Middle East Revisited: Terrorism

I write here of distortions in terrorist relationships to heritage and to self, not about their finding my country, the United States, to be a detriment to either. Stripped of these distortions, any disappointment in our involvement would not be constantly upstaging its own agenda.

There is something in the Middle East that literally comes with the terrain. Few visitors or residents were there before 1900, but everything about the place fills one with a sense of having been there from its beginnings. This must be overwhelming among the pious, who journey back daily through scripture and return with wisdom that avails itself only to those who transcend time.

The past is a great learning tool but when you put down your book or walk out of the theater, what you behold in its own magnificence is that present shared by all of us. I suggested in my earlier article that terrorists are involved in a great exodus that would leave behind lives of frustration and despair. What they really want to find, upon arrival at the gate to their promised land, may be an early Caliphate but is as likely to be themselves as Westerners about to enter accepted into Western society.

I came to this conclusion while wondering why terrorist self-immolators draw others into their sacrifice. Early in 1969 Jan Palach looked out upon a sea of dismay that was much like his own. The Czech people, who were as one in their joyful Prague Spring, had become each isolated in his (or her) own desolation. Jan immolated himself and only himself; by this he stood up to agony and became an indelible reminder of Czech togetherness.

A terrorist does not obliterate just himself but also the boundary separating himself from his “enemy.” Therein lies a more likely motive: one blows up with company to become one with a victim and somehow leave the scene with a “better life.” I was in Prague during that occupation. I doubt that many Warsaw-Pact soldiers wanted to be occupiers; certainly no Czechs that I came to know.

Consider that, on the night before their 9-11 flight, some terrorists visited a strip club. Was this faith that a blessing of total expiation would be bestowed for that act or were they merely preparing for a new life as “decadent” Americans? Their rage needed to be loud, because they had bought deeply into aspersions of Arab worth. Ending personal physicality is beyond comprehension; escaping a mark, though born only in the imagination, seems far more compelling.

For the world audience, a fascination lies in the subtle illusion that self-immolators are empowered over their mortality: “If only they did not disappear, they might tell us their secret.” However, for the terrorist leadership, there is no subtlety at all:

  • It promises that this sacrifice would ennoble Islam by virtue of a “courage” marked with the risk of life and limb, but somehow never of spirit. Singular courage is driven instead by will, directing us towards the well-being of ourselves or those we care about. Were the need fulfilled without risk, the deed’s inherent worth would be undiminished; but when confronted by an imperative to risk (including that of spirit), courage recognizes, accepts and acts so. The imperative to be more adequate to a dozen virgins waiting in paradise is about human frailty; that of preventing ones neighbors from taking hold of their own futures through democratic processes is about human domination.
  • It places the flower of Islam upon an altar—not to Allah–but to curiosity: that is it tests the waters of its own mortality with anothers toe. The sacrificial victim dies an instant before it all happens but leaves a parting impression of having seen it all; in fact, the only true witnesses are the blessed. Media accounts then spark this unbearable curiosity among those directing such action and those longing one day to be its centerpiece. Sadly the two meet, restarting the cycle.
  • Finally, by silencing the sacrifice’s witness, that leadership maintains network anonymity, avoiding a hurdle to recruiting other leaders.

That those thirsting for respect or some milk sweetened with honey do follow them pass a hundred oases towards a parched mirage indicates their years of practice at spinning little mirages.

What about terrorists in general?

  • Like all of us they seek respect, but are they able to distinguish that from its counterfeit? I think not, because the fear which they instill assures them of nothing but a well counterfeited—perhaps karmic—respect.
  • They also seek to be empowered over their own lives but destroying neither indicates nor precludes such power. Unfortunately, those confused about the matter refer outwardly to the United States as an evil, while inwardly considering her a prize.

Finally those who behead want the same loss of identity as do suicide bombers and the act may be just such a preparation. The French Revolution is history, and there are no Jacobites to defend themselves, but the self-deception of replacing one’s own head with that of an envied person has long come more easily than that of replacing the full Monty. Those hoods do guard anonymity but one that also welcomes the victims head to its new torso. Were the executioners being subliminally convinced that a total inversion would come with a suicide bombing? Have they long disappeared in some subsequent explosion?

Whatever, all too soon the victim’s misery, now cold, ceases to distract from a pervasive misery, and the head “upgrade” itself wears off. Rather than offering a simple rear exit, this theater of the macabre has an addictive quality that just keeps bowing and bowing. As for the torturer, he convinces many—including himself—that it is about pain and revenge; but it is merely a different search for a different exit.

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