Fatalist Blockbusters


Jim Geraghty

There’s something odd going on at the multiplex. Two of this summer’s blockbuster sequels — Terminator 3 and The Matrix Reloaded — tackle the same philosophical question: Do we control our fates, or is every event that happens to us part of an inescapable destiny?

Without going into climax-spoiling details, both sequels come down solidly in the fatalism camp.* That is, they both appear to suggest that all events in the history of the world, and, in particular, the actions and incidents which make up the story of their heroes, are predetermined, and that their efforts to avoid that fate are futile.

It’s counterintuitive to see this fatalist argument out of Hollywood, and in action movies no less. Almost every action hero at some point in their stories chooses to risk their neck and take on the bad guy, protect the innocent, and so on. They could, theoretically, walk away — although it wouldn’t make much of a movie if Indiana Jones turned down the chance to beat the Nazis to the lost Ark of the Covenant, or Luke Skywalker decided to remain a farmer on Tattooine. What makes them heroes, in most cases, is that they deliberately choose to take on great challenges and fight the good fight.

Occasionally, like in M. Night Shamalan’s Signs, characters will refer to fate, destiny, God’s will, or things that are “meant to be.” But most movies celebrate the freedom of individuals to make their own destinies. Linda Hamilton’s heroine in the second Terminator movie explicitly says that the future is unwritten, and that “we have no fate but what we make.”

The concepts of predestination and fatalism have been central to some of the world’s religions for centuries — most prominently in Calvinism and Islam. For example, the Islamic term Inshaallah conveys the idea that whatever happens is the will of God.

Philosophers can debate the effect of Calvinism’s fatalism on the religious philosophy of the West. But the effect of Islam’s fatalism on the extremists at the faith’s fringes has been clear: The idea that every decision has already been made and every event reflects God’s will has been used as an easy justification for terrorism.

Earlier this year, Methodist minister and retired army officer Donald Sensing tackled how Islam’s fatalism can be used to condone the effects of terrorism.

Islam teaches that Allah’s control over events of the world and human life is total and complete. There is no human free will, there is only rebellion against Allah or submission to Allah. Yet even rebellion is, somehow, under the controlling purview of Allah. Everything that happens, without exception, is the preordained will of Allah.

Osama bin Laden bombed two American embassies in Africa killing mostly Muslim Africans by the hundreds. The Quran prohibits murder, and especially forbids Muslims from killing other Muslims. An ABC reporter subsequently managed to interview bin Laden and asked him whether he was responsible for the deaths of the other Muslims. No, replied OBL, I am a tool of Allah, and whatever I do is determined to happen by Allah. Those people would have died at that time in any event, because it was Allah’s will that they die.

Actually, looking over the transcript, bin Laden never explicitly tells then-ABC reporter John Miller that “it was Allah’s will.” But he does say that killing innocents is justified in the name of a greater good — or that “it is justified” to take action against your enemies, even if good Muslims will get caught in the crossfire.

Bin Laden asked his interviewer to imagine a scenario in which Americans kidnapped his children, and then used those children as human shields while they killed Muslims.

According to Islamic jurisprudence if we abstain from firing on the Americans lest we should kill these Muslims (used by them as shields), the harm that could befall Muslims at large, who are being attacked, outweighs the good of saving the lives of these Muslims used as a shields,” bin Laden said.

This means that in a case like this, when it becomes apparent that it would be impossible to repel these Americans without assaulting them, even if this involved the killing of Muslims, this is permissible under Islam.”

Let the chips fall where they may, because whatever happens was meant to happen. The individual terrorist is absolved of responsibility for the deaths he causes, even those of faithful Muslims.

There is other evidence of the supremacy of an inescapable fate in bin Laden’s philosophy. In his Policy Review essay “Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology,” Atlanta writer Lee Harris finds it in a videotape of the terrorist leader discussing the attack.

The tape makes clear that the final collapse of the World Trade Center was not part of the original terrorist scheme, which apparently assumed that the twin towers would not lose their structural integrity. But this fact gave to the event — in terms of al Qaeda’s fantasy ideology — an even greater poignancy: Precisely because it had not been part of the original calculation, it was therefore to be understood as a manifestation of divine intervention. The 19 hijackers did not bring down the towers — God did.

The ideals that the United States is trying to promote across the globe require individuals to see their actions have repercussions, and that changing one’s actions will change those repercussions. If you don’t kill your neighbor, your neighbor won’t die. If you believe that the death of your neighbor is destined by God’s will, then resisting that will is not only wronging God, but futile. The neighbor will die anyway. Choices are illusions, fate cannot be avoided.

Of course, those concepts don’t really mesh well with democracy, pluralism, tolerance, human rights, or religious freedom. As Sensing put it:

Political liberty necessitates individual freedom and the power of self will. That means, as Mark Twain put it, that every person is free to go to Hell in his own way. But make no mistake: that concept is the very heart of our conflict with Islamists, and is the very point of contention with Arabic Islam itself.

America is trying to send out the message that, at least in the political arena, the choices are not yet made. One wonders if that message gets muddied when international movie audiences see John Connor unable to escape an apocalyptic future of fighting Terminator robots, or the Matrix’s Neo is manipulated by computers to repeat the same cycle endlessly.

Jim Geraghty, a reporter at States News Service, is a regular contributor to NRO.

* The Matrix Reloaded is part two of a trilogy, and its creators, the Wachowski brothers, may reserve the right to change some of their answers in this fall’s part three, The Matrix Revolutions.



Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review