We are having an outbreak of reports in the Canadian press about “home grown” terrorists, “radicalized” young men of Muslim faith traveling out of the country to participate in extremist groups abroad, a relatively insignificant phenomenon which has received inordinate publicity. In any event, if you give the matter some thought, you realize that this “news” is a kind of empty publicity, noise about something as old and familiar as human life itself, although it has been bestowed with a new name intended to frighten us into supporting measures outside the framework of a society of laws.
The truth is that young men, at least a certain portion of them, have always traveled abroad to join causes and wars. It’s about as ordinary a phenomenon as playing team sports or joining clubs. In many cases, we end up praising them for their bravery and idealism, as was certainly the case with the many thousands of Europeans, Americans, and Canadians who traveled to Spain in the 1930s to volunteer in the civil war against General Franco. In other cases, we condemn and imprison them and sometimes even execute them as part of the losing side, as America has been doing in its rampage through the Middle East.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the emergence of new, independent nations from the British Empire drew thousands of young men to Africa to fight as mercenaries or volunteers. Apartheid South Africa used to run classified ads in newspapers abroad to attract young men in its battle against the African National Congress. Young Jewish men in the past went to Israel to join the IDF out of some sense of brotherhood, and they do so still. The French Foreign Legion gained almost mythical status as a place for young men to leave things behind, embracing an undefined sense of purpose and brotherhood. Young European adventurers, often young noblemen with hopes of gaining glory, sailed across the Atlantic in the 1770s to volunteer in the American colonies’ revolt against the British Empire, far more of them than Washington’s meagre army could use.
Magnetic leaders like Napoleon or Castro or Nasser attracted countless volunteers from abroad in their heyday. Our history books don’t dwell on the fact but large numbers of young men from many countries volunteered for Hitler’s invading legions. The phenomenon does not depend on the high or noble nature of the cause, although the luster and publicity around grand causes undoubtedly attracts a still wider range of young men.
Young men often just want to escape from every-day, humdrum life, a boring marriage, a nothing job, or, as in the case of the Foreign Legion, to leave a criminal or failed past behind in hopes of high adventure, a new identity, and a fresh start in life. The genuine nature of a cause often matters little because young men’s fantasies convert grubby deeds into mythic stuff at least for a time. Young men in the Foreign Legion were actually fighting for a brutal imperialism in North Africa. Volunteers to the IDF only assist in the oppression of an abused people, not in the protection of the Jewish people. Those who joined Napoleon thought they were spreading liberté, égalité et fraternité across a mummified old-order Europe, but they were helping one of history’s great bloody soldier-conquerors glorify himself and do what it was he lusted after doing.
Mental illness also intrudes into terrorist matters, all things unusual or different being grist for the big dumb mill of the press. In Canada, during the wave of empty chatter about “home-grown terrorists,” there were two isolated incidents of murder in different parts of the country, one of a policeman and one of a reservist in the military. Immediately the press began a completely uninformative and patience-exhausting round of speculation about the dark nature of the perpetrators, complete with interviews of various self-proclaimed “terrorism experts,” men, as it generally turns out, who run security firms and are out drumming up business. In both cases, we finally learned through the fog of misinformation generated by the press, that the young dead men were deeply mentally disturbed, their acts having no more political significance than the crazed men set on suicide who first kill their wives or children or the boys who periodically show up heavily armed at school, shooting their way through classmates.
And of course, it is almost invariably males who do these things, our prisons containing about ten men for every woman. The violence we see in professional football, hockey, or boxing being almost an exclusive male domain. Woman rarely commit murder, males being responsible for almost all of it, with young males being responsible for an extraordinarily disproportionate share.
Aside from the psychotic and deeply depressed, there is a certain segment of young men in every society who are simply attracted to opportunities for legal killing, rape, and mayhem – this being the truly ugly side of every war and conflict that we never mention in our sentimental world-war memorial services or high school textbooks. These men are variously termed sociopaths or psychopaths, and they appear to exist naturally in some proportion in any population. They enjoy killing, inflicting pain, and the sense of supreme power over the lives of others, and they are incapable of sympathy for their victims or remorse for their acts. They only fear being caught, and war provides a wonderful legal playground for them.
The bloodiest, most brutal and pointless war of the last half century, America’s grotesque slaughter in Vietnam, attracted thousands of volunteers from other countries to join in the gruesome fun – acts which included everything from raping girls and then shooting them to throwing men out of helicopters. Even then-peaceful Canada, whose prime minister, Lester Pearson, bravely turned down Lyndon Johnson’s bullying demands to send troops (charmer that Johnson was, he is said to have grabbed our Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader by the lapels during a meeting and pushed him against a wall), saw hundreds of adventure-seeking young men, on their own, join the American holocaust, which would see three million horribly slaughtered, countless wounded, and an ancient agricultural land overwhelmed with America’s landmines, cluster bombs, and poisons.
Today we call people terrorists as easily as we more accurately might have called them reckless or mad. The word terrorist has been given an almost frightening, superstitious connotation much resembling the word witch in the seventeenth century when any poor old soul who suffered from a mental illness like schizophrenia might be burnt alive for her mumblings and delusions. Today, the same people we once burnt would be sent to a homeless shelter or a psychiatric hospital. Another aspect of the word terrorist is related to what Stalin used to say when he expected his officials to launch a new purge to keep the country terrorized into submission. The Vozhd would say something about “wreckers” or “wreckers of the revolution” and his minions would busy themselves demonstrating alacrity in finding large numbers to consign to prison or death. All of our press and government spokespeople now use terrorist with those two meanings, and to the extent that they do, we should recognize the foolishness of their speech and its danger to a free society.
Of course, anyone who commits violent crime needs dealing with, and we do have laws covering every form of violent crime and what is judged the degree of culpability. But creating a special class or type of crime, somehow understood to be different in nature from other crimes, and thereby requiring extraordinary measures of espionage and policing and imprisonment and standards of evidence, is a shabby, dishonest, and cowardly political act. It is a political act in exactly the sense best explained by George Orwell.
The template for this kind of state activity comes directly from Israel. It long ago succeeded in changing the outside perception of events since 1948 from that of a relatively powerless people having their homes and lands taken with great brutality. Everyone knows instinctively that people treated in that fashion have every right in international law and custom to fight their oppressors. We call them at various times and circumstances freedom fighters, guerillas, resistance fighters, or irregulars. But in this case, they were transformed into terrorists who seek only to destroy law-abiding, democratic Israel – unspeakably evil beings intent on attacking the imported Ozzie-and-Harriet peacefulness of white-picket fence neighborhoods constructed on other people’s property. It truly is a case of the world turned on its head.
It does make things so much easier when you shoot someone or bulldoze their home or send them to prison indefinitely with no trial and subject to torture, if you first have demonized them, much as in the case of witches or wreckers, with terrorist being this generation’s choice demonizing word. And when Israel kills some people whose identity as “terrorists” might be seen as very doubtful, the victims magically become militants, a Newspeak word which strives to make the killing of anyone from boys to grandfathers palatable, our shabby press in the West having adopted the word in its reportage without so much as blinking an eye, much less asking a question. This has been Israel’s day-in, day-out pattern of government for decades, but now it has managed to export to the United States the same pattern of behavior. The United States, after all, is a nation given to Captain Ahab-like obsessions, as it has demonstrated many times in its history, Muslims now having displaced the Communists it pursued with relentless fury for decades at home and abroad. And when the United States embraces a new obsession, its dependants in Europe, Canada, Australia, and other places are bullied into embracing it too. America has many avenues for pressuring the acceptance and recognition of its latest craze or special interest or dark operation and to quiet the criticism which would naturally flow from those who disagree and think for themselves.
Were America not enthralled with this voodoo about terror, Europe and others would quickly fall away, and Israel’s ugly behavior would be left in a glaring spotlight, much as South Africa’s once was.
It is the force of these considerations in part which leads so many to question the true nature of what happened on 9/11, for that set of events was pivotal in having American public opinion embrace extraordinary, anti-democratic, and anti-human rights measures. I do not subscribe to the (not-uncommon) conspiracy notion that the American government was complicit in 9/11, using it as a kind of Nazi Reichstag Fire to ignite the mindless war on terror and a crusade through the Middle East to overturn governments unfriendly to Israel. I do very much believe though that the full story of that event has never been told, and, as always, that can only mean highly embarrassing or compromising facts are being suppressed. The immense body of confidential information in Washington on all matters of state – literally tens of billions of documents – would largely disappear if it weren’t for considerations of embarrassment and compromise, the need for genuine government secrecy being much rarer than many assume.
A free society does not recognize crimes deemed in some way to be different or more heinous or extraordinary: it maintains and enforces sensible, well-reasoned laws which apply equally to all. It does not create criminal laws which reflect political pressure or special interests. The United States, now on a new hunt for a great white whale, has virtually re-created East Germany’s dreaded Stasi, only in a much more sophisticated and far-reaching form. It meshes with the all-pervasive secret state police apparatus Israel has constructed in the Middle East with infinite care since 1948. Now, over all our lives there is something, not answerable to any electorate, working to dissimulate, to intimidate, and to generate fear as nothing of which the Soviet Union was remotely capable. It influences all of our laws and customs, even attempting to shape the way we speak and think.
John Chuckman is a writer living in Canada.