Michael J. Brenner
Americans are in the grip of a particular hysteria – once again. First it arrived in the panic provoked by the atrocity of 9/11. The symptoms of that Post-Traumatic Shock are still with us. Now it returns in the panic in the aftermath of San Bernardino and the Paris shootings.
This time, the slandering of Islam as a uniquely violent and repressive religion is overt and widespread. Witness the ugly language of Republican presidential hopefuls.
Bigotry and lawlessness are sweeping across the land. The latter category includes the unlawful declarations of state governors that they will not permit persons from Syria who are Muslim to enter their territory.
President Obama, characteristically, has been restrained and formalistic in reacting to this affront to American principles. Unfortunately, emotions are aflame and sober thinking becomes invisible.
Putting some emotional distance between ourselves and the events in Paris (or subsequently San Bernardino), it is hard to see any objective change between the threat today and the threat on November 12.
Realistic threat assessment
After all, we all knew that this sort of incident could happen and would happen sooner or later. It has antecedents: London, Madrid, Charlie Hebdo.
They were all carried out by locals with, perhaps, the partial exception of Madrid. They all did have external connections but there is no evidence that there is a central command (a General Staff or Morgan Chase Executive Committee) plotting and directing campaigns.
Rather, diffuse motives met opportunity and means – means which were actually devised by non-Muslim extremists first.
The real puzzle is not how they made it past our defenses, but rather how they did not do so more often or on greater scales. Consider the discrepancy between the formidable capabilities of the terrorists groups and the very limited operations that they have conducted in the West.
As to plots foiled and defenses circumvented, in the United States, we can infer that there have been none of consequence. Why? The FBI proudly touts even the most insignificant of allegedly foiled plots, playing up and exaggerating the importance of each.
Usually they are plots set up as FBI stings in the first place, too. We have not heard of more serious plots being stopped.
The optimistic conclusion from this observation is that the risk is not that great. The pessimistic conclusion is that if these guys ever get their act together we’re in real trouble – since there really is no defense, it seems.
Motivations and intensity
One hypothesis in favor of the former is that there are in fact very few candidates in the West for taking on suicidal missions. If those attracted to ISIL were truly fanatical believers, wouldn’t that number be much higher?
By contrast, if they are mainly thrill-seekers, borderline sociopaths, and sexually repressed teen-agers excited by the prospect of sex slaves and/or an alternative outlet for their raging hormones – then it is understandable that they would lack the fortitude and conviction to kill and to be killed.
That may help to explain why the two earlier mass killings in the United States (Dr. Nadal Hassan and the Tsarnaev brothers) were by people who exhibited relatively little religious passion or in-depth knowledge of scripture.
Dr. Hassan, in the years leading up to the incident, had received tutoring in Islam. It should be borne in mind, however, that he has since affirmed that his motivation was political (U.S. actions in the Middle East).
It was not religiously motivated to conform to some purported requirement of Islam. Unlike an ISIS fighter, he has not claimed that he killed because his religion obligated him to do so.
The Tsarnaevs, for their part, were close to illiterate on matters of Islamic scripture. The same holds for the French-born Paris terrorists. They seem closer to the nihilistic, secular mass killers who have murdered many more in schools, theaters and post offices across the United States than any terrorists have.
What they seem to share is an emotional emptiness, a void where souls are supposed to reside.
Remove the beam from your own eye
Caution is in order when ascribing to a religion’s theology and doctrines a unique potential for instigating dramatic, sociopathic behavior.
True, not all religions are the same. But Islam, Christianity and Judaism are first cousins. Each successive version of the same narrative accepts the validity of its antecedent prophets’ claims.
They also share the same eschatology: The Islamic apocalypse/Day of Judgment is almost identical to Christianity’s Armageddon as viewed by believers in the Book of Revelations. Indeed, it is forecast that the endtimes will be preceded by a Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
There are millions of non-Muslims here in my state of Texas who are prepared to embrace it right now – or at least when football season ends.
Violence from many quarters
As to what Islam preaches about violence, we should bear in mind both the contradictory passages of the Koran and the contradictions in its antecedent scriptures. After all, Muslims recognize Moses and Jesus as God’s prophets.
The Old Testament and the New Testament alike are valid expressions of the Divine – albeit superseded by Mohammed’s transmission of Allah’s word. Hence, they implicitly incorporate Yahweh’s instruction for Joshua to kill every living being in Jericho including babies in the Hebrew book of Deuteronomy.
They also implicitly accept Jesus’ pacifist preachings. As for Christians, they have been far more comfortable with the Old Testament God Yahweh than the New Testament Jesus on matters of coercion and violence – as demonstrated by 2,000 years of history.
No unique failing
The proposition, therefore, that Islam conveys a creed of violence unique among the three monotheistic religions is absurd.
The Christian Right are our politicized Christian Salafists. Only a few, thank goodness, have taken to violence.
Then again, there are centuries of enlightenment history and acculturation in a genuine humanism between them and the earlier ages when Christians rampaged in a manner little different from what we see emergent in the Islamic world today. The underlying worldview and mentality are there.