedrals are probably, as a group, the greatest collection of buildings on earth. But in many of the greatest--Winchester, Lincoln, and Wells among others--you will find beautifully maintained "cadaver monuments," where lifelike effigies of distinguished bishops (say) are laid out atop painfully realistic sculptures of their decaying corpses, crawling in some cases with neatly sculpted vermin and worms. America is the champion of life by her own choice--and because she has no ancient past in which to glory.

***

Arab tyrants and Islamic terrorists are champions of death. Nowadays we often forget the Nazi connections of their predecessors. The Nazis knew all about death--as a political tool, ideological weapon, terrorist maneuver; they reveled in death in their concerted attempt to rule Europe and Asia, annihilate the Jews and thereby kill the world's conscience, and kill God. Their Arab and Islamic successors would prefer to rule the whole world and not just Europe and Asia, but otherwise their program agrees with Hitler's, more or less.

Briefly consider Haj Amin al Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, as forerunner of Islamic terrorists; and Gamal Abdel Nasser, dictator of Egypt, as forerunner of the secular Arab tyrants. Their Nazi connections suggest that they and their successors are in fact the party of death.