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Monday, July 09, 2007

Terrorist Jet-Setters



The media are shocked, shocked, it seems, that those recently attempting to blow up London and Glasgow airports appear to have been medical doctors. This, it seems, does not fit the profile of a terrorist. A terrorist is supposed to be driven to it by marginalization. He (not she—we’re talking of stereotypes here) is therefore poor, a failure, and ideally from a country colonized in some sense by the nation he has targeted.

The corollary to this is that terrorism could be ended, if the US pulled in its military horns and started sending out tankers full of money.

Or, failing that, there is a second possibility. A terrorist is a devout Muslim, not sufficiently exposed to the enlightened, secular truth of the modern age—driven, if not by poverty, by a provincial, antiquated, and anti-rational world view.

The corollary to this is that it may also be advisable to suppress all religion.

But if you do enough digging to endanger a fingernail, the one thing one finds most consistent about terrorists is that they almost never fit the profile of a terrorist.

Consider those responsible for the recent plot to blow up JFK in NYC. One was a former MP and mayor in Guyana—a pillar of his community, if the phrase ever had any meaning. All were, in the words of their defense lawyer pleading for bail, “solid members of their communities.”

As for Palestinian suicide bombers, a 2003 analysis of the backgrounds of those committing “political violence” shows they too most often are from the more affluent segments of the population (Krueger & Maleckova).

As, of course, is Osama Bin Laden, and his lieutenant, Dr. al-Zawahiri. Their 9/11 hijackers flew in the first class compartment; their leader in the air, Mohammed Atta, had studied architecture at grad school in Germany. According to Marc Sageman, 62% of Al Qaeda members are university educated—a higher proportion than of the US population, let alone the population of Saudi Arabia or Palestine.

Nor did they come from poor countries. The 9/11 plotters were from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Even Palestinians are as a group better off economically than their Arab neighbours. A study by Alberto Abadie at Harvard shows that terrorist risk is “not significantly higher for poorer countries.”

In sum, the idea that poverty and oppression cause terrorism is plainly false. I’d say it is a Marxist fiction. No amount of money shoveled into the Third World by the US or the West is going to make any difference.

As to religious “extremism,” note that the incidence of terrorism has actually not grown since the 1980s. The difference is that, before the 1980s, terrorists were overwhelmingly Marxist. Now, with the relative decline of Marxism as a credible alternative to the West, Islamism seems to have simply filled the void.

It follows that eliminating Islam, or all religious, would do nothing to reduce the level of terrorism. If it weren’t Marxism, or Islam, it would be environmentalism, or animal rights, or anti-globalization, or libertarianism. Indeed, all of these have already shown that potential.

Nor are the terrorists commonly devout followers of any of these causes. People who go in for suicide bombing seem invariably to come, not from devout family backgrounds, but from secularized, “Westernized” families. They are themselves usually “Westernized.” They are usually not those who have lived sheltered lives, unaware of the larger Modern world—just the reverse. They are the exchange students and jet-setters. And, while “Islamism” may use Islam as a justification, it is highly unorthodox in Muslim terms on any number of grounds. This would trouble the genuinely devout.

So the notion that religion, or Islam, or ignorance of the Modern world, is to blame is also false.

Which leaves the question, what is it that really causes terrorism?

But the answer is surely all to simple, and can be summed in just one word: envy.

There is a certain sort of mind that feels the need to win at all costs—to be richer, smarter, more famous, and indeed more visibly moral, than anyone else. It is a very common sort of mind, in fact. It sometimes seems that all of us have it, varying only in degree.

For obvious reasons, this sort of egotism concentrates at the upper ends of the social spectrum: those who succeed are, all else being equal, more likely to be those driven by a need to succeed.

It concentrates, therefore, in the sort of people who are driven to become MDs, MPs, grad students, and, indeed, imams.

So far, so proper. But this sort of egotism necessarily and naturally is prepared to sacrifice any and all others to its own ambition; the more so the stronger it is. It sees significant accomplishment in another as a personal threat. It will, if it cannot match it, seek to destroy it--and its creators.

This can be seen in trivial matters—and the more so in great. I remember once in Korea being impressed with a snow sculpture some kid had made, and trying to get a photo of it. Discovering I was out of film, I stepped away to reload. When I returned—as I had expected—someone had kicked the sculpture over, and it was gone. It was too much to see a foreigner with professional-looking camera equipment showing such interest—if one was not oneself the maker.

I have seen this little drama acted out too many times, in big ways and in small, not to believe it is deeply rooted in human nature.

It is perfectly consistent with egotism even to sacrifice one’s own life in the attempt to destroy. Egotism is not self-indulgence. If someone is prepared to sacrifice family, personal comfort, and friendship to his or her goal of making a big splash in life, it is not a great leap from this to also sacrifice his own life for the same big splash.

Which is, of course, exactly what the hit on the twin towers was: an egomaniac’s dream. A really big, really impressive snow sculpture to kick down. Similarly, Sirhan Sirhan killed Bobby Kennedy because he thought this would make him famous. Lee Harvey Oswald’s motivations were the same. Others, as police have long ago learned, will happily confess to a crime they did not commit, if it is horrible enough, for the fame involved.

The need for some ideology behind it all—Oswald chose communism--is simply this: such an ego as is driven to appear more rich or intelligent or brave than anyone else, will also want, if possible, to appear more moral. And so it is driven to find or invent an ideology that makes its actions appear supremely moral.

Marxism was always great for this: the very fact of significant achievement made one a “class enemy,” and a legitimate target. But Islamism can work too, on the premise that anyone who has not embraced Islam is, by dint of that fact, evil and a fair target. And one can see perfectly well how, if Islamism were gone, environmentalism or anti-globalization could work just as well. Or any number of other political creeds.

But in the end, it works only with political creeds. It follows that the way to prevent terrorism is not to suppress religion. Religion, rather, is the best possible antidote. Religion universally teaches the dangers of egotism. Religion teaches love of fellow man. Religion is a healthy alternative to seeing the solution of man’s supposed problems in political action and in scapegoats.

Indeed, we must emphatically not buy into the terrorists’ lie, and accept the notion that religion or political oppression is involved in what they do. By doing so, we are making it far easier for them to justify themselves. Let’s see them and out them clearly for the egotists that they are.

It is egotism and envy, indeed, that was the first sin—the sin of Lucifer, even before the similar sin of Adam and Eve. I’d say that tale gives us the true, perfect profile of a terrorist.

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