What makes a terrorist?

Jul 5, 2007 2:39pm

I’ve just returned from London, where I was covering what some people are calling "the doctors’ plot"–the botched terror attacks last week on London’s West End and Glasgow’s airport. Investigators say the perpetrators were doctors, medical students and other health-care professionals, and among the many worrying concerns such a plot raises, there is a broader question sparked by the diabolical imaginative leap of turning doctors into bombs: What makes a terrorist?

It is a fact of our times that every once in a not-so-long while you will pick up your morning paper, or log on, or tune in to your morning show and discover some atrocity somewhere in the world–young people torn to shreds at a nightclub, a plane blown out of the sky, commuters incinerated in a subway–all done in the name of a viciously distorted understanding of Islam. Most people’s first thought on hearing of such bloodthirsty mayhem will be, "Muslim terrorists again." And while that reaction will be wrong on occasion (remember Oklahoma City), and while you may find that it verges on bigotry, you simply cannot deny that most of the time it is an empirical fact of our age that the hunch will be spot-on correct. It will be "Muslim terrorists again."

Why? That’s a critical strategic question in the struggle against a barbarism that threatens to define our lives. It’s also a very complicated question, but let’s focus on one thing that is almost certainly not driving Islamist terrorism and one thing that is.

It’s not poverty. Poor people in Muslim societies are not more likely to become terrorists. They are not more vulnerable to the stew of theology, resentment, and fanaticism that forms the mentality of Islamist terror. In fact, the opposite is true–but you wouldn’t know this from listening to many politicians and activists.

As David Wessel points out in The Wall Street Journal today(subscription required), President Bush and others are given to fatuous utterances like, "We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror." So, if we write a big enough check to fight Third World poverty, we’ll defeat terrorism? This is a self-regarding, morally vain and dangerous notion. In most of the world’s fifty poorest countries, there is little or no terrorism. It is simply an insult to say that a poor young man in Haiti is a potential terrorist simply because he’s poor. As people have demonstrated throughout human history, poverty is not a moral handicap.

Islamist terrorists and their supporters are shown by study after study to be better-off, better-educated, and have better opportunities than most others in their societies. Perhaps the most chilling findings come from the work of forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman, who studied 400 Al Qaeda members and found that "the vast majority–90 percent–came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways." So Al Qaeda and other violent jihadist movements are not best understood in the Marxian discourse of class struggle. The question isn’t money. It’s identity.

To be a modern person is to be an insecure person. By that I mean insecure in one’s identity in relation to others. Rootlessness, anonymity, transience–these are the conditions that make many of us who we are in the modern world. And that in turn makes the construction of our identities–our personalities–an active endeavor, a matter of choice and struggle and reflection. This is the condition of a free mind in a free world–liberated, but in a fundamental sense, alone as our forebears were not.

Because for most of human history, the question "Who am I in this society?" was simply unimaginable. Family, ancestors, clan, tribal networks, geography, faith and ties to the land made one’s identity a given–a fact defined extrinsically by seemingly immutable social forces. There is great comfort in this; we are social creatures, and a deep, dense social network can provide a rich sense of identity. But it is a truth of our time that as the world moves rapidly from the country to the city (more than half the human population now lives in cities–a staggering social change in our species), fewer and fewer people will live amid the old certainties, and more and more will experience the dizzying possibilities of life as an individual set adrift in the human sea of the great city.

And they will be insecure in who they are. Not all, perhaps–the poor are insulated, to an extent, by the sheer magnitude of their physical struggle to survive, by their continued reliance on each other and on an older faith that focuses its promises on the next world, and by their isolation. But take a few steps up the social ladder in an immigrant community, or in the sprawling new cities in the Muslim world, and it’s a different story. Doctors, engineers, architects and other professionals are in the vanguard of the movement into modernity. They are immersed in a world of transnational practices, standards, collegial networks and ethics that can be corrosive of their old allegiances. They can get lost, especially if they have migrated to the west, with all of our societies’ temptations, blasphemies, materialism and skepticism.

So they go home. Not literally–no, they return to a country of the mind, an Islamist fantasyland of certainty, dignity and power. In that world, they know who they are. And they know who we are–infidels whose life of freedom and radical individuality and anonymity confused them for a time, threatened them with annihilation. They will not be annihilated. They have decided they will annihilate us.

The question of identity does not by a long shot explain what makes a terrorist. There’s the issue of why British and European Muslims seem more vulnerable to the terrorist worldview than American Muslims do; I’ll take that up in my next post. There’s also the question of theology–is there something in Islam itself that has been activated by the pressures of modernity? Perhaps. But for now, I think it’s important, as we try to understand things like the "doctors’ plot," to refocus our attention from poverty and explore instead the psychological experience–the inner lives–of those who are so determined to kill us. That way lies victory.

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