The latest atrocity visited upon innocent civilians on a summer’s day in Spain follows a now, sadly, familiar pattern of events. The callous running down of anyone in the way of a death dealing vehicle is followed by frantic attempts by the authorities to contain the perpetrators and end their murderous intent by all means possible, often by lethal force. ISIS (Daesh) are anxious to claim such incidents as their own – though a direct link may be unproven – they are without doubt the bitter fruit of their pernicious and doomed ideology. After each such outrage certain questions linger and their solution seems as elusive as ever. Why do young men (and sometimes women) from similar backgrounds enrol themselves in the destructive and blood thirsty claims and actions of ISIS (Daesh)? What do they hope to gain from such atrocities which in further their cause or beliefs? As the perpetrators are often killed or kill themselves during such terrorist acts what is their personal belief of their future beyond death? It may give some comfort to imagine these acts of terrorism are also acts of desperation as the adherents of extremist forms of Jihadism see their illusion of an earthly Caliphate, formed in their own image, receding with every military defeat in Iraq and Syria.
If these are acts of desperation then the source of that desperation is not only political and ideological, it is also spiritual. To have one’s dreams, beliefs and aspirations for the dawning of a new age of certainty and authoritarianism based upon Islamic principles (however distorted), with ISIS at the vanguard, widely discredited and disowned among your co-religionists and see the vanguard systematically defeated is a bitter, and for some, unbearable experience of downfall. Towards the end of World War Two a number of SS officers committed suicide rather than surrender and the Kamikaze pilots of the Japanese Imperial Army were similarly intent upon death rather than dishonour. If your ideology is one where honour rather than shame and guilt is a core element of your culture then what are your options when facing the defeat and humiliation of your dreams?
For those committing these atrocities lines have been crossed: from idealism to nihilism, from belief in a paradisaical earthly future to a death fixation and from utopia to dystopia. History recounts the crossing of these lines leads to a narrowing of options for the ‘believer’; death or glory. But it is a glorification of the self rather than the cause. Such terrorists are engaging in a monumental act of self-centred narcissistic nihilism which is neither martyrdom nor sacrifice as they are not directly persecuted and no one benefits from their death. By choosing to die after murdering the maximum number of innocent people they are reinforcing the dysfunctional and doomed nature of their cause.
Does this analysis give us any cause for comfort? No. Such extremes of individualism have their roots in the Western discourse which for 300 years sought to delineate the needs of the individual over the anonymity of the whole and the authority of the state; faith – at best – providing a moderating influence on both. But where is faith now? Whither the institutions which endeavour to mediate the divine will to the masses while conscious of their own shortcomings? Alongside the narcissistic nihilism of the current cohort of terrorists is a spiritual emptiness at the heart of many nations and peoples, an emptiness being filled by a range of quasi religio-politico causes bearing little or no resemblance to the God of Love and Mercy many millions still worship in one form or another.
Fr Larry Wright, Religious Affairs Advisory Group, London,