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Exclusive! Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
His Own Words
interviewed by Don Swaim
BIERCE: I knew you'd be back eventually, Mr. Swaim.
SWAIM: Mr. Bierce, I beg your counsel. On September 11, 2001, the worst terrorist attack in the history of America occurred in New York, and...
BIERCE: "Celestial bird," I cried in pain, / "What vandal wrought this wreck? Explain."
SWAIM: Precisely, Mr. Bierce, what vandal indeed? Americans need clarity. We must know what sort of people would commit such a deed, flying heavily fueled airliners into tall buildings at the cost of thousands of lives.
BIERCE: I always warned against the airplane. I felt that the invention of the electric leg would be more practical and would end the necessity for flight. Unfortunately, the electric leg has yet to be invented.
SWAIM: This is not a time for humor, Mr. Bierce.
BIERCE: Who's being humorous, Mr. Swaim? But to answer your question directly, let me say that armed with the sinister power of life and death, any evil-minded person [can] gratify a private revenge or wanton malevolence by slaying whom he would...
SWAIM: The strategy and tactics of these terrorists succeeded beyond our wildest imagination -- and perhaps theirs.
BIERCE: And what is strategy, Mr. Swaim? Never mind, I'll tell you. The art of putting two knives to one throat. And what is tactics? The art of drawing them across it. The contemporary "avenger" slays, not the merely the "exalted," but the good and inoffensive...
SWAIM: Yes, the innocent victims who died in this terrorist attack. And it's believed the terrorists were part of a network headed by an extremist named Osama bin Laden.
BIERCE: The recent uniformity of malevolence in the choice of victims is not without significance. It points unmistakably to two facts: first, that the selections are made, not by the assassins themselves, but by some central control inaccessible to individual preference and unaffected by the fortunes of its instruments; second, that there is a constant purpose to manifest an antagonism, not to any individual rule, but to rulers; not to any system of government, but to government. The issue is defined, the alignment made, the battle set: Chaos against Order, [Terrorism] against Law.
SWAIM: The terrorists must have been deranged.
BIERCE: A condition of mind immediately precedent to the commission of a murder.
SWAIM: If the government's right, the terrorists were, and are, members of a fanatic Islamic group that interpreted the Koran literally.
BIERCE: Correct, the Koran. A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.
SWAIM: The Western mind can't fathom these militants.
BIERCE: I don't know what, in all circumstances, is right or wrong; but I know that, if right, it is at least stupid to judge an uncivilized people by the standards of morality and intelligence set up by civilized ones.
SWAIM: The hijackers who died aboard the four airliners... They apparently walked among us, lived among us.
BIERCE: From centuries of secret war against particular forms of authority in their own countries they inherited a bitter antagonism to all authority, even the most beneficent. In their new home they were worse than in their old. In the sunshine of opportunity, the rank and sickly growth of their perverted natures became hardy, vigorous, bore fruit. They surrounded themselves with proselytes from the ranks of the idle, the vicious, the unsuccessful. Everyone of them became a center of moral and political contagion.
SWAIM: What should we do with the surviving terrorists if we can catch them?
BIERCE: I favor mutilation for [those] convicted of killing or inciting to kill -- mutilation followed by death; for those who merely deny the right and expediency of law, plain mutilation -- which might advantageously take the form of removal of the tongue... You foul [terrorists], applauding with untidy palms when one of your coward kind hurls a bomb among powerless and helpless women and children!
SWAIM: The attack was a blow against liberty.
BIERCE: Tauri excretio,my friend. We shall learn that our blind dependence upon the magic of words is a fatuous error; that the fortuitous arrangements of consonants and vowels which we worship as Liberty is of slight efficacy in disarming the lunatic brandishing a bomb. Liberty, indeed! The murderous wretch loves it a deal better than we, and wants more of it. Liberty! One almost sickens of the word, so quick and glib it is on every lip -- so destitute of meaning. There is no such thing as abstract liberty; it is not even thinkable. If you ask me, "Do you favor liberty?" I reply, "Liberty of whom to do what?" Just now I distinctly favor the liberty of the law to cut off the noses of [terrorists] caught red-handed or red-tongued. If they go in for mutilation let them feel what it is like.
SWAIM: It was a monumental intelligence failure that let the terrorists slip through airport security, Mr. Bierce.
BIERCE: And I blame the government for it. A government that does not protect life is a flat failure, no matter what else it may do. Life being almost universally regarded as the most precious possession, its security is the first and highest essential -- not the life of him who takes life, but the life which is exposed defenseless to his hateful hand. In no country in the world, civilized or savage, is life so insecure as in ours. The best that we can hope for through all the failures, the injustice, the disheartening damage to individual rights and interests, is a fairly good general result, enabling us to walk abroad among our fellows unafraid, to meet even the tribesmen from another valley without too imminent a peril of braining and evisceration.
SWAIM: Sir, for some ten hours after the disaster, some of us thought the current president of the United States, a man of modest intellect called George W. Bush, was a casualty -- because he spent that time safely hopping from airport to airport instead of taking charge. Even when he did appear on TV to vow vengeance against the perpetrators, he looked like a very small and weak man. What do you think about that?
BIERCE: A politician such as your [accidental] president is an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he [Mr. Bush] suffers the distinction of being alive.
SWAIM: In the days following the disaster there was a run on American flags. I don't think I've ever seen Americans show as much patriotism.
BIERCE: (harumphs) Patriotism is fierce as a fever, pitiless as the grave, and blind as a stone, Mr. Swaim.
SWAIM: Mr. Bierce, two of the worst elements within the Christian cult, evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, went on television to say that civil liberties groups, feminists, homosexuals, abortion rights activists bear responsibility for the terrorism. Falwell says God gave us what we deserve.
BIERCE: I know of no public performer [Falwell] who has had to contend against the equal natural disadvantages of personal ignorance and professional incapacity, and the fact that with such heavy odds against him he has succeeded in getting away without incurring actual disgrace is evident. An astronomer knows that the growth of the human hair is not affected by the phases of the moon. A physician knows that homoeopathy is a humbug. A clergyman is aware of the spurious nature of his calling.
SWAIM: I agree, sir. Robertson and Falwell may be ignorant -- but they're shrewd. The frightening thing is that these two fanatics are, in effect, leaders of a Christian Taliban in America, and if they could, they would impose their distorted religious opinions on the rest of us.
BIERCE: Rally around the cross, O leather-lunged elect, for the recognition of Christianity, and its relentless enforcement by law. Let us jam our holy religion down the protesting throats of the heathen and the infidel, so that they shall be brought to know God, and to love him as we do; yea, that they may hanker after him, even as a baby craves rhubarb, or a cat lusts after soft soap.
SWAIM: Perhaps Falwell and Robertson are suffering from some form of dementia.
BIERCE: Dementia being the melancholy mental condition of one whose arguments we are unable to answer.
SWAIM: So where do we stand, Mr. Bierce, after this horrifying attack on America?
BIERCE: Many years ago lived a man who was so good and wise that none in all the world was so good and wise as he. He was one of those few whose goodness and wisdom are such that after some time has passed their foolish fellowmen begin to think them gods and treasure their words as divine law; and by millions they are worshipped through centuries of time. Among the utterances of this man was one command -- not a new nor perfect one -- which has seemed to his adorers so preeminently wise that they have given it a name by which it is known over half the world. One of the sovereign virtues of this famous law is its simplicity, which is such that all hearing must understand; and obedience is so easy that any nation refusing it is unfit to exist except in the turbulence and adversity that will surely come to it. When a people would avert want and strife, or, having them, would restore plenty and peace, this noble commandment offers the only means -- all other plans for safety or relief are as vain as dreams, as empty as the crooning of hags. And behold, here it is: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should so to you, do ye even so to them."
SWAIM: An eye for an eye, Mr. Bierce?
BIERCE: If you do not do others as they would do to you it shall occur, and right soon, that ye be drowned in your own blood and your pickpocket civilization quenched as a star that falls into the sea.
SWAIM: A frightening thought, sir.
BIERCE: You think that's frightening, Mr. Swaim? Many years ago I wrote about a civilization edging toward its destruction. So horrible was the mortality, so futile all preventive legislation, that society was stricken with a universal panic. Cities were plundered and abandoned; villages without villagers fell to decay; homes were given up to bats and owls, and farms became jungles infested with wild beasts. The people fled to the mountains, the forests, the marshes, concealing themselves from one another in caves and thickets, and dying from privation and exposure and diseases more dreadful from which they had fled. When every human being distrusted and feared every other human being, solitude was esteemed the only good; and solitude spells death. In one generation Americans and Europeans had slunk back into the night of the barbarian.
(Note: These actual comments by Ambrose Bierce were culled from his COLLECTED WORKS and other source material, and in a few instances were minimally edited for form only. I have substituted the word "terrorist" for "anarchist." The questions were my own.)
© 2001 by Don Swaim
Ambrose Bierce in the News
Ambrose Bierce on the Notion of God
Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
Ambrose Bierce on Politics
Ambrose Bierce & Pancho Villa
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
Love & Kisses: Bierce & Wilde
Bierce Duels with H.L. Mencken
Bierce & Jack London
Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web
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