Alienated people, excellent terrorists

Alienated people make for excellent terrorists; but they also make for fine soldiers and policemen too. I hope it is understood, I am not suggesting there are major distinctions between those three; because that would be absurd. I am suggesting, those people who for whatever reason are forced to live on the fringes of society carry within them seeds of discontent plenty enough to equip them with certain qualities that are prized and admired in the coercion and suppression business. These include among others, ruthlessness, aggression, and impudence towards fellow human beings; it seems these are parts of the requirement for those jobs. Besides, taking a hard look at the number of discontented individuals volunteering for those jobs and their preponderant proportion in those lines of work, we couldn’t deduce otherwise.

We can list a great many reasons why people who are excluded from mainstream life make wonderful recruits for the various terrorist organizations, armies and police forces. But we will restrict ourselves to a couple of broad ones, economics and social acceptance or rejection, as it is possible to reduce a significant number of the reasons to those two.

If we speak in economic or financial terms only, logic dictates that those with next to nothing to lose, disaffected people in other words, lose nothing by social disruptions, and therefore, are excellent recruits for those professions which by necessity require social disruption.

Just to clarify a minor point here: out of the three professions we mentioned at the beginning, at least two, soldiery and police work, would normally be mistaken to be contrary to disorder while only one, terrorism, would normally be equated with disorder. That is the case in common parlance anyway. But the fact of the matter is, disorder in some quarters is exactly what is required for order in others; for some to be even remotely able to live in peace and order, others have to be denied the same peace and order. It couldn’t be otherwise in societies whose people insist on annihilating one another because of competing worldviews and exclusionary social narratives.

If we speak in social terms only, the acceptance or rejection of certain social values places some individuals outside of proper lines, as it were. In other words, certain social values require the alienation of some people. Unlike the most obvious case of economic conditions leading to alienation, it would be necessary to give an example in the case of social acceptance or rejection leading to alienation. If, for instance, homosexuality is not an accepted norm within the confines of a given society, those persons with homosexual predisposition, or those persons who are generally favorable or receptive to it, are as a matter of course alienated.

Parenthetically, social norms are represented here as existing within the confines of a given society only for the sake of simplicity. The real world is not at all like that. Consider the Iranian fatwa against the British Indian author of “The Satanic Verses”, Salman Rushdie; mullahs in Iran claimed to exercise sovereignty over British affairs even when the norm in the former has nothing to do with the norm in the latter.

Having said that, we don’t need to contrive clever ways to explain how aggression gets tied to alienation; we can put it simply: man is a social being and his exclusion from his fellow men in whatever regard can only induce in him resentment which he seeks to lessen by losing himself in a brotherhood of some sort; he would associate himself with almost anything which vouchsafes solidarity with other human beings. Joining a national army or a political movement are the typical examples.

An intolerable sense of apartness drives the alienated man as much to heroism as to villainy. Someone’s hero is always someone else’s villain. So, in a way, villainy is heroism too. And it is unimportant that a man who feels himself alienated and alone in the world decides to belong to a terrorist organization, a national army or a police force; what is important is that he makes the leap from being a master of his own will to surrendering that will to a collective entity only after recognizing his own physical singularity. (Conscripts are excepted, of course.)

Frustrated ambitions are the main culprit here. Ambitions can be frustrated for many reasons; political, economic and social factors are some of those reasons. Now, when a not-so-small number of individuals reach the conclusion that their ambitions, whatever they may be, can never be achieved, that is when they set themselves, consciously or otherwise, against the prevailing order. That is true for any society.

Harper’s Magazine recently published some letters that were exchanged between two friends who lived on opposite shores of the English Channel, in France and in England. These were personal letters; so, the people who wrote them appear human enough through their own words, with a sense of humor and whatnot.

The exchange lasted a duration of many years giving a reader a unique insight into the individuals’ evolving (or is it devolving?) mindset as both persons descended, slowly but surely, into the abyss of Islamic fundamentalist thought. These Arabic-speaking immigrants who were very well assimilated into Western society ended resenting everything about the West. So, naturally, off they went to wage jihad in Afghanistan. They felt alienated where they lived, so they sought brotherhood elsewhere.

There is no evidence their material ambitions were denied in the society in which they lived, and lived for many years we might add; they felt they were denied something, but there is no evidence to prove they were denied anything. They held well-paying professional jobs that were stable, which is more than most minimum-wage workers in those countries could hope to get.

But, there is no telling to what extent they were successful in realizing their spiritual ambitions or even their amorous ambitions living in the West. (The spiritual is beyond my competence, I’m afraid.) This brings us to the previous point that alienation could have more reasons than one. But let us stop talking about the prurient ambitions of jihadists or militants who have lives that ordinarily hang on the cusp of a precipice and start talking about the ambitions that are most ordinary in life, like Joe’s. (Joseph Benjamin Chapin Jr. of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania is quite a mouthful, hence Joe.)

Joe is an affectionate husband, a doting father, and an obliging friend. (No, this is not someone I interviewed; I am arrogant enough not to ask anyone for anything, much less their views. Who was it who said, “When I want your opinion, I will give it to you”?) If it weren’t for the qualities just mentioned, this character from John O’Hara’s 1955 novel “Ten North Fredrick” (the street where Joe lived) would have been nothing but an utterly useless human being without a drop of charisma running through his veins.

And contrary to reason but in accordance to the ineradicable tradition among delusional circles whose members always insist on becoming kings, prime ministers or presidents for no apparent reason except they want to be called one, Joe wants to become President of the United States. But before he can become one, he does everybody a great favor and just dies. Now, had he lived, more likely than not, his ambitions would have been frustrated and that would have been the end of that; and since the shortcoming was clearly with the man and not the system, we won’t expect a gregarious Joe to harbor resentment against society or anything of the sort; in fact, we won’t expect him to harbor anything other than mere disappointment.

But, unlike Joe, when circumstances are such that most ordinary people are denied their ambitions, and these are mostly modest and reasonable, they lash out against society and even themselves. The negative consequences associated with masses of frustrated ambitions cannot be easily addressed; alienation cannot be easily addressed. It requires a fundamental change in the way of the world.

Social factors are sometimes obstacles; if not more importantly, economic factors also keep brilliant people from contributing to the betterment of society. O’Hara, whose work we made some liberal use of above, is a good example. This child of Irish immigrants to America became a writer because he couldn’t afford to attend law school. No one familiar with his works would deny American jurisprudence would have been the better for his admission into the bar.

A mass of alienated humanity is forced to subsist (we can’t call it live) under hostile conditions, under a hostile economy, and we might add, under police orders, with nothing to be shown for its exertions except profit for some and debt for the many. And what are commonly ignored in these arguments are the wasted time and the wasted potential; it is not necessarily the alienated mass’s time or potential that is wasted, but society’s. What wonders could not have been achieved had that mass been allowed the slightest freedom to prove itself?