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.
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.
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 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:
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.