Let us make man in our image. Genesis 1:26

There is an ancient parable in which a scorpion asks a tortoise to ferry him across the Tigris. The tortoise demurs, remarking that the scorpion might give him a fatal sting once land is left behind. But the scorpion replies that this is unreasonable, since then both tortoise and scorpion would drown. Accepting this reasoning, the tortoise takes the scorpion on board, only to be stung, fatally, midstream. As the tortoise breathes his last he asks the drowning scorpion, “Why, why have you done this thing that will kill us both?” To which the scorpion replies, “This is the Middle East.”

It has been dismaying to watch American diplomats seek in the Middle East some field in which American policy might operate, in at least a limited way, within a matrix of reason such as one might expect of any civilized nation. Alas, what we are fighting is neither civilized nor a nation, and what has been called into question is one of the most basic presuppositions known to the Christian West. We seek reason in an environment in which very little is to be found; in which, within the precincts of jihadi zeal, chaos is preferred to peace and order and death to life; in which there is no compunction about the blasting of women and children in markets, not even, as at Dresden and Hiroshima, with the apology that these deaths are the byproduct of some military objective, but simply to kill and maim the defenseless and establish a pure Wahabbite Islam.

That this behavior persists challenges not an army but all of our civilization, for it challenges our basic presuppositions about human nature: that men participate in a common reason; that being is good; that men prefer being to not-being, life to death; that there is at the heart of human nature a desire to be free, not in the lawless and impossible sense envisioned by Jacobins, the subject of arbitrary tyranny.

Many wise men east and west have thought that such human realities were not simply ideas, not abstractions, but aspects of a common nature. That this is so, events in the Middle East have called into question. Perhaps the very notion of natural law is merely a social construct. If so, something more than victory is endangered; our philosophy and indeed our religion are endangered. The least unhappy conclusion possible suggests that the natural law can be so radically obscured as to be practically inoperative.

Perhaps what has misled the West is the fantasy of modern liberalism that men make god in their own image, projecting their ideas into the heavens. It is, in fact, much more likely that we make ourselves in the image of our god. We become what we worship, and Christians have always understood themselves, often obscurely but always decisively, as made in the image of God the Blessed Trinity, who in love begets the Son, the Logos, Reason, Himself. Allah, on the other hand, for many in Islam, is simply a will. Allah is not, a Moslem may warn, our Father; He is our master. The Koran is notable not so much for unqualified viciousness as for its intellectual confusion, its cacophonous melding of themes recommending violence and peace, toleration of other people of the book and their extirpation, vengeance, and mercy. Perhaps the behavior of some Islamic peoples is, to our sorrow, to be understood on this model. They are what they worship. Why should one object to tyranny when God is a capricious tyrant, sometimes murderous, sometimes merciful, always unpredictable? This is the Middle East.