THE point about the terrorist archetype is that there is no terrorist archetype. In his recent article in these pages (Sept 10), Amir Rana pointed out that extremist tendencies are common in all segments of society, irrespective of socioeconomic or educational backgrounds.
Now, pundits, bureaucrats and media commentators offer multiple explanations for the waves of terrorism in which we are embroiled. There is an assumption that there are political objectives, or ‘causes’, involved. These violent killers are the products of poverty, of brainwashing, of fanatical religiosity, of the desire to go to heaven, of hatred for the American presence in Afghanistan, of the injustices done to ‘the Muslim world’. And so on and so forth. And, therefore, if only this … or that … or the other … is done, all the violence will end.
For those grasping at such conceptual straws, it is necessary to suggest that, even if everything were to be happily resolved, from Palestine to Kashmir, and all grievances, real or imagined, removed so that utopias of prosperity are ushered in, these butchers would still find reason to continue plying their gruesome trade. At bottom, these orgies of violence have little to do with ‘causes’.
Then, is terrorism a psychological issue? We feel that cold-blooded mass killers like these must be psychopaths or at least lonely, disturbed outcasts from society. Not so, writes Dr Jeff Victoroff, in his definitive study of Middle Eastern terrorists, The Mind of the Terrorist: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches. While there is a smattering of dangerous nutcases, most terrorists are clinically sane and often reasonably well adjusted in their community, social, or religious circles.
A bizarre kind of inverse egoism drives the terrorist.
Thus, these common hypotheses simply bite the dust. Clearly, the challenge of extremist terrorism is more complex and deep rooted than is understood by policymakers.
It is a matter of thought processes. A bizarre kind of inverse egoism drives the terrorist. In 365 BC, in the city of Ephesus (in present-day Turkey), a man called Erostratus became tired of his own obscurity. He decided that, if he burned down the sacred temple to the goddess of the city, he would achieve his moment of fame. The howls of horror of the people at this unspeakable act and their palpable fear of the anger of their gods, were his ‘rewards’. We have his successors today in those that attack places of worship and blow up the shrines of saints for whatever kind of thrilling frisson of excitement such a daring deed gives them. Or those that kill children. Or blow up marketplaces. Or attack cricket teams. Like Erostratus, the modern terrorist is driven by the desire to achieve an enormous degree of notoriety — posthumously or otherwise — through the perpetration of acts of violence. The fact that the act of destruction is performed in cold blood, without any personal motive of acquisition or revenge, upon anonymous victims against whom he may harbour no personal rancour, adds to the ‘sweetness’ of the deed. The perpetrator has struck his victims with the impersonality of a force of nature, descending upon them as a cyclone or tsunami might have. And, this being the age of the media, everyone will hear about it, and, hearing, tremble.
The Algerian-born philosopher Albert Camus understood the mindset well. In his work The Rebel, he suggests that the seed exists in all of us. As I’ve written elsewhere, Camus characterises such rebels as nihilists, ideational twins of Herzen, Pisarev and the Russian nihilists of the 19th century, whose literary archetype was the character of the young Yevgeny Bazarov in Ivan Turgenev’s extraordinary novel Fathers and Sons. Camus quotes Count Bakunin’s words, “The passion for destruction is a creative passion.” For Bakunin and his comrades, the violent bloodshed of the trans-Europe upheavals of 1848 was “a feast without beginning and without end”.
Camus saw that this kind of self-actualisation through violence paradoxically carries self-destruction, a suicidal drive, on the other side of its coin. Adolf Hitler, he saw as the ultimate nihilist, whose “insensate passion for nothingness … ended by turning against itself.”
Therefore, if we accept Camus’ frightening postulate, the seed of nihilism exists in all of us. It needs only to be nurtured, given a ‘cause’ as some kind of spurious justification, and provided with the resources and means to kill. The establishment that ran this country chose to do precisely that, remoulding ordinary people into human death-machines and mobilising them for intervention in the Afghanistan situation in 1979 and again in 1996.
Finally, let us understand that it is not enough to fight set-piece battles in the mountains. The zombies in our cities and villages must be disarmed and deprogrammed and their destroyed humanity restored. Or else they must be eliminated. Regrettably, this may prove to be an unendingly prolonged process.
The author is a columnist, an author, and a poet.
Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2017