The recent killings in Paris and San Bernadino have many people at once scared for themselves and their families, angry in a way that makes some susceptible to anti-Muslim rhetoric, and also utterly shaken that people in our own midst can be drawn to ISIS and others who want to do us great violence for seemingly no reason. How could anyone wish to start shooting and killing large numbers of innocent, anonymous people in the name of restoring a patriarchal Califate from a thousand years ago? Syed Farook was a seemingly normal county employee, an environmental specialist earning $77,000 per year living in relative economic comfort in southern California, recently married, and the father of a six-month old daughter. How are we to make any sense of his and Tashfeen Malik’s secret devotion to ISIS and their decision to suddenly become mass murderers who simultaneously effectively committed suicide, leaving their little child with her grandmother? And how could tens of thousands of such people like these two be massing in Syria and Iraq, ready to become martyrs for such a cause?
As compelling as these questions are, one would have to infer from the public discussion of these killings and from the mass media that we do not really want to know the answers. The idea that ISIS and other radical jihadis are simply “evil,” or that they “hate freedom” or are simply incomprehensible purveyors of a “hateful ideology” (to quote the repeated formulation of Barack Obama) just begs the question of why they are the way they are and why they believe what they believe. To actually understand Farook and Malik and those who engage in violent terrorism, and based on that understanding begin to do something to change the conditions that have produced and will likely continue to produce so much human suffering and loss, we have to attempt to grasp the terrorists’ experience of life from the inside, to see them as human just as we are, and to see what shaped them such that their thoughts and actions make sense to them.
Only then can we develop a course of action to alter the future that is more effective than the plan to “defeat and destroy” a large and scattered population in a decades-long, diffuse war that will involve our children and grandchildren. Thus please consider the following:
All human beings are born seeking love and affirmation from others and every child manifests this longing in a way that he or she expects to be reciprocated. We know this from the newborn child’s search for eye contact, from the fullness of the child’s vulnerability as he or she extends him or herself to mother, father, to all others whom he or she first comes in contact with.
But up to the present time, the world that children enter is not only suffused with love and generosity and care, but is rather also corroded by fear and doubt, and by violence, rejection, and what we might call “non-recognition.”
When a child extends him or herself toward the other with a newborn’s open heart and encounters the trauma of non-recognition of his or her humanity, often manifested as open rejection, indifference, or even violence, the child suffers a profoundhumiliation. Instead of the world being the embracing and loving and affirming place that the child had been born anticipating and fully expecting, the world becomes a traumatic environment of never-being-seen and never-being-embraced.
Although every child begins his or her life inside the small cocoon of a family of some kind, he or she immediately encounters in every adult the legacy of the wider world that has shaped each adult’s being and that expresses the wider world’s “quality of life,” its interhuman essence. Although every child is born to one or two or a few people, that child very quickly becomes enmeshed in a vast network of social structures and social relations, interhuman patternings that manifest either the love and affirmation carried by true recognition and embrace, or the humiliation and pain carried by interhuman patternings of non-recognition, rejection, the mutual distancing of the rotating fear of the other.
In today’s world, some sectors of the world’s population have spent decades or perhaps centuries impoverished and demeaned by the world’s dominant groups. Although these dominant groups have themselves acted, often unconsciously, out of fear of the other, accumulating wealth and power to protect themselves against others and displacing that process of self-aggrandizement onto the supposedly neutral effects of a globalized economic market, they have in so doing created pockets of humiliation, in which whole communities and peoples have experienced life as discarded, unseen, uncared about, and often on the verge of starvation. This is true of whole sectors of the Middle East, where the rooted lives of whole communities of people were destroyed and demeaned by, for example the imperialist carving up of the region by Western powers following World War I, by the imposition upon them of inauthentic puppet governments, by the rise of internal dictatorships resulting from the hierarchical and alienating distortions of these earlier interventions.
Furthermore, to the extent that members of these humiliated communities have sought escape in Western countries, they have often found themselves ghettoized and disappointed, in a sense re-humiliated refugees who were thrown into supposedly “free” societies, but where there was no plan for integrating them as fully human and for connecting them with others in a way that would have provided for them a sense of recognition, of being seen and embraced.
Against this background of profound and diffuse non-recognition and humiliation, it is not surprising that people from these marginalized and demeaned communities would be drawn to narrative interpretations of the world that would address and explain theirhumiliation and offer a way out, however pathological, however much such interpretations may involve substituting for their experience of humiliation an imaginary vision of the world that can seem to restore each person’s sense of recognition and value, channel the rage resulting from the long legacy of collective humiliation into purifying violence, and bring into imaginary being the “perfect” society that once existed until being destroyed and defiled by “unbelievers,” by those who might prevent the vision from being realized by denying or opposing it.
When terrorists engage in mass murder, they seek to reverse the dehumanization that was done to them by dehumanizing their imagined oppressors while seeking to bring about the redemption of an imaginary world in which they will become healed, become recognized, become finally included and loved as they anticipated they would be from their earliest days.
To summarize this in a simple formula: longing and vulnerability when met with non-recognition leads to humiliation, which leadsto substitute imaginary visions that resolve the pain of non-recognition through prideful grandiosity, perfect unity, and dehumanization of those who dehumanized you.
How should we respond to this situation?
First and in the short run, we must defend ourselves against harm and violence, since there is no instantaneous way of rectifying a psycho-social problem of this magnitude. Defending ourselves means not only engaging in whatever physical struggle is necessary against those determined to kill us, but also finding rational ways of protecting ourselves at home, in restaurants, in concerts and other public gatherings.
But second and most important, we must develop an approach to the problem of the legacy of non-recognition that seeks toheal the wounds that we ourselves are partly responsible for. This means transforming our policy toward those who have felt humiliated by us, by our imperialist forefathers, and by our existing institutions like the world market in such a way that we begin to truly recognize their humanity. We should seek to eliminate hunger among the impoverished and demeaned populations of the Middle East; we should help to rebuild their roads, their bridges, their mosques; we should begin to relate to these humiliated populations of the world as we always should have, with empathy and compassion and generosity and care. We should see them as our fellow human beings and offer them the recognition and affirmation and respect that they were always entitled to, but which has been systematically and often ruthlessly denied to them for decades, or even centuries, from the Crusades to World War I to the Iraq War to the present-day exploitation for our benefit of their oil reserves. In repair of disrupting, destroying and demeaning their historical communities, we should enter into present community with them.
This approach will not work with the most violent of our adversaries or with those most committed to a delusional end-of-days Armageddon, but it will begin to have an impact on those widespread communities—in the Middle East and in our own Western cities—to whom the most violent and apocalyptic currently appeal. It will begin to provide the “alternative ideology” that President Obama is constantly calling for but seems unable to find. And it will gradually undermine the appeal of the most delusional and most violent by healing the conditions that produce their charismatic power.
The United Nations Security Council could, if it grasped the truth of what I have written here and wanted to address it, call a meeting tomorrow and begin.