Terror has its roots in modern life and it touches all of us

Photo: Kat Northern Lights Man/flickr

There was a strange coincidence last week at the time of the car-and-knife attack on the houses of parliament in London by "lone wolf" Khalid Masood. In the U.S., "lone wolf" James Harris Jackson travelled to New York City "to kill as many Black men as he could," where he stabbed 66-year-old Timothy Caughman, a "can and bottle recycler" to death.

The victims were random, in both places. Both killers had tortuous, not dissimilar histories: in and out of British prisons, in and out of the U.S. army. The U.K. case was immediately assimilated to the Islamic terror model, the New York event fell into an amorphous hole.

They weren't precisely simultaneous. New York happened two days earlier but, because of a time lag and the instantaneous coverage from London, they felt like it.

These concurrences are unexpectedly common. In his fine recent book, The Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra talks about "the most illuminating coincidence of our time:" when 1995 Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh occupied a cell beside the original World Trade Center bomber (in a failed 1993 attempt), Ramzi Ahmed Yousef. They became friends, recognizing themselves in each other.

"I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his," said Yousef, after McVeigh's execution.

Mishra's point is we let ourselves off the hook too easily by saying the core of terror today is Islam. These people identify elements they share in common: they are thoughtful (like Dylann Roof, who murdered Black worshippers in Charleston) and nostalgic (Jackson's "ideal society" was 1950s America). And they stretch far back in time. Their weirdly coherent, articulated violence echoes anarchist bombers and assassins of the 1890s as well as the nihilism and embrace of destruction reaching even further back.

Mishra traces it to the Enlightenment era, which detached individuals from communities and traditions, elevating them to autonomous status -- a burden that few, possibly none, can sustain in real life. Then came industrialization in the 1800s, which shattered rural neighbourhoods and economic stability. Mishra isn't nostalgic himself but insists a price had to be paid for these dislocations.

So the question isn't the tedious: When was he radicalized? It is: how did this mayhem become so normal over so much time? One thing or another can light the fuse but the fuse itself was laid long ago: there, then, here, globally.

Mishra punctures the smugness of self-serving ideologues, such as Trump or Kellie Leitch (or Bernier or O'Reilly), who say we just have to take down those Muslims and demand their imams apologize for each case of violence anywhere in the world.

It isn't really about Islam, he says, and I believe it. Dislocation and distress are ubiquitous.

I watched displaced rural Quebecers at the end of the Quiet Revolution sit in urban bars, sobbing uncontrollably for no clear reason; or Newfoundland outporters told by Joey Smallwood to "Burn your boats" because modernization and industrialization would look after everything. I've seen students go from buoyancy (Change is Good! Embrace it!) 20 years ago to deep uncertainty over their life prospects in the Internet era.

What's surprising isn't how much mayhem exists globally but that it isn't greater.

All it often takes is some insecure, angry voices to ratchet up the rhetoric -- a role regularly played, says Mishra, by writers and intellectuals. They are uniquely positioned to register modernity's lonely pressures: a desperate need for fame in the absence of other satisfactions; envy of rivals; Nietzschean resentment, fear your genius might vanish unseen.

The author of The Anarchist Cookbook, a breezy 1971 manual for making bombs and killing your enemies, died recently. In later life he disavowed the book; he didn't like that guy much any more.

Is there an antidote to the malaise initiated by those "vast and opaque processes of modernization?" Mishra is cautious. But most people don't share the particular vulnerable profile of intellectuals. They're grounded in basics, like family, friends, work. They'll settle for a little well-being, in lieu of grandiosity.

Why is Bernie Sanders the most popular politician in the U.S. today? What he promised wasn't a lot: you won't drown in your college debt and you won't lose everything if you get sick.

With a bit of care and solidarity, the nastier impulses of the species can, apparently, be beaten back. Or at least held at bay.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Kat Northern Lights Man/flickr

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