“Always on the run, not knowing what to do any more, being looked for everywhere, not being safe any longer and that if he waits around any longer he risks ending up next to the person in a cell.”
–From the will of Ibrahim El Bakraoui, Brussels terrorist
Ripped from context, the will of one of the (still-living) murderers from Brussels could be taken from the diary or blog or hastily scribbled and terrible poetry of any mildly disaffected 21st-century youth. It is of course more direct- the brothers who carried out these attacks and their companions had reasons to feel they were being hunted, after the nearby capture of one of the Paris attackers, but the sentiment rings true, globally, and it is a reason why terrorism is the dominant issue of our time. It is the sharp end of the modern condition, one marked by alienation, disconnection, and a sense of sliding across the surface of something vast, mysterious, and implacable.
In Scott Atran’s brilliant book Talking To The Enemy, he does exactly that: he actually talks to people who have joined al-Qaeda or other Islamic militant groups, or who are inspired by them, to find out why they are joining. What he finds is not surprising: there is some throat-clearing religious justification, of course, and talk of Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, and Bosnia, but people are more influenced by their peers, by the need for companionship, and the desire for meaning that comes with being part of something bigger.
Everyone wants that, and for a particular type, which can be American school shooters or Norwegian fascists or Islamic terrorists in Syria or Yemen or Europe or San Bernardino, the idea that violence is a path to glory is a tempting one. It is also reinforced by peers, especially in the case of disaffected youth in European slums, cut off and isolated from what they see as the riches born of a phony and hypocritical liberalism. For these people trapped in zones of alienation, bombarded with images of bombed and broken co-religionists, terrorism seems a rational way to spend a life.
Needless to say, it is still wretched and inexcusable barbarism. There are thousands and millions trapped in equally desperate conditions who would be revolted at the thought of packing a suitcase full of nails and ball-bearings and exploding it in a sea of defenseless people just going about their day. But it’s the same question we have to ask ourselves about why we have so many mass shootings, and why so many Americans feel the need to walk into a room full of strangers and murder them? What is wrong in our culture?
We’ll leave out the Middle East for now, since that is a different discussion. But why Europe? There are proximate answers: huge refugee populations, terrible slums, and inability to integrate. But with the rise of the right in Europe, we see it is more than that.
Europe has killed its old gods- understandably, justifiably, and correctly. The religious fanaticism, rampant nationalism, xenophobic passion plays, race fixation, and virtue-by-aggression that led to hundreds of years of devastating conflicts culminating in the carnage of last century’s wars had to go. Europe exorcised those ghosts, admirably (Western Europe anyway- the East was caught in its own atavistic nightmare). But they haven’t been fully replaced. The animating passions that determined its history were buried, but they have been reawakened by economic uncertainty, an inability to integrate migrant populations, chaos in the nearby region, and the communication technology that allows us to disconnect as much as it creates a chance at connection.
These groups- al-Qaeda, National Front, ISIS, Golden Dawn- have filled that void where normal politics have failed. We see that to a somewhat lesser extent in our own country as well, with the rise of Trumpism. There is a strange and quivering fear. Terrorism is not the cause of that fear- it is a symptom and expression of it, a mutated and more grandiose and destructive but recognizable form of the anger and passion that drives people to march into a schoolroom and start firing.
There’s no question that the old ways failed- the horror of WWII showed that clearly. And, I think, we have an actual chance to build something better. Global empathy and a broad community can form, thanks to our ability to connect. This is complex, and this hasty post isn’t attempting a full solution, which involves a lot. But retreating toward the old gods, as many want to do, is not an answer: it is joining the enemy on their playing field. Islamic militants offer a solution to alienation by trying to bring the clarifying appeal of ancient barbarism into the modern world. Our answers can’t be the same.