Who's Afraid of the Millenarians?

I am no great admirer of the apocalyptic style in religion or politics, but I would find Ian McEwan's essay on the clear and pressing danger posed by end-time thinking vastly more persuasive if he didn't crown his argument with this passage:

Within living memory we have come very close to extinguishing our civilisation when, in October 1962, Soviet ships carrying nuclear warheads to installations in Cuba confronted a blockade by the US Navy, and the world waited to discover whether Nikita Khrushchev would order his convoy home. It is remarkable how little of that terrifying event survives in public memory, in modern folklore. In the vast literature the Cuban missile crisis has spawned - military, political, diplomatic - there is very little on its effect at the time on ordinary lives, in homes, school, and the workplace, on the fear and widespread numb incomprehension in the population at large. That fear has not passed into the national narrative, here, or anywhere else as vividly as you might expect. As Spencer Weart put it: "When the crisis ended, most people turned their attention away as swiftly as a child who lifts up a rock, sees something slimy underneath, and drops the rock back." Perhaps the assassination of President Kennedy the following year helped obscure the folk memory of the missile crisis. His murder in Dallas became a marker in the history of instantaneous globalised news transmission - a huge proportion of the world's population seemed to be able to recall where they were when they heard the news. Conflating these two events, Christopher Hitchens opened an essay on the Cuban missile crisis with the words - "Like everyone else of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was standing and what I was doing on the day that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy nearly killed me." Heaven did not beckon during those tense hours of the crisis. Instead, as Hitchens observes, "It brought the world to the best view it has had yet of the gates of hell."

I began with the idea of photography as the inventory of mortality, and I will end with a photograph of a group death. It shows fierce flames and smoke rising from a building in Waco, Texas, at the end of a 51-day siege in 1993. The group inside was the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists. Its leader, David Koresh, was a man steeped in biblical, end-time theology, convinced that America was Babylon, the agent of Satan, come in the form of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the FBI to destroy the Sabbath-keeping remnant, who would emerge from the cleansing, suicidal fire to witness the dawn of a new Kingdom ... In that grim inferno, children, their mothers, and other followers died. Even more died two years later when Timothy McVeigh, exacting revenge against the government for its attack on Waco, committed his slaughter in Oklahoma City. It is not for nothing that one of the symptoms in a developing psychosis, noted and described by psychiatrists, is "religiosity".

So here we have three anecdotes. In the first instance, the world is brought to the brink of thermonuclear destruction by a pair of none-too-religious politicians and their advisers, influenced in their decision-making by a combination of old-fashioned power politics and secular fantasies of global revolution. In the second instance, a religious fanatic who appears to have posed a danger only to the small group of men and women taken in by his mix of spiritual and sexual charisma dies, along with his followers, amid a botched and legally-dubious assault by one of the law-enforcement arms of a secular government. In the third case, a political fanatic of no discernible religious beliefs perpetrates a gruesome act of mass murder, with the aim of punishing the same government for its conduct in the second instance. None of the three offers a particular compelling testament to the dangers of religious millenarianism, as opposed to other motivations for potentially lethal conduct, whether on the level of states or individuals.

Now obviously there are more dangerous religious madmen in the world than David Koresh, and obviously McEwan is on firm ground when he argues that some of the various great crimes of history have been rooted in apocalyptic hopes and fears. But his own anecdotes offer a useful reminder that worldly motivations tend to play a vastly larger role in war and terrorism and similar evils than do spurious prophecies of an imminent Armageddon or dumb misreadings of the Book of Revelation. This is true even among religious believers: From Crusaders trying to conquer the Holy Land to contemporary jihadis hoping to restore the Caliphate, from Woodrow Wilson trying to make the world safe for democracy to George W. Bush trying to, well, make the world safe for democracy, religiously-motivated political actors are much more likely to believe that God wants them to pursue a particular geopolitical objective than they are to assume that He wants them to ring in the actual End of History with a hail of bombs (or suicide bombers). People whose fondest wish is to hasten end of the world can be dangerous, no doubt, and perhaps one such fanatic will yet succeed in ringing in the apocalypse with a suitcase nuke or a vial of Captain Trips. But in general, such people tend not to advance to positions where they can do world-historical damage. Which is why the worst crimes, well-meaning and otherwise, usually aren't committed by the millenarians who keep a good secularist like McEwan up at night; they're committed by rational actors, religious and secular alike, who want to change the world we live in, rather than bring it to an end, and fail to count the fatal cost of pursuing their ambitions.