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Terrorism: Motive & Solidarity

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Clayton Morgareidge, for the Old Mole Variety Hour, January 4, 2010

 In a violent world, where violence provokes more violence, there are enemies everywhere. Powerful nations create enemies among the less powerful and among their people. Thus our war on, and of, terror. 

There are two very different ways of thinking about our enemies – about people who want to do us in. One way is the way we treat garden pests: figure out how to identify them and then how to either fence them out or destroy them. In the case of human enemies, we can also hope that our methods inspire enough fear to deter them from doing what they want to do. This approach is energized by hatred because killing people comes more easily to us if we hate those we are killing. Then our killing is a natural part of how we feel – angry and afraid.   We don’t have to understand the motives of our enemies: it’s enough to call them evil or crazy. 
The other way of thinking about our enemies is to try to understand their motives. If you stop to think about it, that would seem to be a good idea – after all, surely if you want to stop someone from doing something, your chances of success will be better if you know what they think they’re doing and why they want to do it. You try to get inside their heads. But our politicians and media rarely want to do this. Take the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian man who tried set off an explosion on a plane from Amsterdam as it approached Detroit on Christmas day. Writing in Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald points out that in the media,
… one issue is, as usual, conspicuously absent: motive.  Why would a young Nigerian from a wealthy, well-connected family want to blow himself up on one of our airplanes along with 300 innocent people, and why would Saudi and Yemeni extremists want to enable him to do so?
Discussion of motive are taboo because these questions ask us to look at the world through our enemies’ eyes; it asks us to identify with our enemies for a moment, and that to some extent diminishes the hatred we have to feel in order to keep our search and destroy mission alive. The hearts and minds of our enemies must be forbidden territory if we’re going to keep on using lethal force against them.
Richard Bernstein of the New York Times does find it puzzling that so many of those responsible for terrorist attacks on the west, like Abdulmutallab, “come from middle- or upper-class families, went to good schools and would seem to have had much better prospects than to destroy numerous lives, as well as their own, in acts of terrorist mayhem.”   In other words, why would these young men throw away a life of status and comfort in exchange for an early death? Bernstein’s answer leaves their motives opaque: They are “intellectuals with a grievance, a concept, and a thirst for power.” What is their grievance? It is, Bernstein says, “a measure of [their] anger and desperation — and of the superheated, paranoid cult that sees the United States as the Great Satan — that it is so often young men with good prospects who are willing to sacrifice themselves to strike a blow for what has become their cause.”
Bernstein does not ask why, if you were a Muslim, you might see the US as the Great Satan. Here’s Glenn Greenwald again:
…If you count our occupation of Iraq, our twice-escalated war in Afghanistan, our rapidly escalating bombing campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, and various forms of covert war involvement in Somalia, one could reasonably say that we're fighting five different wars in Muslim countries….  Add to those five fronts the "crippling" sanctions on Iran many Democratic Party luminaries are now advocating, combined with the chest-besting threats from our Middle East client state (Israel) that the next wars they fight against Muslims will be even "harsher" than the prior ones, and it's almost easier to count the Muslim countries we're not attacking or threatening than to count the ones we are.
So why wouldn’t a young Muslim see the US as evil?   It takes a lot less provocation for many US citizens to conclude that Islam is evil.   
But there is a deeper flaw in asking, Why should a young man with “good prospects” be willing to sacrifice his life for the Muslim cause?   Many young people want to dedicate their lives to something greater than their own personal success, and that’s not a bad thing.   There is evidence that Abdulmutallab was feeling particularly alienated from the path laid down by his family – a western education and a professional career. Some internet postings, reported by the Washington Post and tentatively attributed to Abdulmutallab starting in 2005 show him as “a teenager looking for a new life outside his boarding school and wealthy Nigerian family, …. someone who seems lost and needs someone to hear him. On an Islamic bulletin board he wrote: "i am in a situation where i do not have a friend, i have no one to speak too, no one to consult, no one to support me and i feel depressed and lonely. i do not know what to do." He fanasized about becoming a holy warrior and about a great world-wide jihad. We don’t have to agree that blowing up an airplane is a good way to pursue the defense of his people in order to understand the attraction of heroic action to a young man, given the absence of available alternatives. 
Young people, all people, want to feel part of what is going on, participating in the activities that shape our common world. This is the deep desire behind the quest for freedom and democracy: the need to have a hand in what is going on, and it is this that is denied to people when the social group they identify with is marginalized – until and unless they find a resistance movement that seems to give them that missing power. 

  

 

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