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.
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.