Inside the Terrorist Mind

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

At City Journal is a fascinating piece by Theodore Dalrymple in which he reviews and comments upon the John Updike novel, Terrorist, as he explores how Islam and rejection of certain aspects of modernity combine to help motivate terrorism. The novel has major flaws, but it is an attempt to understand what it is that makes the terrorist click. I don't agree with all of what Dalrymple says, but I found the following especially thought-provoking.

[Joseph] Conrad[, in a similar novel, The secret Agent,] tells us that one of the sources of terrorism is laziness, or at least impatience, which is to say ambition unmatched by perseverance and tolerance of routine. Mr. Verloc, the secret agent, has a "dislike of all kinds of recognized labour," which, says Conrad, is "a temperamental defect which he shared with a large proportion of revolutionary reformers of a given social state. For" -- Conrad continues -- "obviously one does not revolt against the advantages and opportunities of that state, but against the price which must be paid in the same coin of accepted morality, self-restraint, and toil. The majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly."

Ahmad's refusal to go to college might be interpreted in this light: for the path to constructive achievement is long, hard, and unsure, strewn with tedium and the chance of failure, while the life of destruction is exciting, even in its most tedious moments, because of the providential role that the destructive revolutionist has awarded himself. Once the magic wand of revolutionary destructiveness has been waved, even dull routine becomes infused with significance and excitement.

[T]he mental laziness of Islamism, its desire that there should be to hand a ready-made solution to all the problems that mankind faces, one that is already known, and its unacknowledged fear that such a solution does not really exist, Updike captures well. When asked by his employer why he does not go for further education, Ahmad replies, "People have suggested it, sir, but I don't feel the need yet." Updike, as the omniscient narrator, adds: "More education, he feared, might weaken his faith. Doubts he held off in high school might become irresistible in college. The Straight Path was taking him in another, purer direction." The refusal of free inquiry derives from an awareness of the fragility of the basis of religious faith; and since certainty is psychologically preferable to truth, the former often being willfully mistaken for the latter, anything that threatens certainty is anathematized with fury.

Muslims are hardly the only ones, either in the past or the present, who experience difficulty in relinquishing their most cherished ideas and presuppositions. It is a normal human trait. (Darwin, in his Autobiography, tells us that when he came across a fact that threw some doubt upon the theory he was developing, he wrote it down, for otherwise he was sure to forget it.) But when a system of ideas and set beliefs claims eternal validity and infallibility, when people adopt that system as their primary source of identity, and when into the bargain those people find themselves in a position of long-standing and seemingly irreversible technical and economic inferiority and dependence vis-a-vis people with very different ideas and beliefs, resentment is certain to result. Not wishing to relinquish their cherished ideology -- their only possible source of collective pride and accomplishment -- they seek to explain the technical and economic superiority of others by different kinds of denigratory mental maneuvers. They may claim, for example, that the West has achieved its preeminence by illicit use of force and pillage, by exploiting and appropriating the oil of the Muslim lands, say.

The justice of a criticism does not depend upon the motive that lies behind it, of course. But the claim about the exploitation of oil is not merely self-serving; it is patently absurd. If anything, the direction of the exploitation has been precisely the opposite, for merely by virtue of their fortunate geographical location, and with scarcely any effort on their part, [and due to a massive and longstanding failure of Western governments to protect the private property of the oil companies --ed] the people of the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere have enjoyed a high standard of living thanks entirely to the ingenuity of those whom they accuse of exploitation and without whom the oil resource would not be an economic resource at all. [bold added]
This rejection of the coin of the realm -- but not what it buys -- reminds me of Stanton Samenow's seminal work, Inside the Criminal Mind, which I highly recommend. In particular, I am reminded of the following point in this excerpt.
Sociological explanations for crime, plausible as they may seem, are simplistic. If they were correct, we'd have far more criminals than we do. Criminals come from all kinds of families and neighborhoods. Most poor people are law-abiding, and most kids from divorced parents are not delinquents. Children may bear the scars of neglect and deprivation for life, but most do not become criminals. The environment does have some effect. For instance, it can provide greater or fewer opportunities for crime to occur--greater or lesser deterrence. But people perceive and react to similar conditions of life very differently. A family may reside in a neighborhood where gangs roam the streets and where drugs are as easy to come by as cigarettes. The father may have deserted and the mother may collect welfare. Yet not all the children in that family turn to crime. In suburbia, a family may be close emotionally and well off financially, but that is not enough to keep one of the youngsters from using drugs, stealing, and destroying property. In an area where firearms and drugs are readily available, most residents choose to use neither. The criminal seizes upon opportunities that others shun. More critical than the environment itself is how the individual chooses to respond to whatever the circumstances are.

We have seen other instances of when a major change in the environment suppresses crime or permits it to flourish even throughout an entire country. When totalitarian governments with their despots fall from power and are replaced by democratic regimes, the citizenry has more freedom. The responsible person has opportunity to develop his talents and pursue interests that he couldn't before. The person who is criminally inclined also has greater freedom and will pursue whatever interests him. This in part explains the surge in crime reported in countries that previously had oppressive governments. [I would add that criminals are actually deprived of one former outlet: They can no longer join the organized crime syndicate that was the repressive regime. --ed]

Criminals claim that they were rejected by parents, neighbors, schools, and employers, but rarely does a criminal say why he was rejected. Even as a young child, he was sneaky and defiant, and the older he grew, the more he lied to his parents, stole and destroyed their property, and threatened them. He made life at home unbearable as he turned even innocuous requests into a battleground. He conned his parents to get whatever he wanted, or else he wore them down through endless argument. It was the criminal who rejected his parents rather than vice versa.
Is it any wonder that a religion founded by a criminal, and which glorifies criminal activity, would become the engine for terrorism that it is? Islam glorifies and encourages criminal behavior on behalf of a deity whose demands for total obedience make him little more than an idealized crime boss. (Indeed, with its imposition of taxes on nonbelievers ("protetction money") and death sentence for apostates, it sounds much like the mafia to me.)

Dalrymple and others have noted that Islam is today filling the void left by the extinction of Communism as a "revolutionary" ideology. And what is this void? Islam gives criminals what they have never had: the moral sanction to do what they feel like doing anyway.

-- CAV

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