Terrorists: nihilists and/or mass murderers?
Christopher Hitchens, in a fine article in Slate entitled "Why Ask Why?", tries once again to tell the left that it's futile to imagine that terrorists such as the Bali bombers are rational actors responding to policies of the West:
The return of murderous nihilism to Bali is highly instructive. It shows, first, that the fanatics of Islamism don't know how to stop. And it also shows that they never learn. How can Jemaah Islamiyah, which almost ruined Indonesia's economy by its filthy attack three years ago, possibly have tried to repeat the same crime in the same place?
Hitchens goes on to demolish the left's policy-based explanations/excuses for terrorism, and explains the motive for JI's attacks instead as Islamicist fundamentalist anger. Anger at the relatively freer form of Islam practiced in Indonesia, hatred of the mostly Hindu population of Bali, and anger at the Australians for trying to help the Christian population of East Timor (originally a leftist cause, by the way). In other words, their "rational" motive is that this is an Islamicist religious fundamentalist war.
Hitchens uses the word "nihilism," (one I've used before, too) in connection with the terrorists. But I discovered when I looked it up that we are both using it somewhat incorrectly, at least in the historic sense of the word. Nihilism:
...rejected all religious and political authority, social traditions, and traditional morality as standing in opposition to freedom, the ultimate ideal. In this sense, it can be seen as an extreme form of anarchism. The state thus became the enemy, and the enemy was ferociously attacked. After gaining much momentum in Russia, the movement degenerated into what were essentially terrorist cells, barren of any real unifying philosophy beyond the call for destruction.
One can easily see that the first part of the definition doesn't fit Islamicist terrorists such as Jemaah Islamiyah; au contraire! Islamicist terrorists are for instituting more authority and less freedom--in fact, they'd like to maximize the former and abolish the latter. It is, however, the last part of the definition of nihilism that fits them like a glove: a love affair with destructiveness. And it is in this sense that both Hitchens and I use the term.
Hitchens is correct in locating the JI's policy motivations as being the establishment of a rigid theocracy, but one could have that goal and nevertheless shy away from blowing people up in restaurants and bars. To be a terrorist, these political and theocratic goals must be combined with a drive that is in the realm of the psychological rather than the political, and is actually more connected to the motives of the serial killer and mass murderer than the politician or even the true "insurgent."
Serial killers and mass murderers are not rational actors. They feel compelled to do what they do. Here is a description of their makeup and motives. Read it with terrorists in mind and see how well much of it seems to fit:
Mass Murderers are typically quite ordinary. They're reclusive, have few if any friends, and have no criminal record. However, they do not let go of past grievances and they tend to build and fester, with minor incidents being perceived as major offenses, and impersonal ones as personal. Some stress, such as a broken relationship, a loss, or unemployment, may be the trigger that sets everything in motion. They blame others for their failures and their motive is generally to strike back, to punish, and to exact as much damage as they can manage. The higher the death toll, the better they have succeeded. People who have been dismissing or ignoring them are not going to forget them now. Their choice of targets is typically irrational, and often does not even include the one against whom they wanted vengeance. Some...have shown signs of psychosis, but most have been judged sane at the time of the incident.
Every society on earth has a number of such individuals. Whether a person will actually act out as a mass murderer depends on a number of factors, many of them unknown. But if a society fosters and nurtures characteristics such as blaming others and holding grudges; if that society as a whole feels it's been slighted, ignored, and/or cheated; if violence in the cause of vengeance is glorified by that society; if there is a pervasive sense of failure, isolation, and frustration in that society; if people sharing these traits have the capacity, through modern communication, to get together, make plans, have easy access to powerful explosives, and are whipped into a frothing rage by inflammatory media and clerics exhorting them to murder in the name of holiness--well then, whatever number of people inclined to mass murder that society may have, such behavior is likely to be fully expressed.
Mass murderers tend to go back to the scene of the crime, or to target the same type of victim over and over again. In this, as in so many other things, terrorists resemble the compulsivity of the mass murderer. So we have another Bali bombing, and the World Trade Center was struck until it was finally destroyed.
Terrorists want power, and are frustrated that they don't have it. If you think about it, what weapons or power do they really have other than the power to blow innocent people--so-called "soft" targets--up? They can't win over an army; if they try to battle a conventional military or police force they are usually decimated. They also lack the power of argument and persuasion; only a small percentage of people on the face of the earth are going to convert to a rigid sect such as Wahabism or its ilk, since most people lack a natural temperament for and interest in fanaticism. Modern explosives have allowed a relatively small but determined group of power-hungry, frustrated, and otherwise impotent terrorists to make a relatively big bang, if they so desire--and terrorists do so desire, quite ardently.