The bombings in London two weeks ago and again yesterday are a reminder that no nation is an island of homogeneity.
Western Europe and America are layered with waves of immigrants, but xenophobia is nonetheless commonplace. As minority groups reach a “critical number” they become targets of animosity and even persecution, and at times when societies see themselves “under siege” xenophobia is exacerbated by fear. Right now, with our liberal democratic European and American societies experiencing threats from terrorism on a daily basis, both majority and immigrant communities have a “siege mentality.”
In the case of young Muslims, this is a time when their adopted nationality is at war with their religious identity and they themselves are both under siege and wracked by inner conflict. At times like these, extremist recruiters mobilize frightened people.
This mindset, sometimes called “the politicization of fear,” makes everyone susceptible to the rantings of ideologues. Sometimes this is referred to as the Reichstag Fire state of mind after the event in Berlin in 1933 that brought the Nazi Party to power. In a Germany economically wasted and living in fear of a Communist takeover, Hitler offered the aging President a plausible alternative to the fractionated Weimar government.
Evil becomes commonplace
Hannah Arendt wrote about “the banality of evil.” She focused on Adolph Eichman who was on trial as the Nazi executor of the genocide of Europe’s Jews. In the course of the trial, he was increasingly revealed as the quintessential ordinary bureaucrat and logistician. All the while he was describing the ordinariness of the most incredible evil. Similarly, when Chilean torturers describe their behaviors during the Pinochet era, they normalize the abnormal by rationalizing their behavior. Evil remains banal. The process of evil is the commonplace of extreme acts.
What’s surprising is that those who kill themselves in order to achieve martyrdom or communicate their unstoppable power by murdering large numbers of people they identify as unworthy are otherwise normal people.
Who are these men and women? Generally, they are in late adolescence or early adulthood. Their development of moral judgment or political efficacy has stopped at the stage of “vendetta” where they are interested in retributive justice -- this is a level of development at which hurt or perceived injustice is the sufficient for striking back. This is the underlying dynamic that creates gangs in some places and intercommunal intergenerational violence in others.
People who grow up in a violent society are often stunted at that level. Furthermore, they are angry and feel no guilt about their angry behaviors although, unlike sociopaths, they feel guilt about other kinds of behavior—usually sexual behaviors. They are people who have little anxiety. They have a high level of curiosity. They relish novel experiences. This is a choice behavior made by those who have a limited perspective of their alternatives. But it’s a choice made young people growing up in a mental state of siege.
Interestingly, their level of education is not especially relevant. Usually individuals who carry out suicide / homicide have technical educations not in the humanities or social sciences. They are not interested in how others think or behave. They are prime candidates for the “conversion experience” if they’ve become fatalistic and feel helpless to make change in any other way. If they’ve already experienced the high of religious conversion they feel altruistic about heir community of identity. They want to make this sacrifice of themselves for the advantage of their group.
Their choice isn’t a new one. Terrorism became the primary tool of anarchists and nihilists in the late nineteenth century. But martyrdom homicides go back historically to at least the time of the ancient Zealots of Judea.
Two millennia of martyrdom
The idea of martyrdom never had a name in Hebrew or Aramaic. Instead it derives from the Greek, mytros or witness. The early Christians, who were tortured to death for their witnessing for Christ, became the martyrs memorialized on icons. These iconic images proved a powerful attraction both for group memory and for exciting new adherents or followers.
Islam adopted the martyrdom image despite he fact that they eschewed graven images of human beings. But the grandson of Mohammed who stated that it is better to die in dignity than to live in humiliation became the iconic figure for Shia Islam. Those who die on the path to Allah become martyrs in Islam. Similarly, Pope Urban II recruiting for the Crusades promised that all who died in the reclamation of the Holy Land from the infidels would be forgiven all venal sins and ascend immediately to Heaven (paradise).There is historical precedent on all sides.
Twenty one hundred years after the first age of martyrdom, we find ourselves living in the age of trauma, torture and terrorism. In the twenty-first century, these fused into the phenomenon that secularists had consigned to a pre-modern age-martyrdom. This concept, essentially religious, changed from religious to secular or nationalist martyrdom at the time of the French Revolution when the divine sovereignty of the king was replaced by , “our Lord mankind.”
From religion to country
Nationalist ideas blended with religious, and the connection of maryrdom with terrorism merged fully during the Civil War in Lebanon in the 1980’s. Suicide bombings of the American Embassy in Beirut and the Marine Corps barracks on the perimeter of that city and the relentless suicide bombings of the Israeli forces and their Lebanese allies, the SLA in southern Lebanon were claimed by their perpetrators as the most successful weapon of mass destruction and least costly to produce.
Suicide/homicide terrorism is nearly impossible to defeat. There is no way to threaten a penalty of death by law or death by war to those whose actions intend their own death along with the murder of innocents. Fighting this kind of terrorization too often provokes the diminution of the very democratic values and institutions most valued by the target society. In fact, the repression, oppression and severe penalties proposed for the purpose of extricating the terrorists from the larger society result in more fragmentation of the larger society even as they make minority groups marginalized. Like racial profiling, it becomes a tool for recruiting more disaffected young people into the ranks of the terrorists.
In fact, one of the most effective recruiting images for perpetrators of bombings in London subways and Madrid trains were the images of torture of prisoners in Abu Gharib and Guantanamo. These images became the icons that gave a rationalization of the irrational. It is not an issue of rationalizing evil or sympathizing with terror that makes these images and events so significantly charged. It is because they provide for the individual who is feeling hopeless and deprived visible victimization with which they can identify and for which they feel honor bound to take vengeance.
Rona M. Fields, Ph.D, is a psychologist and sociologist. She has researched and written on terrorism, torture and terrorists from Northern Ireland to Southeast Asia during the past 40 years. Her most recent book is, Martyrdom; The Psychology, Theology and Politics of Self Sacrifice, published by Greenwood/Praeger.