Each time it happens, which is now occurs more regularly than ever, our jaws drop in shock and horror.
Again, they have attacked us in the West. They have targeted our music and sports arenas, our bars and discotheques, our Christmas work parties, our towering centers of trade, our naval vessels and our very own Department of Defense. Islamic extremists have gone after who we are as human beings, our very essence and identity. Their goal is to enact sharia law in our courts and establish mosques on the ruins of our churches. Our children will be taught Arabic and learn the Qur’an, while our women will not be able to stride ‘free’ in their bikinis and mini-skirts (for the male gaze) but rather be imprisoned in their hijab, niqab and burka. Our whole way of life is under existential threat…
Such are some of the thoughts that run through a great many of Americans’ minds after such attacks.
Each time our jaw drops upon hearing of another terrorist attack on Western civilians, two things are amplified in the limbic system of our brains: fear and repugnance, along with empathy for the victims. Trepidation rises because we believe that this could happen to us at any moment that we go out into public life. Repugnance amplifies towards the Islamic extremists involved in the terror attack. Both of these basic emotions exponentially multiple in strength and solidify at a crescendo after watching repetitive media coverage of the terrorist attacks, talking heads on news programs or websites espousing their fear-driven repugnance towards both Islam and Islamic extremism and politicians condemning their attacks, postulating their myopic theories on terrorism and counter terror policies. These psychical elements coalesce into one malevolent maelstrom that has led us into continuous Groundhog Days since the Twin Towers fell – we are living the same dream over and over and much like an amnesiac patient, we don’t try to understand the causes of Islamic terrorism but have perpetually offered the same knee-jerk security responses and continued the same kind of War on Terror foreign policy, which primarily focuses on the Middle East.
Those seeking to understand terrorism are deemed weak-minded at best and terrorist-sympathizing traitors at worst. Yet if policymakers have no understanding of terrorism, as it seems more than abundantly clear, then no adequate solution to the terrorist problem currently facing Western countries, among others, can be reached. In short, the amygdale of our brain is activated with fear and repugnance and we respond before any rationality of the frontal lobe becomes involved. Resultant of our reflexive response, which is often increased bombings overseas and further marginalizing of Muslims in the West, terrorism strikes yet again and Bill Murray’s cycle reoccurs over and over.
But we must remember that terrorism is merely a framing that we have towards political violence that impacts us. From seemingly out of the blue, violence is flailed upon us, apparently without reason. To brusquely feel as though we comprehend it and to protect our self-perceived innocence, we call it ‘terrorism’. But if one were in Yemen facing Saudi Arabian bombing of civilians, it would be difficult not to conceive of these hostile actions as other than Saudi Arabian and US-backed terrorism. It would also be difficult, during the 2014 Gaza War, in which Israeli forces killed an overwhelming number of civilians, not to conceive this as Israeli and US-backed terrorism. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein and dismantling the infrastructure of Iraq would similarly be difficult not to view as terrorism by an Iraqi. Imagine if you were a civil servant or bus driver in Baghdad and a foreign army rolls in, overthrows your leader, defeats your country’s army and claims to want to establish a liberal democracy. It would be very difficult not to see this as some sort of illegal war crime, or state-terrorist action. What right does this great power have to oust one country’s government and subjugate a foreign populace? From this more neutral vantage point of terrorism as unjustified political violence wrought on civilians, we can begin to realize that Islamic terrorism against us does not arise from the clear blue yonder of nowhere.
While this kind of thinking may be condemned as moral relativism, it is hard to live in a vacuum with only so-called universal moral truths, which rests upon the tribal, collective psychology of villainizing one’s enemy. Though the villainizing one’s enemy may be universal, the dubious morality associated with it is certainly not, nor is it based on objective facts.
If one seeks absolute moral truths, then they need look no further than Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative that views all humans as ends unto themselves. Under this moral rubric, both the state violence, or terrorism, on other peoples that is not a direct act of defense or used to end heavily documented, gargantuan war crimes or genocide is wrong – for it does not treat the people within the enemy state, nor the state as a whole, as ends to themselves. Kant’s categorical imperative views state terrorism, as well as Islamic terrorism and domestic right-wing terrorism, as unassailably in the wrong.
Going back to the perception of state terrorism in the post-9/11 Muslim Arab world of the Middle East – there is a sense that Islam and Muslims are under attack. Inevitably, an attack – by definition – will tend not result in the contentment or gratefulness of the victims. Anger boils, ‘radicalism’ burgeons and the Western powers, and those seen as strong domestic and international supporters of Western powers, like the governments in Baghdad and Kabul, are hit with perpetual acts of terrorism.
Compounded with the sense that the Muslim world in the Middle East is under attack by the West, which is largely factual, is the marginalization and demonization of Muslims in the U.S. and Europe; in Europe, Muslims are particularly socially isolated. The first-generation Muslim immigrant tends to go to Europe or the U.S. to work hard, as immigrants generally do in order to survive in a new world. In their new countries, immigrants often try to assimilate as much as they can into the local society, without losing their national, cultural and religious identity. Meanwhile, most second-generation children feel socially divided, especially when their somatic features do not allow them to seamlessly blend into the countries in which they are born. In classrooms, they are more likely to be bullied and less likely to be asked to play with other children – this feeling swells and continues throughout adulthood. Yet they also feel a broken bond with their parents’ culture, religion and national identity. This sense of being lost between two cultures, while usually manifesting in a kind of contained social, cultural, national and religious ambivalence that is noticeable only to friends and family members, in rare instances, may develop into fundamentalism.
Stripped of one’s parents’ native religion and culture, and not quite integrated into the culture that they were born into, ideology saves them. An imagined pure form of Islam, often resembling extremist elements of Wahhabi ideology, may start to flourish within a small number of these second-generation immigrants. Admixing the sense that Muslims are under attack in the Middle East by Western powers with the social isolation felt throughout one’s life, in these rare occasions, can lead to the development of the Western-born Islamic terrorist. Widespread Islamophobic sentiments among the public, media and politicians, along with crimes against Muslims in the West, further improves the soil fertility for Islamic terrorism to germinate.
It helps little that the mass media highlights stories of terrorism against Western civilians while minimally, if at all, covering stories of crimes against Muslims in Western countries. Nor does the media often cover US or US-backed attacks in the Middle East, apart from all-out invasions, the overthrowing of Middle Eastern leaders or Trump’s dropping of a MOAB. We hear little of our daily interventions in Syria, Iraq and Libya, nor of former President Barack Obama’s innumerable drone attacks.
Thus, the average media viewer tends to believe that Islamic terrorism emerges out from a vacuum, often because of the religion’s putative ‘innate extremism’. Within the context of this complete comprehension void, enhanced by the media and politicians, it is not so outlandish that people hold the mythical concept that Muslims want to create sharia law in the West and fight ‘us’ because of our values and freedoms.
Unfortunately, this ignorance will not yield us bliss. Instead, it will keep powerful Western countries ensnared in the Groundhog Day of fear and repugnance, replete with perpetual state terrorism-giving and Islamic terrorism-receiving.
Peter Crowley is an independent writer and scholar with a M.S. in Conflict Resolution, Global Studies from Northeastern University. He works as Content Specialist/Production Coordinator for a prominent library science company. For fun, he plays in bluesy rock band around the Boston/NYC area.