Whenever another suspected terrorist is discovered in a western country, particularly a younger male, the mainstream media will ask the obvious question: why? They typically probe into the suspect's schooling, their family, friends, and so on. The querying usually ends there. And we aren't much the wiser for it.
Even academic scholarship isn't very illuminating when seeking some kind of psychological profile of a western jihadist. In a 2015 articlepublished in The Atlantic, Professor John Horgan, Director of the Centre for Terrorism and Security Studies at UMass Lowell, was refreshingly candid in admitting that "Four decades of psychological research on who becomes a terrorist and why hasn't yet produced any profile."
Presented with shallow mainstream reporting and admirable epistemic unknowing, one may reasonably conclude that this pre-occupation with individuals and their biographical and psychological details won't get us very far when attempting to gain an adequate understanding of why people sign up for fundamentalist terror.
Surely something is missing in conventional analysis: might the lure of ISIS reveal something telling about western society?
Over a century ago, the brutally honest and prophetic philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, hit the nail on the head regarding western culture: "We see nothing today which wants to be greater. We suspect that things are constantly still going down, down into something . . . more comfortable, more mediocre, more apathetic . . ." (On the Genealogy of Morals, §12).
"More comfortable, more mediocre, more apathetic" – how much truer is this truth about western society today? With the Fukuyamanian "end of history," with neoliberalism's triumphover competing ideologies, it might not be overly melodramatic to claim that there is no longer any longing for greatness, for struggling for noble causes, of changing the world for the better. There seems to be a consensus that neoliberal capitalism is as good as it gets – indeed, as the only game in town.
No wonder, then, that western culture descends into banality, as it has no "higher" purpose or meaning, nothing to struggle for/against.
This descent is starkly portrayed in 1999's Fight Club. Perhaps its powerful agent-centred plotand all-star cast obscure the Nietzschean message. But it's certainly there. Note the following remarks by Brad Pitt's character, who (as the film's Wikipedia pagerightly notes) represents Nietzche's hoped-for Übermensch ("Hyperhuman"/"Superperson"), critic of mediocrity and inspirer of greatness:
I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it! An entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy sh*t we don't need.We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place, we have no Great War, no Great Depression . . .
Is your life so empty that you honestly can't think of a better way to spend these moments? . . . Do you read everything you're supposed to read? Do you think everything you're supposed to think? Buy what you're told to want? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you're alive.
"Quit your job. Start a fight." That's exactly what religious extremists are doing. They're quitting their jobs and proving to themselves and others that they're alive.
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