An interesting New Yorker article by George Packer explains the reasons behind the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo as a result of the deep alienation of many African immigrants in France. He writes that the product of that alienation is a turn to a religion as politics. Thus he states, “For some believers, the violence serves a will to absolute power in the name of God, which is a form of totalitarianism called Islamism—politics as religion, religion as politics. “Allahu Akbar!” the killers shouted in the street outside Charlie Hebdo. They, at any rate, know what they’re about.”
I have no doubt that he is right about how this radical ideological Islamic movement has so powerfully captured the imagination of these immigrant young men. The cause, however, is not the religious ideology. It is the sense of powerlessness felt by these young immigrants, and by non-immigrant young French, caught in maelstrom of the on-going transition from a nationally based economy into something global, more automated, less secure, and requiring higher levels of education. Adding to that is the continuing frustrations of a democratic politics that has been captured by the ultra rich everywhere it claims to exist. Those economic and political transformations affect everybody in modern capitalist countries, but not evenly or without variation.
Terrorism experts everywhere understand that people resort to such violence when they find that other routes towards influencing those around them and the society at large seem closed or ineffective. Terrorism is a tactic used to terrorize a population to accept something (independence, an ideology, religion, etc.) when other methods fail. Thus, terror was used by Irish Catholics, Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolutionaries, Rwandan Hutus, and countless more. States also engage in terror tactics when they sense the population is no longer listening or obedient to the rulers. Thus, dictators like Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Stalin in the Soviet Union, Tito in Yugoslavia, and many more.
But what makes terror such a prevalent tactic is not only that its users think that other attempted ways to influence policy and politics are not working. Terror is so prevalent because it is so easy to use and to work. Every other form of influencing others requires knowledge about what those others need, want, or desire. In democratic countries, influence comes from following accepted rules and laws (or appearing to) about how to process and channel individual claims and preferences, such as by voting. When we want to influence consumers in a capitalist society, we delve into consumer research with surveys, focus groups, or, more recently, with brain research that identifies how our minds operate. Then we tailor advertising to tap into those discovered preferences or subconscious desires for designer brands, stimulation, sweetness or whatever.
Violence, however, is a method of influencing others that requires very little knowledge of the other party. Nobody has to conduct any expensive research or try to mobilize and organize millions of people. Violence is simple. In the vast majority of cases, probably 99.9% of all people, we already know that people do not want to be hurt or to die. That makes the threat of violence, like with terrorism, something that is very effective because it is so easy to influence others.
Terrorism, whether it is in France, Iraq, or the U.S., springs not only from the alienated psychological state of some marginalized populations. It springs from the characteristics of what makes coercive force so effective and easy to get. All anyone needs is a gun or bomb or knife or box cutter to get people to obey them…even into permitting their bodies and plane to be used to destroy symbols of Western capitalist power. With rare exceptions, the very vast majority of us are so afraid of harm and death that most threats instill enough fear to either paralyze us or make us more obedient to those dispensing the threat.
Will write more about this later.