I have been reading (and in some cases re-reading) a lot of Agatha Christie novels recently. I love the settings - they are generally placed in early twentieth century England, though sometimes they venture to more exotic locations - and her characters are usually complex and richly drawn. Having just finished N or M?, a novel set in 1940 wartime England, I was struck once again by the astounding difference between that age and ours. It is amazing how far the western world has sunk in only a few decades in terms of its moral certainty and its ability to think in principles.
Which is to say: I was reminded how disarmed the west has become in its self-defense.
One passage from the novel captures the essence of the attitude in Britain as Hitler’s forces overran France and prepared to invade England. A diverse cast of characters has assembled in a Victorian villa - young and old, mothers, fathers, an old soldier from the last war, a domineering female IRA sympathizer, a mother with her infant, a doting housewife and her sniveling husband, a young girl in love with a German émigré. They sit around the dinner table, chatting amiably:
The conversation during the meal turned on the absorbing subject of spies. Well-known hoary chestnuts were retold. The nun with the muscular arm, the clergyman descending from his parachute and using unclergymanlike language as he landed with a bump, the Austrian cook who secreted a wireless in her bedroom chimney, and all the things that had happened or nearly happened to aunts and second cousins of those present. That led easily to Fifth Column activities. To denunciations of the British Fascists, of the Communists, of the Peace Party, of conscientious objectors. It was a very normal conversation of the kind that may be heard almost every day... (Note 1, emphasis mine.)
In other words, each character in his own way identified and denounced the enemy. The tacit assumption was: England is good, Nazi Germany is bad.
Such a “normal conversation” is almost inconceivable today. Even after the September 11 attacks and the London and Madrid bombings, which were direct military assault against western institutions by Islamic fundamentalists, I cannot imagine a randomly assembled group of American or British strangers today being in basic and unanimous agreement about the identity of the enemy and the nature of the threat against us - at least, not if that group had any modern “liberals” among it, or even just average, apolitical second-handers who uncritically digest everything they hear from their colleagues, their preacher, or the network news. There is certainly no longer a general tacit assumption that America and the west is right and that enemies who attack us are wrong.
This is not to say that everyone ought to be in complete agreement, of course. The characters in Christie’s novel disagreed about particular aspects of the war, and some even hinted at sympathy with some of the Nazi aims. But no Brit in his right mind would have feared being accused of “Nazi-phobia” if he denounced Hitler, nor would the typical Englishman have felt that the German bombing of London would be a well-deserved punishment for British “imperialism” and hubris. Yet that is the state of affairs today, when critics of Islam are accused of “Islamophobia” and the September 11 atrocity is considered to be expiation for our sins.
If a similar fictional portrayal of such a scenario in a movie or novel were translated to modern times, it would be incomprehensible to a general audience. Words such as “enemy” or “evil” applied to jihadists would cause many westerners to squirm uncomfortably, and if any one member of the group were bold enough to speak out against Islamic fundamentalists, multiculturalists, or pacifists, he would be portrayed as a jingoistic xenophobe, a gun-toting, blockheaded bigot who simply couldn’t comprehend the “nuance” of international affairs.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing that the moral clarity of the characters in N or M? indicates that seven decades ago most citizens of the west were properly grounded philosophically. It’s not true, and I make that point in the conclusion of this post. Furthermore, the novel does not even attempt to show this; some of the characters turn out to have evil intentions and even the heroes’ motivations are a well-meaning but jumbled mixture of benevolence, traditionalism, nationalism, and stiff-upper-lip resolution. Agatha Christie is not Ayn Rand; she does not develop an explicit philosophical defense of liberty.
What is remarkable is the implicit context in Christie’s novel: everyone understood that a war was on and that one’s very survival was at stake.
This brings me to the subject of the novel and the title of this post: the Fifth Column. The so-called “fifth column” is a small group of foreign enemies (or sympathizers of those enemies) within a country that secretly tries to undermine national security in a time of war. (Wikipedia provides an interesting description of the term’s origin.) In N or M?, the heroes Tommy and Tuppence go undercover to root out the members of the Fifth Column that are diabolically plotting to weaken the British defense against Hitler’s impending Blitzkrieg. The heroes succeed, of course, but only after employing all their faculties, courage, and a little luck to unmask the Nazi sympathizers who had so cleverly and painstakingly installed themselves secretly into the fabric of British life.
This novel seems impossible today. In a modern context, the very concept of a Fifth Column seems to be inapplicable - not because the west has no enemies, but because those enemies need not hide anymore. Does a Fifth Column that is neither clandestine nor a minority remain a Fifth Column?
There may have been a time when to weaken a free country, it was advantageous to infiltrate the workings of its government, to steal its military secrets, to quietly sow ideas that could destroy it from within, and to break its laws and escape detection. But that sounds downright old-fashioned today. Why bother to steal plans for an advanced missile when one can simply hijack commercial airliners and fly them into buildings? Why whisper anti-western sentiments when one can publish and broadcast them to the delight of the intellectual establishment, be acclaimed by the New York Times, and win Academy Awards? Why bother to kill all westerners to silence them when they can en masse be made afraid to speak? Why risk breaking the laws of a free country when one can use those same laws against its citizens? Why murder innocent people when they can be convinced to commit suicide?
Thus, the Fifth Column has been rendered obsolete.
What is the Fifth Column? A weapon. When is a weapon needed? When one’s opponent will fight. Of what use is a weapon when one’s opponent humbly dons manacles, slips its own head in a noose, and hands over the end of the rope in submission? Eagles and tigers may be snared with a trap and shot with a gun; such weapons are not required for sheep. The Fifth Column is no longer needed, the west having decided not to defend itself. One does not infiltrate an establishment that opens its door to you. The western institutions themselves - elementary schools, universities, government agencies, churches, newspapers, Hollywood - readily propagate the enemy’s message, which is: apologize and submit.
Author and columnist Mark Steyn succinctly described this weakness of modern western institutions in a recent article. (He knows firsthand how the west’s own institutions are being used to silence criticism of Islam; for a 2006 article he wrote, Steyn is entangled with Canada’s “human rights commissions,” which have been enlisted by the Canadian Islamic Congress to choke off ideas with which they disagree.)
Every day of the week, somewhere in the West, a Muslim lobbying group is engaging in an action similar to what I’m facing in Canada. Meanwhile, in London, masked men marched through the streets with signs reading “Behead the Enemies of Islam” and promising another 9/11 and another Holocaust, all while being protected by a phalanx of London policemen. (Note 2.)
It is hard to say exactly when the “multiculturalist” trend reached enough of a critical mass to put us firmly on a path of self-destruction. Steyn identifies Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the subsequent murderous outrage of Muslims against the author, and the frightened silence from western nations as the significant indicator. I tend to think of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Jimmy Carter’s woeful response to the embassy hostage-taking as the watershed event. In any case, though “multiculturalism” is a many tentacled beast, the most important tentacle of this dreadful idea is the one being exploited by Islamic groups. As Steyn notes, although in one respect Muslims are “insufficiently assimilated” in the western nations to which they’ve migrated, “in their mastery of legalisms and the language of victimology, they’re superbly assimilated. ”
Much more can be said about this, but it would digress from the scope of this post. The relevant part to note is that today there is nothing clandestine required for enemies of the west to install agents within those free countries. It is all done quite openly.
During World War II, in order to intercept particular Allied communications or spread a certain piece of misinformation, Nazi Fifth Columnists would have had to install themselves with great risk and difficulty in order to succeed in their mission, and if they were caught, they were summarily executed as spies. They could count on very little cooperation from the government and the citizens.
In contrast, observe how much easier we make it for our enemies today. To effectively intercept and censor virtually all mainstream communications today, Islamic fundamentalists need no Fifth Column. They do not hide; they declare their hostility openly. They do not fear the authorities; indeed, they enjoy the protection of the police and legal system. Most media outlets already happily fall in line with anti-western propaganda, but for those that criticize Islam (like the Mark Steyns and Oriana Fallacis and Danish cartoonists who have the courage to stand out), Muslims set up tax-exempt organizations that use the west’s own laws to silence dissenters and to gradually impose Sharia law. This last is not yet prominent in the United States - we are precariously hanging on to our First Amendment - but as indicated in Steyn’s case above, there is a chilling trend in Europe and Canada. As Steyn writes, “If the story of The Three Little Pigs is forbidden when Muslims still comprise less than ten percent of Europe’s population, what else will be on the black list when they comprise 20 percent?”
So, what is the root of this difference between the World War II setting of Agatha Christie’s novel and the situation today? Why, seven decades ago, did the citizens of a western nation threatened with force believe that they must respond with force, while today westerners who are attacked believe that they must shower their enemies with apologies and billions of dollars of aid?
The tragic answer is that the moral case for liberty that underpins freedom wherever it exists was not made explicit. Liberty resulted from the application of reason to social systems, and this is the implicit foundation of freedom’s greatest example, the United States of America: each individual is sovereign and has a natural right to pursue his own interests. In lieu of this explicit defense of liberty upon self-interest, however, the west is wracked by self-doubt, and is left to float rudderless upon a sea of bad ideas.
Thus, even though the west seemed to demonstrate more moral clarity during World War II than it does now, it was not firmly rooted in individual rights and rational self-interest. This left us open to the innumerable ideologies based in self-sacrifice: chauvinism, nationalism, socialism, nihilism, and all the religions. It is no surprise that a civilization beset by the more skeptical of these ideologies, as we have been in the last few decades, would be vulnerable to the assertive ideologies - the religions.
If there is a positive side to this gloomy observation it is this: the reason that the “multiculturalists” have made such inroads is that we do all the work for them. They count on us being too “liberal” to recognize (or at least proclaim) that western civilization, in its institutionalization of liberty, is objectively better than all others in history. (By “liberal,” I mean the word in the sense that Robert Frost did when he said, “A liberal man is too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”) To save the free world, it is as simple - and as difficult - as recognizing the source of freedom.
1. Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie’s Detectives: Five Complete Novels, Avenel Books, New York, 1982, originally published, 1941.
2. Mark Steyn, “Lights Out on Liberty,” August, 2008. (“http://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis.asp”)
3. The 2006 article in Macleans magazine that got Mark Steyn in trouble with the Canadian government is called “The Future Belongs to Islam,” available online at “http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=20061023_134898_134898&source”.