There is nothing more modern than groups formed as a response to the dying remains of colonial empires and asserting their desire for influence and power through acts of barbarism. The terror on the streets of western European cities is not a throwback to a medieval interpretation of Islam. The reassertion of the fundamental in religion, the dissolution of independent nation states in Africa and Asia, and the upending of “western” values is the Enlightenment project writ large. History has not ended. It is merely continuing, with a revolutionary like zeal, fueled not by French skeptics, but post-war Islamic theologians.
This is not a seventh century conflict fought with twenty first century social media applications. The war is the world itself. The war is global because the world is globalized. The privatization of organized violence is the hallmark of the early 21st century. This form of capitalism easily merged with the disaffected bi-national youth of Europe’s Salafist mosques. Death became profitable. Cheap oil, the proliferation of small arms, and thousands of angry young men provided the workforce of a global death industry. While experts look for lone wolves; ISIS thinks of franchisees who are able to take violence global. We ask, “Did they have help?” ISIS realizes, in a globalized economy where death is a franchise business, no one needs help. We are asking the wrong questions.
The reasons for this violence cannot be isolated to British youths with Pakistani roots being exposed to radical preaching via the dark web. If only the answer to these crimes was as simple as to how the assailant was socialized as a child or their mental health. Our world was radicalized with the Ottoman Empire fell, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, when Vladimir Lenin’s brother was executed by Czar Alexander III, when Theodore Kaczynski mailed his first bomb, and on and on. One need not witness a single sermon by the late Anwar al-Awlaki to be radicalized. Radicalism is a state of mind. Modernity itself demands a certain degree of radicalism. We are called to be radicals on the environment, the right to choose life, our tastes in music, politics, and beyond. Radicalism is one of the defining features of modernity. We applaud radicals who stand up for certain causes. However, when my radicalism conflicts with the radicalism of another, the first casualty is freedom (and the illusion thereof). Once the illusion of freedom is shattered, it’s much easier for those invested in death to divest themselves (and others) of life.
Like the late 19th anarchists who terrorized Russia and parts of Europe, this recent wave of terror attacks hasn’t dramatically altered the societies they inhabit. We (I include myself) are dying in small groups. A few of us here and there are being killed every few weeks. We are mourned and missed. Will we be conquered in small groups, worn down by the deaths of innocents over such a long period of time that we eventually surrender? I wonder if this is their plan. Even so, there is terror in the moment, a bit of fear, all while most of us go on as normal. What does it mean to proceed as normal?
Modernity should be the epitome of normalcy. For others, those who are hacking us to death, modernity is a prison. There is no freedom in modernity or the normalcy it provides. Modernity, though it created the revolutionary movement they embrace, left them behind. Going on as normal isn’t an option if there’s never been a normal.
While we tell ourselves the world must go on as normal and normal is the best way to fight terror, I’m not certain we know what normal is any longer. I believe normal ceased to exist about 8:30 in the morning on September 11th, 2001. For anyone who was five years old or younger on that date, they’ve never known normal. It’s been so long since we’ve seen anything resembling normal, we wouldn’t know it if it hit us in the face. So when we keep calm and carry on, what are we doing? We’re doing the new normal but that’s abnormal. The new normal has seen the erosion of our civil liberties, 16 years of war in Afghanistan, a general sense of economic and social malaise, and unease at home and abroad. Freedom to carry on and fighting back against the terrorists is really a pale reflection of the normalcy and freedom we once enjoyed.
Modernity killed Lenin and Mao and will eventually find a way to discard ISIS in the dustbin of history. This will happen much quicker if we start asking better questions and stop pretending to be normal. These are not normal times.