(Above: Crowd in Paris expressing solidarity with the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Photograph from The Telegraph (London), photographer not identified)
The post below had been mostly drafted before the attack in Paris. Reading it in the aftermath of that assault, seven-hundred words have seldom seemed so superficial. Yet I also perceive in this atrocity evidence for the essential argument. As a result — and out of time — I have not revised it. But my argument absolutely deserves your critique given the present context.
In response to last Thursday’s Happy New Year post a colleague wrote privately that I ought be more worried about ISIS than my brief reference last week implied.
If I lived anywhere west of the Tigris River in what many maps still label Iraq or Syria, I would be more than worried. The tactical threat is significant and the resilience of this threat suggests a strategic risk that is very much worth our attention. There will, almost certainly, be ISIS-sponsored or inspired attacks in Europe, the United States, and Australia.
But ISIL, ISIS, Daesh is also a threat that strikes me as self-subverting and susceptible to our mindful action… if we are reasonably self-aware, other-aware, and strategically shrewd. In regard to dangerous adversaries, I am always ready to celebrate the other’s deficiencies.
Perhaps you read Eric Schmitt’s front-page New York Times story on the current effort to understand “what makes I.S. so magnetic, so inspirational?”
One of those recruited to answer the question is Scott Atran. In a September essay for The Guardian, Dr. Atran, a French-American anthropologist, summarized part of his answer:
The moral worldview of the devoted actor is dominated by what Edmund Burke referred to as “the sublime”: a need for the “delightful terror” of a sense of power, destiny, a giving over to the ineffable and unknown.
Western volunteers for Isis are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, between jobs or girlfriends, having left their homes and looking for new families. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are “born again” to religion. They are self-seekers who have found their way to jihad in myriad ways: through barbecues or on the web; because they were perhaps uncomfortable with binge-drinking or casual sex; or because their parents were humiliated by form-checking bureaucrats or their sisters insulted for wearing a headscarf.
As I testified to the US Senate armed services committee, what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool. (MORE from Atran)
Especially among twenty-somethings who are cognizant of the empty consumerism, cynical politics, and social isolation that characterizes so much of post-modern culture, it is the West that presents the most heinous threat to our essential humanity. In confronting global culture’s zealotry for individuality, the next new thing, ironic nonchalance, and disregard for those who seek a different way, there are a visionary, courageous few who offer themselves as guardians. This is how they see themselves.
The young terrorists’ critique of contemporary culture is acute and often more accurate than we prefer to acknowledge. The need to resist this sometimes deadly culture and offer a more humane alternative is real and urgent. If Atran’s research and analysis is accurate, those attracted to the Syrian fight are not nihilists but misdirected idealists. Many searching to make a positive contribution have been tragically tempted into self-righteous violence rather than self-sacrificing resistance.
I suggest that in many cases, the young terrorists’ analysis is right. But their answer is wrong. This is the self-subversion. This is the fundamental delusion that undermines our adversary. This is a weakness for our strategic exploitation, if we can recognize and embrace it.
We have the positive opportunity to offer a clearly better alternative, both for them and ourselves. How to do this systematically is beyond the scope of this post and today.
But to suggest how the alternative might emerge, here’s a New Year’s resolution to consider: Don’t be bland or banal or a bureaucrat. Do reach-out to others, listen carefully, ask questions, think-first, speak boldly but kindly, and give some serious thought to what it means to love. To be even more preachy, pretentious, ridiculous: What does it mean to love one’s enemy? None of this is easy. Really, what could be harder? But who claimed counter-terrorism would be uncomplicated?
Who said bequeathing a bit better world to the next generation could be anything but a profound moral challenge?
Emerging information on the Paris attack: Several reports suggest the terrorists may be related to Al Qaeda in Yemen, not the self-styled Islamic State. The Yemeni beast is very different from its Mesopotamian alter-ego, but in terms of what initially attracts and their fatal flaw, what Atran has found still mostly applies… it seems to me.
Update on Sunday, January 11: A video has been made available on the Internet that shows Amedy Coulibaly, the hostage-taker at the Paris Kosher grocery, as pledging loyalty to the Islamic State. Most news outlets continue to report that two other terrorists, tied to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, self-identified with the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.