Tolkien and Terrorism: Perpetual War, PRISM and the One Ring

About a month ago, on May 23, President Obama spoke at the National Defense University, addressing the nation for the first time in his second term on the topic of U.S. drone and counterterror policy. Boldly defining his own legacy as a wartime president and altering the course of American foreign policy, Obama made clear that the current trajectory of the so-called War on Terror was unsustainable: “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” Almost instantaneously, the president found himself beset by criticism on all sides of the political spectrum. Ultra-liberals and non-interventionist libertarians doubted his sincerity and took issue with the temperedness of the president’s message while conservatives chided the President for too readily capitulating at a time that they perceived was ripe for increased, rather than decreased, military involvement.

But for the moderately progressive liberals by whom Obama was twice elected, it was a watershed moment. It was as if the President had woken up from a dream and remembered his political affiliation and the principles on which he so passionately campaigned in 2008. The moment, for me at least, was also reminiscent of the end of The Lord of the Rings. “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (3: 199). Thus describes Tolkien the hopeful epiphany of the hobbit Samwise Gamgee mired in the terror of Mordor, at the very beginning of “the end of all things” (3: 253). Though not nearly as romantic in his delivery, President Obama essentially arrived at the same conclusion: there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. We may not ever be able “to erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings,” as the President phrased it in his address, but we cannot live our lives as though these threats of terror are existential.

As readers probably know, The Lord of the Rings, despite its passing glimmers of hope, is a rather dark tale. Pondering the relevance of Tolkien’s epic to the contemporary geopolitical landscape, I felt a shadow of doubt clouding my initial optimism. Though Tolkien explicitly warned against allegorical interpretations of his work,the moral and political philosophy of The Lord of the Rings in a time of unchecked political power and seemingly perpetual warfare is impossible to ignore.  Historical parallels have already been drawn between the One Ring and the Atomic Bomb or to U.S. involvement in Vietnam but all of these drew the ire of Tolkien himself for supposedly misconstruing his work. The more-recent War on Terror, however, provides new grounds for reinterpretation. Between drone attacks, high-profile assassinations, and frighteningly encompassing digital surveillance, it seems that the government of the United States is inching ever closer to finding “one ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,” (1:55) with ‘them’ encompassing both U.S. citizens and enemies from afar. But where do good and evil lie in this allegory? Are we wielding this metaphorical Ring, or fighting to destroy it?

For Tolkien, true evil was represented as the subversion of free will, first demonstrated in his universe by the vala, or godlike being, Melkor, who wrought havoc at the first dawn of Middle-Earth and created kin-strife amongst elves and men through deception. Later in his legendarium this was repeated by Melkor’s lieutenant, Sauron, who sought the dominion over the free minds of Middle-Earth through the forging of the One Ring. Keeping these immense and deceitful figures of power in mind, it’s not difficult to see how such philosophy translated into Tolkien’s own political leanings, which he described in a letter to his son, Christopher Tolkien, as “lean[ing] more and more to Anarchy (i.e. abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)” (52).

With such an emphasis on free will—and to a certain degree, freedom—a case could certainly be made for a reading of The Lord of the Rings that would despise all forces of power. Yet the work certainly delves into more subtle complexities surrounding the nature of power. Though the extent to which power can be wielded legitimately by government is unclear (both in the nuances of Lord of the Rings and as evidenced by the drastic divides in political opinion today), the caution against willful omnipotence of any kind is unambiguously intelligible. This is not to say that any policy with which we disagree, e.g. income taxes or universal healthcare (which one can opt out of) are subversions of the will. Taxation is part of the social contract, and democracy often requires reconciling individual views with the general will. But when the influence of any particular power (perhaps military power aided by drones and spying)—despite the nobility of its intentions—is utterly inescapable, with neither limit nor end in sight, then it is the sort of power that must be destroyed. Even were we all fair and wise as the high-elves of Lórien, argues Tolkien, or were we as noble and valiant as the men of Gondor, none could be trusted with the power to will the world into his liking.

Thus The Lord of the Rings is an important piece of allegory for our government and for our time, and there are certainly lessons that could be learned from re-reading it (and if you haven’t read it go away read it) that the current administration and Congress would be remiss not to acknowledge. Principally, we should be wary of contending with terror for world power, as we may in turn become the greater terror in the process. Other than hope and the dignity of the human spirit, this rejection of unconquerable might, even if such strength were used only for the purpose of saving lives, is one of the key tenets of Tolkien’s work. Faramir, whom Tolkien, in an unsent letter to a reader had claimed to most closely resemble in outlook and personality (180) refuses the orders of his father to seize the Ring for the safety of men of Gondor, thereby imparting this precaution to Frodo and to readers. “But fear no more! I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory,” (2: 314). Our history has not been one to show such resistance to temptation. Just as terrorists use measures of extraordinary power and violence to subvert the will of the Western world–attacking us for our support of Israel and for our loose morality–so too have we brought terror and violence our own activity and search for power within the Middle East. We have supported corrupt and cruel regimes­–first in Iran, later in Egypt, and lastly in Iraq (before we changed our minds)–and have utterly lain waste to all who oppose us.

As a country, we cannot seem to grasp the idea that power is, by nature, perilous. Defending our immense authority, Obama re-iterated the notion that United States, if checked, can remain a preeminent force for good:  “America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion.  To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.  For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.” This was the heart of his address and, accordingly, of the current moral-military philosophy of the United States as well. It is our responsibility to keep the world safe for Western civilization, and though we must be careful of overstepping the bounds of reason, free citizens can essentially trust their government to do so. The president further affirmed his faith in such a power later in his speech: “as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.  To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties.” Even if it means knowingly using a limitless power—drone strikes, infinite monetary support, warrantless searches of our entire digital lives—the saving of American lives is still, to the President, of greater bearing. Unlike either Faramir or Tolkien, Obama­–out of his desire to protect–would essentially give in to temptation and wield the Ring in moments he deems to be of our greatest need. The ends, according to the President, justify the means.

To the Tolkien reader, the libertarian and, to an extent, the traditional American conservative (neoconservatives notwithstanding), this thinking is likely to be horrifying. Tolkien himself, were he alive today, might share in their disgust of the President’s policy direction. We must remember, however, that this is the real world that we are contemplating, not the fate of Middle-Earth, and that pure philosophy is often set aside for careful policy analysis. Few would doubt the President’s assertion that if we were to cease all defense activity, more Americans would die. Tolkien-esque thinking cannot serve as an excuse for hasty or regrettable policy decisions. Even if we are ethically unerring, we cannot simply abandon ship and expect the world to right itself. The Ring, which in this case could be seen as willful terror of any kind, has already been forged. Not easily can it be unmade. The moralist can claim that if we followed his thinking and pursued a more non-interventionist policy in the first place all would be right, but the point is moot. One does not simply end the War on Terror. Alas, so it stands that we have the Ring. Now what?

Obama should have pledged an end this power and the tactics it employs once and for all, but he instead only promised to cease its enactment towards one particular enemy. Though consequently flawed, President Obama’s plan, policy-wise, is somewhat of a small step in the right direction. Progressive democrats should be proud that the president halted torture, recalled the troops from Iraq and has pledged to scale back the drone war in favor of targeting structural issues that lead to terrorism and encouraging peaceful democratic aspirations though continued foreign aid. But Obama has not nearly been proactive enough in ending the “war”–we need more checks on the immense power, and the possible terror, of the government, before it’s too late. Guantanamo Bay is still open, our digital lives are still indefensibly searched without probable cause through the PRISM program, and whistleblowers continue to be treated as criminals. Imagine, for a moment, if these instruments of power were directed towards other causes. Who could say that they won’t be turned towards the drug war? What about for policing digital downloads? The future has rarely seemed less reassuring.

“Dark have been my dreams of late,” recalls King Théoden, upon waking from a state of unwilling senescence (2: 138). So too have been mine. Though hardly a roadmap for realpolitik, The Lord of the Rings and its lessons must not be forgotten. The President carefully articulated how he would wield such incredible power but made little mention of its unfettering. We must press our government ever toward Mordor—though the true end of this war is perhaps an even further trip­–so that “this thing,” as Faramir called it, the One Ring, the Drone War, PRISM (and the countless other tabs the government is keeping on us)–are eventually destroyed. And as with that of fictitious Fellowship across Middle-Earth, it will be the journey, rather than the end destination, that defines us.

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