Against national security: With some thoughts on “religious violence”

Corey Robin has posted an extract from his book The Reactionary Mind in which he critiques the concept of “national security”:

The twentieth century, it’s often said, taught us a simple lesson about politics: of all the motivations for political action, none is as lethal as ideology. The lust for money may be distasteful, the desire for power ignoble, but neither will drive its devotees to the criminal excess of an idea on the march. Whether the cause is the working class or a master race, ideology leads to the graveyard.

Although moderate-minded intellectuals have repeatedly mobilized some version of this argument against the “isms” of right and left, they have seldom mustered a comparable skepticism about that other idée fixe of the twentieth century: national security. Some writers criticize this war, others that one, but has anyone ever penned, in the spirit of Daniel Bell, a book titled “The End of National Security”? Millions have been killed in the name of security; Stalin and Hitler claimed to be protecting their populations from mortal threats. Yet no such book exists.

To me, this is the ultimate disproof of the secular liberal contention that religion is the biggest possible cause of violence. Literally nothing could be more rigorously secular than “reasons of state,” and yet this principle has led to millions upon millions of deaths in the 20th Century alone. Of course, one could always fall back on the same dodge that allows one to get around the deaths caused by International Communism, for instance — “yes, they may have been officially atheistic, but in the last analysis Stalinism and Maoism are really religious in structure” — in order to define away abberant forms of “national security.”

And I think this typical dodge shows why the notion of religion as chief cause of violence has such a powerful hold — what “religion” signifies in such statements isn’t a body of beliefs and rituals, etc., but irrationality itself. It’s this irrationality that makes “religious violence” violent, not the body count. Within this framework, then, when rational people — for example, legitimate statesmen calculating the national interest — use violence for rational ends, it is not, properly speaking, violence. It is simply necessity.

(That’s the same reason why my typical rejoinder to “religious violence” rhetoric — “ever heard of money?” — also doesn’t work: the profit motive is rationality itself and could never be violent.)

5 thoughts on “Against national security: With some thoughts on “religious violence”

  1. Timothy Mitchell has some great stuff on the creation of “national security” as an issue, especially as it relates to oil production/politics, in his recent book Carbon Democracy.

    I’ve long felt patriotism, which allows national security pleading to work, is much more dangerous than anything religion comes up with.

  2. Additional info: it was probably Machiavelli, the great atheist, who invented and promoted the concept of national security in modern thought as opposed to the religious Erasmus, Vives, Suarez and so on, who were advocates of the universal Christian peace.

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