I have nothing of much value to say either way about terrorism — Islamic or otherwise. I think I’ve said most of what I want to say, most of what needs to be said, and no one is listening to me.
I have grown tired of the outrage and sentimentality of our times. Of the moral posturing and virtue signaling demanded. Weary. This itself is a statement, and likely even a posture and a signal. Such is life.
But William Dalton wrote in response to Rod Dreher’s most recent blog on the Manchester bombing something that needs to be remembered:
Islamic radicals do not attack us because they are Muslim, but neither do they attack us because of their ideology. They attack us out of their sense of grievance, their sense of victimhood. They attack us for the same reason Dylan Roof decided to attack a church full of black Charlestonians – because he didn’t see a room of friendly and accepting people. He saw creatures of a kind with those who made his life a life of futility and despair and he knew his life would never be right until they were all dead and gone. So he grabbed a Confederate flag to represent the cause which would give his life meaning and would justify his actions. So do all the young Westerners who have streamed to Syria to join ISIS, and come back to perpetrate acts of terrorism against us. Like our friend, Charles Featherstone, many have no Islamic background or connections whatsoever. But they live in the West, they don’t like what they see, what has been done to them, and the teachings of the imams and mullahs they hear give them an understanding of what is wrong with their lives and a path to free themselves of it. They join ISIS for the same reason young Westerners of generations past joined anarchists and communists and fascists and Nazis, each of whom also identified the evils of the decadent capitalist West and prescribed a plan for curing those evils.
But they go out and kill because they have seen their own, those with whom they identify, being killed. They go out and inflict suffering on others because they have been made to suffer. No ideology is responsible for the hatred and anger they feel and must express. Ideology, grounded in religion or political theory, only gives them an avenue to express themselves forcefully, in concert with others who feel the same grievance.
The answer to our dilemma is as clear as it has been since the days of the Hatfields and the McCoys, and before. There will be no end of them, and people like them, killing us until we come home from the far corners of the world and stop killing them.
I’m honored to be part of a conversation, no matter how obliquely, but Dalton makes a good point here, and I won’t repeat it. However, I’m not sure withdrawal is enough at this point, since empire and globalization intertwined European and Islamic societies in a way that have never been, and that has made for a great deal of discomfort on both sides. Most Muslims living in and with the secular West are happy to do so, but secular modernity has created enough malcontents (Muslim and otherwise) that they can cause trouble. And are more than happy to do so.
The approach of moderns — both conservatives and liberals — has been to double down. More secularism, more multiculturalism, more anti-racism, more immigrants, more openness, more more police, more violence, more occupation, more war. It’s a curious approach, one doomed to failure. It assumes that there is enough state power, enough suffering that can be imposed, enough ability to compel and kill, that will eventually inflict enough pain and trauma and suffering to end resistance.
But the idea just about every resister has in their head — or their souls, since I suspect most aren’t consciously aware of this — is the Algerian War. Algeria had been not just a French colony for more than a century, but had been settled and integrated into France proper. A place the French were willing to use brutal and inhuman force to keep, were willing to destroy their society to keep. The Algerians won few if any battles in that war, and had been decisively beaten by the late 1950s even as the continued to resist.
And yet they won anyway.
The French deployed nearly every resource at their disposal, knew the language and the culture and the country and could infiltrate just about bit of the Algerian resistance, tortured and imprisoned and disappeared and killed. They held the high ground and defeated the Algerians in just about confrontation that mattered.
Yet they lost anyway. The Algerians never stopped resisting.
What the 20th century showed us is that as long as resistance continues, whether we speak of France in Algeria or the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, then the resisters have effectively won even if they remain conquered and occupied. It was a war for the minds of Algerians, to get them to accept and embrace their conquest and occupation. As long as they refused… they had won. No matter what things on the ground actually looked like.
We’ve seen how this has played out in colonial struggles. But a version of this has come home. If the United States is currently working on a slow motion civil war, it is because we have become roughly two societies which cannot accept the legitimacy of rule by the other, and everything becomes resistance. The Algerians won against the French because the French, even the Pieds Noirs, many of whom had been in Algeria for a couple of generations, could pack up and leave. The Palestinians are facing Israelis who see themselves as having no other home, and who are able, and probably very willing, to do everything necessary to keep that home. Red and blue America, Islamic and non-Islamic Britain, where does anyone go? What happens when everyone sees themselves as the FLN, and no one sees themselves as the Colons or the Metropole — everyone is resistance, and no one is the accountable power of authority?
There is something I encountered at seminary that long troubled me. We took classes on liberation theology, studying the American Civil Rights movement as a theological and religious struggle, and to a lesser degree, the fight against Apartheid in South Africa, but we did it entirely from the standpoint of those resisting. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his critique was the operative frame.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but we got a very one-sided story. We never studied the effect any of this had on the powerful and how their hearts and minds were changed. A lot on the suffering of Black people, how Western Christian theology had dehumanized and justified their enslavement and mass murder, but absolutely nothing — nothing real — on how a church like the Dutch Reformed in South Africa shifted its position in its encounter with the very people it oppressed and eventually came to see Apartheid itself as a sin.
There was no engagement. Just resistance. In the belief that a forceful and determined enough resistance would, like the Algerians, eventually win.
Except very few wars are colonial wars of liberation anymore. Does Red America occupy Blue America? Does Blue America occupy Red America? To hear from frightened, angry, outraged partisans, we are either a moment away from living out The Handmaid’s Tale or Brave New World, in which camps and the gallows or nine grams in the back of the head await all who cannot or will not conform.
Or accept their defeat.
So … Everything becomes defense. Everything becomes resistance.
Too much is at stake. No one has power, no one has authority, no one can show restraint, no one can accept responsibility, no one can be magnanimous.
Because if there is always resistance, there is never victory. Never an end.
One of the reasons I stepped back from becoming the kind of person who could strap a bomb and blow myself up, or wage a nihilistic war of resistance, was because I came to see myself — even before I was Christian — as responsible. For myself. For my wife. I have an obligation to the world around me, to love and be kind, whatever circumstance or situation I find myself in, no matter how I or even others have been treated. I do believe the Gospel is resistance, but it is a resistance grounded in love and hope, not fear, that lives knowing Caesar is called king but Jesus really is. It is resistance with real authority. I have always lived in two places at once — the world of unjust rules in which suffering and anger and fear hold sway, and another one in which love is all that matters. I arrived in this place long before I became a Christian, long before Jesus called me, but it was in the midst of a terror attack, in the midst of the kind of death I was more than willing to wish upon people, that I was forced to see, for real, what I wanted.
In the face of the violence of the world, I really only have one answer — Love.
This situation we have trapped ourselves will very likely only end in calamity, in civilizational, and possibly global, disaster. I don’t have an answer to that. There are no guarantees in life except maybe death and some amount of suffering. It’s wonderful to live through the reign of Augustus or Trajan, sucks to live in mid-third-century Rome. We don’t get to pick.
We just get to live. Even in the midst of terror and death.