Interview With Vittorio Messori

In analyzing the American war in Afghanistan, many have spoken of a "clash of civilizations," presenting the conflict as some sort of "new crusade" of the Christian world against the Islamic one. This interpretation seems very simplistic, and unable to account for the complexity of history. Foremost, it's an interpretation that appears to completely absolve the West — and particularly the United States — of its errors, while neglecting to find the causes for the instigation of the terrorist aggressions of September 11. In other words, what has pushed some people to sacrifice themselves in order to inflict such a deep wound on the US?

We discussed this with the well-known Catholic author Vittorio Messori, who is as keen an observer of reality as he is disenchanted by it. Messori is motivated by a deep Christian realism, which emanates from virtually every line of his last book, Gli occhi di Maria (Mary's Eyes), written in co-operation with Rino Cammilleri and published in Italy by Rizzoli. He also authored Jesus Hypotheses and the famous Crossing the Threshold of Hope, with Pope John Paul II.

What do you think about the war in Afghanistan?

This so-called "war" is the triumph of hypocrisy. I cannot summon up even a gram of the excitement and enthusiasm of those who recently waved American flags in Rome in support of the war. One cannot hide the fact that the Taliban are creatures of the United States. Furthermore, business relationships between Bush's and bin Laden's clubs are documented. But, even beyond this, the Taliban exist thanks to the myopia of the US secret services which, during the war against the Russians, created, financed, and armed them.

What is surprising is that the US has reacted with typical state logic against an enemy who is not a state.

In fact, the most powerful and armed nation in history has gone to war against a private citizen. To get a man out of a cave in Afghanistan, the largest airplane carriers in the world have been deployed! I find that extremely grotesque. But there is another reason why this war is hypocritical: as all the "politically incorrect" people know, the foreign policy of the United States over the last decades has been pro-Islam and, often, pro-terrorism.

Can you elaborate on this point?

The US is somehow a "prisoner" of the Middle East. In order to obtain forgiveness for its unconditional support of Israel, and in order not to be pressured (although it is) by a billion Muslims who are exasperated by this situation, the US supported the Muslims, and helped and financed them everywhere outside the Middle East. Let us not forget, however, that for Islamic people Israel is, for all intents and purposes, the fifty-first star of the US flag. It is not a coincidence that the nation of the stars and stripes is intimately tied with Saudi Arabia. I ask myself how it is possible that the admirers of the United States do not realize this paradox. The US government, which is always ready to go to war in defence of human rights, has always had its most solid base of support in Saudi Arabia. This is a country where the tribal clan of the Sauds considers itself the guardian of the holy Muslim places, and it is the most outstanding example of Islamic integralism and fanaticism. In that nation, the most basic human rights are not respected, to the point that Bibles are confiscated at the airport and if, by any chance, a Christian priest is found serving Mass by himself (even if locked in his own hotel room) he can be put to death. But "humanitarians" say nothing about this.

Why do you think there is such inconsistency between the human-rights rhetoric and the support for a country that has such little respect for human dignity?

First of all, because that is where the oil is. Second, because the US feels the need to be forgiven. It is sufficient to look at the shameful Kuwait war — a conflict where a world coalition was put together to save a few rich emirs (who had bank accounts in London and New York) and to please Saudi Arabia. And also because Israel considered Iraq a dangerous and uncomfortable neighbor. But we have seen a similar state of affairs in another shameful war, in Kosovo, where the Christian America sided with the Albanian Muslims against the Christian Serbs. There is, after all, such an enmeshment of problems and contradictions as to really make this a war of hypocrisies.

What do you say of pacifism, so dear to hardcore liberals?

I believe that the essential and often forgotten virtue of Christians is realism. As a man of faith, I know that Jesus has promised only one Heaven, but not on this earth. Therefore, I do not trust in prospects for peace or a brotherly world, because I do believe, to the contrary, in the consequences of original sin. Jesus Himself clearly states that he came not to bring peace, but war and divisiveness. Pacifism is a post-Christian ideology which has nothing to do with Christianity. The realist Christian knows that he will always have to deal with war, since he lives in an ever-changing world that is full of evil and sin. The Christian's duty is to attempt to limit the damage.

In this scenario, where do you see the globalization process?

Since I do not believe in utopia, or in a universal "let's all just love each other," I believe it is necessary to respect history's rhythms and scope. Today, history moves towards economic globalization. We must avoid confusing globalization with pacifist ecumenicism. Economic unification does not mean the elimination of conflicts, nor does it mean that different populations will be ready to shake hands and ask each other forgiveness for their errors. As a well-known Italian aphorist, Ennio Flaiano, said, "If peoples knew each other better, they would hate each other more."

Carl Schmitt said the state is born from the secularization of theological concepts, and therefore it is a competing entity, an enemy of religions. What do you think about that?

I agree. See, I understand many of the reasons of the modern anarchists, and I recognize myself in many of the positions of the FORCES organization and the libertarian magazine Enclave. But, I repeat, I believe in original sin, thus I do not underestimate Hobbes' warning: homo homini lupus (that is, man is the wolf of men). I respect law enforcement officers, because I know I need them; however, do not ask me to love them! I think that the monster state is the Beast of the Apocalypse. In a perspective of faith, the state emerging from the end of the ancien régime horrifies me. In this key, my nightmare is One World Government.

However, they say that the times of totalitarianism are over. Isn't democracy an effective instrument to counter these degenerations?

Communism and fascism are two litigious brothers: both have post-Christian ideologies based on the monstrosity of the ethical state. Think about the idea that, in Benito Mussolini's words, "for fascism, everything is inside the state, and nothing is outside of it." This diabolical mentality is the same in communism, but it is also typical of the state as envisioned by the liberals. After all, the state of the progressive Catholic is some sort of mother that takes care of us, who prohibits us from smoking, who imposes safety belts and helmets. There is nothing more diabolical than a bureaucrat with good intentions, like those of the former Italian health minister Umberto Veronesi who worries about my lungs, or of his colleague who worries about my little head when I scooter downtown!

Your condemnation of the modern state seems to postulate a re-evaluation of the institutions that preceded it….

I'll tell you an anecdote. In Turin, near the Royal Palace, there is an 18th century building called the Palace of the Chancellor. This building today can barely hold one among many central government branches in that region. Now, appreciate that at one time this building was the headquarters of the entire government of the Sardinian Kingdom, a large, multi-national state that spanned from Lake Geneva all the way to the South of Sardinia. This should illustrate that ancien régime that I mention from time to time: a poorly organized, lean state which demanded — and, thank God, gave — little, thus needed only a bare-bones bureaucracy.

Considering what has happened and what is happening, what are we, as individuals, supposed to do?

I do not want to patronize anyone, but this desire "to do" stems from a typically modern, unrealistic ambition. One of the greatest calamities of our time is the committed intellectual — the one, that is, who writes marching programs and teaches moralistic lessons to his peers. Maybe the United States had no alternative, even though (and with all due respect for the dead) I do not understand how war is waged for the three thousand victims of September 11, while no one has lifted a finger for the crowds of poor Christians who have been massacred by Islam, wherever it is the majority. However, if Bush wants to do something that is really useful, he should ask himself why those planes were launched against New York City and Washington.

I will ask you that: why?

I answer you in simple terms: I believe that the core of it all is Israel. My Jewish friends (who are many and very dear to me) disagree and say it is not so; they also are convinced that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a local matter. Unfortunately, I am convinced of the opposite since, as a scholar of the religious world, I well know the feelings of Islam. It is for this reason I tell my Jewish friends to acknowledge this disturbing reality — to be ready for further danger in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. Rightly or wrongly, the exasperation of the Muslim world stems from there. The situation is particularly difficult because, in those lands, Israelis and Palestinians take shifts as victims and persecutors. Some self-criticism would be needed from Bush, maybe an acknowledgement that American foreign policy (starting with that of his father and his family) has always been pro-Islam, and that all those "terrorist monsters" are, ultimately, their brainchildren.

January 15, 2001