Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s “Man Pointing” gesticulates ominously. Emaciated, skeletal and tormented, it is an artistic expression of humankind’s stalwart march toward suffering and annihilation. Like the sculptor’s gaunt and unnaturally elongated figure, each and every one of us has now become a riveted observer and a possible casualty. Today, each and every one of us is threatened by ecstatic sacrificial killing masquerading as “resistance.”
Art is a lie that lets us see the truth. Where is Giacometti’s man pointing? Does he point, dreadfully, toward the masses of likely victims or, judgmentally, to the always-unrepentant perpetrators? Does his extraordinarily extended finger indict an entire species or — rather — does it cast responsibility only upon certain individuals and groups of individuals?
Understood in terms of terrorism, especially the dire chemical/biological/nuclear threat now hanging perilously over the United States, the very long finger points knowingly in several directions. In the final analysis, the problem of all terrorism, including WMD terrorism, is a problem of primal human behavior. And such behavior is always the result of compelling private needs and seemingly irresistible collective expectations.
More than almost anything else — sometimes even more than the drive to avoid death — human beings need to belong. This need can be expressed more or less harmlessly, as in cases of extreme sports hysteria or rock concerts, or it can be expressed grotesquely — in genocide, war and terrorism. But the underlying dynamic is always the same. In all cases the individual person feels empty and insignificant apart from his/her membership in the herd. Sometimes that herd is the state. Sometimes it is the tribe. Sometimes it is the faith. Sometimes it is the “liberation” or “revolutionary” organization. But whatever the particular herd of the moment, it is the persistent craving for membership that brings the terrible downfall of individual responsibility and the terrifying triumph of the collective will.
Unless certain of our fellow humans learn soon how to temper their overwhelming desire to belong, the prevailing military and political schemes to prevent and control anti-American terrorism will surely fail. To succeed, Operation Iraqi Freedom will benefit more from Freud than from Clausewitz.
The overwhelming desperation to “belong” is today greatest in the Arab/Islamic world. How significant is this desperation to a real understanding of anti-American terrorism? The philosopher Nietzsche can be helpful. Aware of substantial harms that can be generated by the immense attractions of membership, Nietzsche declares with remarkable prescience: “To lure many away from the herd, for that I have come. The people and the herd shall be angry with me. Zarathustra wants to be called a robber by the shepherds.”
The most primary dangers of anti-American terrorism stem from the combining of certain susceptible individuals into war-centered herds. Not every herd is terroristic, of course, but terrorism cannot take place in the absence of herds. When individuals crowd together and form a herd, the destructive dynamics of the mob may be released, lowering each person’s moral and intellectual level to a point where even mass killing may become altogether acceptable. This is now most evident in the recent multinational cartoon jihad and in the still-planned Palestinian terror directed against Israeli nursery schools, restaurants and municipal buses. It is also illustrative of emerging al Qaeda operations against selected soft targets in the United States.
To understand what is happening behind the news, one must first recognize the incontestable irony of terrorist objectives. Publicly, all Arab/Islamic terror is animated by the presumed will of Allah. In reality, however, the net effect of suicide bombings and mass slaughters is always to drown out any hint of godliness — of human empathy, compassion, comity or kindness. In the name of God, Arab/Islamic terror now imposes upon the world neither salvation nor sacredness, but rather the hideously breathless rhythm of ritual murder and voluptuous killing. Although the killers would have us believe that God is their sole inspiration and their special witness, the end of all the delirium they create is singularly diabolical. In the supreme irony of Arab/Islamic terror, the most conspicuous result of this delirium is to prevent man from remembering God.
To begin their urgent investigations of already ongoing Arab/Islamic jihad against the United States, our scholars and policy-makers should look closely at human meaning. To prevent expanding violence against the United States, Arab/Islamic terrorist groups must somehow be shorn of their capacity to bestow meaning. Even before this can happen, however, those individuals who turn to terrorist group membership must first discover more private sources of belonging. An underlying cause of terrorist crimes is always the continuing incapacity of individuals to draw authentic meaning from within themselves.
At its very heart, the problem of terror/violence is always a problem of displaced human centeredness. Ever anxious about drawing meaning from their own inwardness, particular human beings draw closer and closer to the herd. In all too many cases this herd spawns hatreds and excesses that make certain forms of killing desirable. Fostering a ceaseless refrain of “us” versus “them,” it prevents each affected person from becoming fully human and encourages each such person to celebrate the death of “outsiders.” Not surprisingly, when Palestinian mothers and their children recently crowded into a newly constructed “museum” celebrating the immolation of Israeli mothers and children in a bombed Sbarro pizza restaurant, it was not fellow mothers and children that they recognized. Rather, they saw only “Israelis,” “infidels,” “Zionists” — a loathsome abstraction, a population so presumptively vile (that is, so different from themselves) that their longingly hoped-for extermination of the “Jews” carried absolutely no bit of regret.
Each person contains at least the possibility of becoming fully human, an empathetic possibility that could reduce corrosive loyalties to the terror group herd and prevent mega-terrorist violence against the United States. It is only by nurturing this essential possibility that we can now seek serious remedies. Futile as it may seem, our immediate task must be to encourage masses of people in the Arab/Islamic world to discover the way back to themselves, as authentic persons, as feeling and caring individuals. Otherwise, large elements of this world (large enough to number in the tens of millions) will continue to embrace the annihilatory ideals of a homicidal religious collectivism. For the aspiring terrorist, this dreadful life of conformance and fear could soon make even chemical/biological/nuclear terrorism seem altogether desirable.
Louis Rene Beres (Princeton Ph.D.) is the chairman of Project Daniel, and the author of many books and articles dealing with terrorism, including “Terrorisim and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat.”