On Terrorism and Fundamentalism

By | 2001 October 12 |

I’m bored and frightened at the same time by the course of events since September 11th, which has successfully pressed an intangible but debilitating smudge on the daily life of everyone who lives in North America. Meanwhile, no open discussion of what happened, why it happened or what ought to be done seems possible right now. The background din of formerly sensible people shouting at one another makes any measure of things difficult, and the onslaught of event pornography in the media renders it impossible.

Last weekend I flew across the continent with my wife and four-year-old daughter. The airlines for once seemed able to run their routes on schedule, and even though security was heavier, it was hardly oppressive—possibly because I have blue eyes and was trying hard to camouflage my fanatical nature. More important, the flights were utterly uneventful, even though most passenger’s wariness turned to hostile glowering whenever a dark-skinned person entered the plane, or once seated, went to a washroom. I noticed that the airline had reverted to Alabama seating, except that now it was dark hair and eyes that got you at the back of the bus. Our plane out of Toronto happened to be a Boeing 767, and as I watched the plane roll up to the gate I couldn’t stop myself from imagining it colliding with a large building at 800 kilometres per hour. When I looked up and made eye contact with one of the other waiting passengers, his shrug told me he’d been thinking similar thoughts.

I have just one thing to add to what I’ve already posted on this subject. It is this: If we are to have a campaign against terrorism and those who practice it will fail unless it also moves decisively against the fundamentalisms that always accompany political and social violence.

I take it that “terrorism” means the employment of unpredictable acts of violence against unsuspecting and innocent people as a means of forcing political action and influencing public opinion. I’ve always assumed the expression has its roots in Maximilien Robespierre’s insight at the end of the 18th Century that fear tends to undermine people’s sense of reality, thus making them susceptible to massive social and political changes, and that a program of systematic and unrelenting terror might bring about, by itself, a basic and irrevocable shift in human sensibilities even amongst people who have been face down in mud for centuries.

“Fundamentalism” is the conviction that reality ought to be governed by a single simplifying truth or source of truth and that human life can be lived according to—or sacrificed to—that singularity. The sort of fundamentalism at work in the current world situation is, I think, a curiously contemporary strain of an older concept. At the surface the primary chemicals seem to be doctrine infused by material envy and rancour. Yet just under its surface, it is a rejection of the complexity and plurality of the contemporary world itself, and a cowering within reductive causalities that inevitably transform other human beings into non- or sub-human demons.

The fundamentalists responsible for the WTC attacks appear to be sourced within a very narrow and politicized interpretation of the Koran, the holy book of Islam—sort of like Jerry Falwell’s interpretation of the Christian Bible, except with more AK47’s and fewer Buicks. The television program “The West Wing” recently suggested that the Muslim terrorists who are apparently responsible are the Islamic equivalent of Christian America’s Ku Klux Klan. It’s a tempting parallel, because it maintains the pre-approved Western hierarchy of responsibility in which entrepreneurial ambition and aggrievement manipulates dumb and violent youth for it’s own selfish purposes: bin Laden jerking those poor Arab neo-Nazi boys around by their too-flimsy brainstems, etc.

I’m not so sure that the analogy is accurate, and I’m even less convinced that if the Americans can just kill or capture bin Laden and a few others like him, terrorism will subside as a political phenomena. Terrorism cannot be practiced without a fundamental belief igniting its fuel, whether the fuel is genuine oppression or the specious manipulation of marginal data by others. The trouble, I suspect, is that it is nearly always both, and there’s only one way to make fundamentalist beliefs go away: you have to alter the structure of complexity that makes them attractive.

You can’t do that with bombs or assault teams, or with catchy media metaphors about wars that hide the fact that you’re really just looking for someone to kill so the terrible complexities rattling around inside your head will be calmed. That’s what the terrorists are doing.


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