Sunday, July 25, 2010

Terrorism About Alienation

Posted by Chris at 9/5/2008 4:02 PM ...

My initial reaction to this WSJ article is to shrug my shoulders and ask if it really new. On reflection, for people who don't remember Marxist terrorism of the 1970's and 1980's, or for some reason dismiss the terrorist impulses of folks like Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, this may be an epiphany. This includes political and military leaders who only really awakened to the growing issue of terrorism when al-Qaeda and other extremist groups targeted the United States using religious rhetoric as a means of recruitment.

The of terrorism is, and has always been, about power and the relationships of the individual to society. It is the response of alienated individuals who are striking out at their perceived oppressors. Whether this is a foreign government, a local regime, or a multi-national corporation depends on the milieu the individual operates in. Whether this the act of a desperate individual depends on whether the terrorist is charismatic, whether groups of other similarly alienated people are already operating in his environment, and cultural influences. I imagine that cultures placing an emphasis on the efficacy of violence for resolving disputes are more likely to turn to terrorism than to just withdraw from society.

It may well emerge that the use of religion is, or is becoming, merely a means of mobilization. Religion is for the footsoldiers, not the masterminds. At some later date we may see that religion provided the dialectical staircase to indiscriminate death and destruction. The idea, for instance, that democracy (fundamentally unclean) inculpates every citizen in its nation's policies; the idea (or ancient heresy) of takfir, whereby the jihadi pre-absolves himself of killing fellow Muslims. Interestingly and encouragingly, Ayman al Zawahiri is currently squirming about in a theological debate with the venerable cleric, Sayyid Imam al Sharif, as Al Qaeda itself is having to defend its religious legitimacy.

We can further expect international terrorism to become much more diffuse in its motivations, reflecting changes in the contemporary self ("a person's essential being"). Mr. Gray has identified a vein of what he expressively calls "anomic terrorism." This would be the carnage inspired by alienation, the self-extending despair evident in the random and serial stabbings in the cities of Japan, or the campus massacres in the U.S. — or indeed in the threats voiced by Dr. Ivins during the weeks before his death. The historian Eric Hobsbawm believes that the pandemic collapse of moral inhibition has to do with a general coarsening, the desensitization of violence brought about by the mass media (and of course the Internet). This prompts some further points.

It is Mr. Bobbitt's thesis (which Mr. Gray, incidentally, tends to pooh-pooh) that the current conflicts are epochal, having to do with a shift in the constitutions of the polities of the West. As the welfare state evolves into the market state, it abandons many of its responsibilities to its citizenry, and concentrates above all on the provision of opportunities to the individual. This, I think, has clear consequences for the self: there is simply more pressure on it. In "Mr. Sammler's Planet," which appeared at the end of that great spurt of narcissistic eccentricity known as the 1960s, Saul Bellow has his elderly hero reflect (with delightful restraint) that mass individualism is relatively new and, perhaps, "has not been a great success."

What I'm not clear on is the mechanism that makes people terrorists rather than just common criminals. Maybe its a huge assumption on my part, but it would seem that there is a fair amount of alienation from society among career criminals. I'm not talking joy-riding kids, or haphazard shoplifters here, obviously.

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