This is the full version of the article I wrote last month for the International New York Times on the nature of comteporary terror. (I cannot publish my INYT articles on Pandaemonium until a month after it is published in the newspaper.) It was originally published under the headline These Days of Rage.

On July 14, Bastille Day, in Nice, France, 85 people died after being mowed down on the promenade by a man driving a truck. Four days later, a 17-year-old man attacked passengers with an axe on a train near Würzburg, Germany. Four days after that, an 18-year-old man shot dead nine people in a Munich shopping mall. Two days later, a 27-year-old man blew himself up outside a music festival in Ansbach, in southern Germany. That same day, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee hacked a woman to death in Reutlingen, near Stuttgart, also in Germany. Two days later, two young men stormed a church in St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, in northern France, and slit a priest’s throat. A week later, one person was killed when a man with a knife went on the rampage in Central London.

Little wonder, perhaps, that an article in the German magazine Der Spiegel opened with the line ‘Has the world gone mad?’ In this age of psychopathic violence and political rage, the article concluded, ‘Many of us simply don’t understand the world anymore.’

It is not that Europe has suddenly become overwhelmed by terrorist attacks. The Global Terrorism Database shows that, in Western Europe, deaths from terrorism have actually decreased since the early 1990s. What has changed is the character of terrorism.

In the past, groups employing terror, such as the IRA or the PLO, were driven by specific political aims – a united Ireland or an independent Palestine. There was generally a close relationship between the organization’s political cause and its violent activities.

Jihadists are different. They have little or no explicit political aim but are driven by a visceral hatred of the West. Some commentators claim that an attack like the one in Nice is ‘blowback’ from Western foreign policy. It is difficult, though, to discern any rational relationship between Western policy in Iraq or Libya and the mowing down of revelers on a promenade. Of course, in the mind of the perpetrators, there is always a relationship – they are waging a righteous war against the West. But the West, in their minds, is not a set of specific nations responsible for specific acts, but an almost mythical, all-encompassing monster, the source of all manner of horror and dread. That is why a jihadist act is rarely linked to a political demand but is seen rather as an existential struggle to cut the monster down, a struggle in which almost any act becomes acceptable.

Whatever one thinks of the activities of groups like the IRA or the PLO, those activities were governed by certain norms and contained a rational kernel. It is the arbitrariness of jihadist violence, and its disregard for moral bounds, that make it terrifying.

What defines jihadi violence today is not righteous anger or political fury but a sense of inchoate, often personal, rage. Such rage is not uniquely Islamist. When a gunman went beserk in a Munich shopping mall in July, killing nine people, and injuring another 36, both the authorities and the media immediately assumed he was a ‘terrorist’. The revelation that the gunman was of Iranian origin strengthened the belief that this must be an Islamist attack. The killer, Ali David Sonboly might have been a terrorist, but he was no Islamist. He was an apparently mentally disturbed young man obsessed with mass shootings, and in particular with Anders Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi who killed 77 people in a murderous rampage through Oslo and Utøya in 2011. Being Iranian signified to Sonboly not Muslim but ‘Aryan’ heritage. He was supposedly proud of sharing his birthday with Adolf Hitler.

Sonboly is not unique in being a non-Islamist killer driven by rage. In June, a British Labour MP, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed to death in the Yorkshire town of Birstall while campaigning ahead of the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. When asked his name in court, the man accused of killing her, Thomas Mair, responded, ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.

A year earlier, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old American obsessed with white supremacist ideas, shot dead nine African-American worshipers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The same month as Sonboly gunned down nine people in Munich, Micah Xavier Johnson, an African-American Army veteran, fatally shot five police officers in Dallas, apparently in revenge for police shootings of black people.

pierre soulages

Neither the attack in London nor the one near Stuttgart was politically driven; both seem rather the actions of mentally disturbed individuals. Some people, however, refused to believe that they were not jihadi attacks, warning darkly of a conspiracy to hide the truth. This may be irrational, but it also reflects the shifting character of public violence.

In the past, the distinction between political violence and sociopathic rage was relatively clear. No longer. There seems today to be almost a continuum between ideological violence, disjointed fury and some degree of sociopathy or mental illness. Partly, this is because what constitutes ideological violence has so degenerated, and partly because rage has increasingly become a feature of public life.

One reason is the breakdown of social and moral boundaries that once acted as firewalls against such behavior. Western societies have, in recent years, become more socially atomized and more riven by identity politics. The influence of institutions that once helped socialize individuals and inculcate them with a sense of obligation to others, from the Church to trade unions, has declined.

As broader identities have eroded, and traditional social networks and sources of authority have weakened, people’s sense of belonging has become more parochial. Progressive movements that gave social grievance a political form have faded. New oppositional movements are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity and take sectarian or separatist forms. There is a growing disaffection from, and contempt for, anything considered ‘mainstream’, and a growing perception of the world as out of control and driven by malign forces. All this has helped incubate a sense of rage without an outlet, undermined people’s sense of obligation to others as human beings, and eroded the distinction between sociopathy and political violence.

It is a world in which, as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany observed, the ‘taboos of civilization’ are too easily broken. It is not so much the acts of violence themselves as the seeming fragility of our social and moral orders that makes contemporary terrorism so threatening.


The paintings are by Jordan Eagles and Pierre Soulages.


  1. I read an article on the BBC News website about the ‘Molenbeek gangster jihadists’. A Molenbeek resident of North African descent who is a trainer in the local boxing gym is worth quoting. He says:

    “Radicalisation doesn’t start with a religious ideal. The guys I know [who went to Syria] they have no ideology, they have no big ideas… They are going because they are leaving something. They are fed up with this society.”

    It is the case with the Paris – Brussels jihadi network that Islamic fundamentalism was adopted more as a flag of convenience. For these guys so-called ‘radicalization’ did not spring from deeply held religious conviction. They frequented nightclubs, drank beer and smoked joints. Whatever is the source of their alienation from society, the cause of their resentment and disaffection it does not spring from a ‘clash of civilisations’ or radical Islam. The source of their alienation is not external it is endemic to Western society.

    Furthermore it is hard to view these murderous acts as ‘political’ in any sense of the term. Political assassinations in the past carried out by organsied groups with a specific aim were at least understandable. They had a political context. There appears to be no context to today’s acts of terror. They are random and unpredictable and more often than not carried out by isolated individuals with mental health problems. There is no political objective beyond the act of terror itself. They are senseless acts motivated by blind hatred and fury. But this development must speak to a deeper malaise within society. Such violent outbursts are becoming more frequent. Why?

    Partly it is because we are witnessing a prolonged period of social breakdown. A gradual erosion of communal bonds and any sense of solidarity between people. Social isolation and anomie have filled the vacuum where society once stood. Our communities are fragmented and our political rhetoric is bitter and full of invective. Politics has become personalised, encapsulated by the phrase ‘The Personal is Political’. We view the world through the prism of identity. Random acts of violence by deeply alienated individuals are a consequence of this dehumanised politics. Their adoption of a ’cause’ whether ‘Britain First’ or radical Islam is superficial and a flag of convenience for a deeper, highly personalised rage against the world around them.

  2. People don’t merely feel threatened – they ARE threatened.

    In the West, by Capitalism, with its creative destruction, its war of all against all (with only the “fittest” surviving).

    In the Muslim world by modernity, to which Islam is struggling to adjust (and may not be able to).

    Cure: a post-Capitalist West, where people (not money or innovation) count.

    This should also make the Muslim world feel happier.

  3. Personally I see the malaise of society being attributed to the deepening nihilism of liberalism. As a force for social change whether socially or economically, it has served its purpose of disconnecting with traditional forms of socialising institutions that were based on hard hierachical structures. The purpose of liberalism in this respect was to generate equality but as conservative critics suggest, the equalising tendencies of liberalism, aided and abetted by a consented state, has created a profound degree of moral relativism which society is expected to tolerate and respect.

    A moral field without limits will undoubtedly result in extremes especially when the state itself is similarly guided by a tolerance of diverse moral attitudes. This is the basis of The Culture War that is now raging between liberals and conservatives, a dynamic which can be further delinated along a continuum of progressives, moderates and traditionalists, and is trying, in my view, to make some sense of a post-modern world in which just about every moral perspective can be challenged by an oppositional view. As such we are literally caught in a world of dualities in which even the most hard-headed of us can be lead to into almost schizophrenic contradictions.

    Being a person that likes to overtly simplify life, I simply see the conundrum (or the paradox of diverse moralities) being one about balance between unity and diversity. At the moment we are in an imbalanced state towards diversity but are yet to develop a consensus around unity now that liberalism has effectively destroyed any meaningful connection with traditional unifying institutions.

    With this in mind, my latest attempt to create a sense of unity that could be shared by all went as follows :-

    In what way or on what basis are humans equal?

    Humans are equally LIFE’s Creation.
    Humans equally exist within LIFE’s Creation.
    Humans equally experience LIFE’s Creation.
    Humans equally have basic needs in order to survive within LIFE’s Creation.

    In theory, humans equally have the right to have their basic needs fulfilled. However in practice this is not the case due to resource scarcity and available resources therefore in practice humans unequally have the right to have their basic needs filfilled.

    In this respect, a needs-based system seems to be the only truly unifying feature of society that has any practical value which in itself can be underpinned by an unifying spirituality. If communities are driven foremost by a needs-based (as opposed to a rights-based) approach then I like to imagine that people will not only consider their right to self-preservation but also consider their duty to other-preservation.

  4. What if the “need” is to dominate and control others? I don’t see your system as answering some of our most profound issues….including the dominance of much of the world by sociopaths.

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