What makes a hero? I’ve found myself thinking about that a lot lately. Humans seem to have a great hunger for heroes; demand always exceeds the supply. Which is logical enough, when you consider that heroes, by their very definition, are supposed to be exceptional. What’s that great line from The Incredibles again? "When everyone’s super, no one will be."
Every age complains about its lack of heroes, but once you start looking, it turns out that they are indeed around. Right now, netizens are enthusing over a chance photo that shows a New York City cop making a present of new boots to a homeless man. That the photo went viral almost instantly attests to our need to latch on to people who seem to embody the highest values. (Or just take a look at CNN’s popular Heroes program, a celebration of ordinary people who do good deeds.)
Heroes come in different forms. Just take a look at Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of that country’s pro-democracy movement, would clearly qualify as a hero in just about anyone’s book. She sacrificed a happy life with her own family to the cause of attaining freedom for her people. She has stared down armed soldiers and endured lonely decades of detention. Now, after so many years of struggle, she seems to have been vindicated. The same military government that she opposed for so many years has suddenly changed heart, opening up the once-isolated country to the outside world and awakening hope among its own citizens.
Yet consider the other Burmese politician that FP named to its 2012 list of 100 Global Thinkers, a group whose achievements we’re celebrating this week. Burmese President Thein Sein is not really the kind of person you’d choose as a natural hero. For almost his entire adult life he embodied the very system that Aung San Suu Kyi fought. He spent four decades in the Burmese military, which has run the country since 1962, mostly with unstinting brutality. Thein Sein played a big role in the regime. From 2007 to 2011, he served as prime minister; it was only in 2010, soon before he become president, that he hung up his uniform. It was soon after that he launched the reforms that have led to the release of hundreds of political prisoners and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to get herself elected to a seat in parliament.
Thein Sein is not a colorful or charismatic personality. He may be the same age as Aung San Suu Kyi, but he comes off — perhaps by virtue of his long years of service in a tyrannical regime — as far older and grayer than she. He reads his speeches in a monotone. Given his past, it’s doubtful that he will ever have any sort of real rapport with his people. And it would be hard to blame them for it, given the horrors that the Burmese military has visited upon the country’s citizenry over the years. (He hasn’t been directly implicated in any abuses himself, but he was such a part of the regime that he was also targeted by United States sanctions intended to discipline the Burmese regime. His name was taken off the sanctions list only on September 20 of this year.)
In other words, no one should expect Hollywood to come up with a stirring biopic based on the life of the Burmese president. We like our heroes to have triumphantly linear biographies, tales of ascent against the odds — and that means that the scriptwriters are out of luck when it comes to someone like Thein Sein. This is a man who achieved all the power that an authoritarian system has to offer — and then embarked on a course designed to undermine that very power. His friends will accordingly despise him as a traitor, while his foes dismiss him as an opportunist.
I can’t claim all the credit for that last thought. It’s actually a paraphrase of an insight expressed in a magnificent and largely forgotten essay by the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger. As far as I can tell, though it has been occasionally referenced in English, the essay — entitled "The Heroes of Retreat" ("Die Helden des Rueckzugs" in the original) — has never been properly translated into English, which is a terrible shame. Enzensberger published the article in one of Germany’s leading newspapers, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in December 1989. (You’ll have a hard time finding it on the paper’s website; if you want a copy, you’re better off ordering a collection of Enzensberger’s essays, like this one.)
Enzensbeger wrote his piece at a moment when the Soviet communist edifice in East Central Europe was falling apart. The man who did more than anyone else to facilitate that development was, of course, Mikhail Gorbachev, the then-Soviet leader, who made it publicly clear that Red Army troops were no longer in the business of keeping communist governments in the region in power, thus essentially inviting Poles, Czechs, East Germans, and all the rest to rise up in (mostly peaceful) revolt. This, Enzensberger argues, required a kind of political self-effacement and tactical modesty that is far more praiseworthy than the bloody military triumphs that once inspired traditional labels of "heroism." The compromises that enable nonviolent solutions to tyranny may not always qualify as the stuff of bedtime stories, but, the author insists, they are no less worthy of our accolades.
Enzensberger’s other "heroes of retreat" include General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish communist who outlawed the Solidarity trade union and declared martial law in 1981, but opened the way toward an end of the communist party’s monopoly on power later in the decade, as well as János Kádár, the reformist party leader in Hungary after the 1956 revolution against Soviet rule. Another is Adolfo Suárez, the first democratically elected prime minister of Spain after the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. In 1977, Suárez, who had once headed the fascist Falange Movement (one of the pillars of the authoritarian system created by Franco), presided over the first free elections in 41 years, the grandest act in the gradual dismantlement of Spain’s transition to democracy.
"It was Clausewitz, that classic strategic thinker, who showed that retreat is the most difficult of all military operations," writes Enzensberger. "This is also true of politics." Suárez, Enzensberger writes, "was a participant and a beneficiary of the Franco regime; had he not belonged to its innermost circle of power, he would have not been in the position to do away with the dictatorship." It’s for such reasons that the masters of political retreat rarely get their due: the role they play is one of pronounced ambivalence: "He who abandons his own positions is not only surrendering ground, but also a part of himself." But it’s precisely this capacity to surrender power, rather than amassing it, that belongs to the peculiar mission of these crucial political figures.
Needless to say, when a dictatorship resolves to do away with itself, the process that results can be long, tedious, and not entirely satisfying. There are bound to be messy compromises involved, both practical and moral — just ask the Brazilians, the Chileans, or the South Africans. And success certainly isn’t a given: Vladimir Putin hasn’t found it too hard to roll back Gorbachev’s experiment in liberalization.
Present-day Burma’s forward progress is hardly guaranteed, either. There are still many questions about the extent to which those who held power under the old regime are willing to surrender the political and economic privileges they continue to enjoy. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give Thein Sein his due. He’s a bad guy who’s now trying to do something right. We should give credit to people who are capable of change. That’s something that takes courage and daring. We are right to celebrate the good that he’s done.
Tags: Christian Caryl, Default, Democracy Lab, Free, Freedom, Human Rights, Southeast Asia, Web Exclusive
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I. The isolated individual
It is difficult to talk about the loser, and it is stupid not to. Stupid because there can be no definitive winner and because each of us, from the megalomaniac Bonaparte to the last beggar on the streets of Calcutta, will meet the same fate. Difficult because to content oneself with this metaphysical banality is to take an easy way out, as it ignores the truly explosive dimension of the problem, the political dimension.
Instead of actually looking into the thousand faces of the loser, sociologists keep to their statistics: median value, standard deviation, normal distribution. It rarely occurs to them that they themselves might be among the losers. Their definitions are like scratching a wound: as Samuel Butler says, the itching and the pain only get worse. One thing is certain: the way humanity has organized itself â "capitalism", "competition", "empire", "globalization" â not only does the number of losers increase every day, but as in any large group, fragmentation soon sets in. In a chaotic, unfathomable process, the cohorts of the inferior, the defeated, the victims separate out. The loser may accept his fate and resign himself; the victim may demand satisfaction; the defeated may begin preparing for the next round. But the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion, saves his energy, and waits for his hour to come.
Those who content themselves with the objective, material criteria, the indices of the economists and the devastating findings of the empiricists, will understand nothing of the true drama of the radical loser. What others think of him â be they rivals or brothers, experts or neighbours, schoolmates, bosses, friends or foes â is not sufficient motivation. The radical loser himself must take an active part, he must tell himself: I am a loser and nothing but a loser. As long as he is not convinced of this, life may treat him badly, he may be poor and powerless, he may know misery and defeat, but he will not become a radical loser until he adopts the judgement of those who consider themselves winners as his own.
Since before the attack on the World Trade Center, political scientists, sociologists and psychologists have been searching in vain for a reliable pattern. Neither poverty nor the experience of political repression alone seem to provide a satisfactory explanation for why young people actively seek out death in a grand bloody finale and aim to take as many people with them as possible. Is there a phenotype that displays the same characteristics down the ages and across all classes and cultures?
No one pays any mind to the radical loser if they do not have to. And the feeling is mutual. As long as he is alone â and he is very much alone â he does not strike out. He appears unobtrusive, silent: a sleeper. But when he does draw attention to himself and enter the statistics, then he sparks consternation bordering on shock. For his very existence reminds the others of how little it would take to put them in his position. One might even assist the loser if only he would just give up. But he has no intention of doing so, and it does not look as if he would be partial to any assistance.
Many professions take the loser as the object of their studies and as the basis for their existence. Social psychologists, social workers, social policy experts, criminologists, therapists and others who do not count themselves among the losers would be out of work without him. But with the best will in the world, the client remains obscure to them: their empathy knows clearly-defined professional bounds. One thing they do know is that the radical loser is hard to get through to and, ultimately, unpredictable. Identifying the one person among the hundreds passing through their offices and surgeries who is prepared to go all the way is more than they are capable of. Maybe they sense that this is not just a social issue that can be repaired by bureaucratic means. For the loser keeps his ideas to himself. That is the trouble. He keeps quiet and waits. He lets nothing show, which is precisely why he is feared. In historical terms, this fear is very old, but today it is more justified than ever. Anyone with the smallest scrap of power within society will at times feel something of the huge destructive energy that lies within the radical loser and which no intervention can neutralize, however well-meaning or serious it might be.
He can explode at any moment. This is the only solution to his problem that he can imagine: a worsening of the evil conditions under which he suffers. The newspapers run stories on him every week: the father of two who killed his wife, his small children and finally himself. Unthinkable! A headline in the local section: A Family Tragedy. Or the man who suddenly barricades himself in his apartment, taking the landlord, who wanted money from him, as his hostage. When the police finally gets to the scene, he starts shooting. He is then said to have "run amok", a word borrowed from the Malayan. He kills an officer before collapsing in the shower of bullets. What triggered this explosion remains unclear. His wife's nagging perhaps, noisy neighbours, an argument at the pub, or the bank cancelling his loan. A disparaging remark from a superior is enough to make the man climb a tower and start firing at anything that moves outside the supermarket, not in spite of but precisely because of the fact that this massacre will accelerate his own end. Where on earth did he get that machine pistol from?
At last, this radical loser â he may be just fifteen and having a hard time with his spots â at last, he is master over life and death. Then, in the newsreader's words, he "dies at his own hands" and the investigators get down to work. They find a few videos, a few confused journal entries. The parents, neighbours, teachers noticed nothing unusual. A few bad grades, for sure, a certain reticence â the boy didn't talk much. But that is no reason to shoot dead a dozen of his schoolmates. The experts deliver their verdicts. Cultural critics bring forth their arguments. Inevitably, they speak of a "debate on values". The search for reasons comes to nothing. Politicians express their dismay. The conclusion is reached that it was an isolated case.
This is correct, since the culprits are always isolated individuals who have found no access to a collective. And it is incorrect, since isolated cases of this kind are becoming more and more frequent. This increase leads one to conclude that there are more and more radical losers. This is due to the so-called "state of things." This might refer equally to the world market or to an insurance company that refuses to pay.
But anyone wishing to understand the radical loser would be well advised to go a little further back. Progress has not put an end to human suffering, but it has changed it in no small way. Over the past two centuries, the more successful societies have fought for and established new rights, new expectations and new demands. They have done away with the notion of an inevitable fate. They have put concepts like human dignity and human rights on the agenda. The have democratized the struggle for recognition and awakened expectations of equality which they are unable to fulfil. And at the same time, they have made sure that inequality is constantly demonstrated to all of the planet's inhabitants round the clock on every television channel. As a result, with every stage of progress, people's capacity for disappointment has increased accordingly.
"Where cultural progress is genuinely successful and ills are cured, this progress is seldom received with enthusiasm," remarks the philosopher Odo Marquard (book): "Instead, they are taken for granted and attention focuses on those ills that remain. And these remaining ills are subject to the law of increasing annoyance. The more negative elements disappear from reality, the more annoying the remaining negative elements become, precisely because of this decrease in numbers."
This is an understatement. For what we are dealing with here is not annoyance, but murderous rage. What the loser is obsessed with is a comparison that never works in his favour. Since the desire for recognition knows no limits, the pain threshold inevitably sinks and the affronts become more and more unbearable. The irritability of the loser increases with every improvement that he notices in the lot of others. The yardstick is never those who are worse off than himself. In his eyes, it is not they who are constantly being insulted, humbled and humiliated, but only ever him, the radical loser.
The question as to why this should be so only adds to his torment. Because it certainly cannot be his own fault. That is inconceivable. Which is why he must find the guilty ones who are responsible for his plight.
But who are these omnipotent, nameless aggressors? Thrown back entirely on his own resources, the answer to this nagging question is beyond the isolated individual. If no ideological program comes to his aid, then his search is unlikely to extend to the wider societal context, looking instead to his immediate surroundings and finding: the unjust superior, the unruly wife, the bad neighbour, the conniving co-worker, the inflexible public official, the doctor who refuses to give him a medical certificate.
But might he not also be facing the machinations of some invisible, anonymous enemy? Then the loser would not need to rely on his own experience: he could fall back on things he heard somewhere. Few people have the gift of inventing a delusion for themselves that fits their needs. Consequently, the loser will most often stick to material that floats freely within society. The threatening powers that are out to get him are not hard to locate. The usual suspects are foreigners, secret services, Communists, Americans, big corporations, politicians, unbelievers. And, almost always, the Jews.
For a while, this kind of delusion may bring the loser relief, but it will not be able to actually pacify him. In the long term, it is hard to assert oneself in the face of a hostile world, and he can never entirely rid himself of the suspicion that there might be a simpler explanation, namely that he is responsible, that his humiliation is his own fault, that he does not merit the esteem he craves, and that his own life is worthless. Psychologists call this affliction "identifying with the aggressor". But what is that supposed to mean? It certainly has no meaning for the loser. But if his own life is worthless, why should he care about the lives of others?
"It's my fault." â "The others are responsible." These two claims are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they reinforce each other. The radical loser is unable to think his way out of this vicious circle, and it constitutes the source of his terrible power.
The only way out of the dilemma is to fuse destruction and self-destruction, aggression and auto-aggression. On the one hand, at the moment of his explosion, the loser for once experiences a feeling of true power. His act allows him to triumph over others by annihilating them. And on the other, he does justice to the reverse of this feeling of power, the suspicion that his own existence might be worthless, by putting an end to it.
As an additional bonus, from the moment he resorts to armed force, the outside world, which has never wanted to know anything about him, takes notice of him. The media make sure he is granted an enormous degree of publicity â even if it is for just 24 hours. Television spreads propaganda for his act, thus encouraging potential imitators. For minors, as shown by events in the United States in particular, the temptation this represents is hard to resist.
The logic of the radical loser cannot be grasped in terms of common sense. Common sense cites the instinct of self-preservation as if it were an unquestionable fact of nature, to be taken for granted. Whereas in fact, it is a fragile notion, quite young in historical terms. Self-preservation is referred to by the Greeks, by Hobbes and Spinoza, but it is not considered as a purely natural drive. Instead, according to Immanuel Kant, "the... first duty of the human individual towards himself in the quality of his animalness is self-preservation in his animal nature." Only in the nineteenth century did this duty become an inviolable fact of natural science. Few deviated from this view. Nietzsche objected that physiologists should avoid, "fixing the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being." But among those who would always rather survive, his words have always fallen on deaf ears.
The history of ideas aside, humanity never seems to have expected individual lives to be treated as the supreme good. All early religions set great store by human sacrifice. Later, martyrs were highly valued. (According to Blaise Pascal's fatal maxim, one should "only believe witnesses who allow themselves to be killed.") In most cultures, heroes acquired fame and honour for their fearlessness in the face of death. Until the mass slaughter of World War I, secondary school pupils had to learn the notorious verse from Horace according to which is sweet and honourable to die for one's fatherland. Others claimed that shipping was necessary, but not staying alive; during the Cold War there were those who shouted "Better dead than red!" And what, under perfectly civilian conditions, are we to think of tightrope walkers, extreme sports, motor racing, polar exploration and other forms of potential suicide?
Clearly, the instinct of self-preservation is not up to much. The remarkable fondness of the human species for suicide, down the ages and across all cultures, is proof enough of this. No taboo and no threat of punishment have been able keep people from taking their own lives. This tendency cannot be quantified. Any attempt to grasp it by means of statistics will fail due to the huge number of unrecorded cases.
Sigmund Freud tried to solve the problem theoretically, on an unstable empirical basis, by developing his concept of the death drive. Freud's hypothesis is expressed more clearly in the familiar old wisdom that situations may arise in which humans prefer a terrible end to (real or imagined) terror without end.
II. The collective
But what happens when the radical loser overcomes his isolation, when he becomes socialized, finds a loser-home, from which he can expect not only understanding but also recognition, a collective of people like himself who welcome him, who need him?
Then, the destructive energy that lies within him is multiplied â his unscrupulousness, his amalgam of death-wish and megalomania â and he is rescued from his powerlessness by a fatal sense of omnipotence.
For this to take place, however, a kind of ideological trigger is required to ignite the radical loser and make him explode. As history shows us, offers of this kind have never been in short supply. Their content is of the least importance. They may be religious or political doctrines, nationalist, communist or racist dogmas â any form of sectarianism, however bigoted, is capable of mobilizing the latent energy of the radical loser.
This applies not only to the rank and file but also to their commanders, whose attraction is based in turn on their own self-definition as obsessive losers. It is precisely the leader's deluded traits in which his followers recognize themselves. He is rightly accused of being cynical and calculating. It is only natural that he should despise his followers. He understands them all too well. He knows they are losers and, finally, he thus considers them worthless. And as Elias Canetti put it half a century ago, he therefore takes pleasure in the idea that if possible, everyone else, including his followers, should meet their death before he himself is hanged or consumed by fire in his bunker.
At this point, alongside many other examples from history, one cannot help being reminded of the National Socialist project in Germany. At the end of the Weimar Republic, large sections of the population saw themselves as losers. The objective data tell a clear story. But the economic crisis and mass unemployment would probably not have been enough to bring Hitler to power. For that to happen, it took propaganda aimed at the subjective factor: the blow dealt to people's pride by the defeat of 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles. Most Germans sought to blame others: the victorious powers, the "global Capitalist-Bolshevist conspiracy" and above all, of course, the eternal scapegoat, Judaism. The tormenting feeling of being in the position of the loser could only be compensated for by pursuing an offensive strategy, by seeking refuge in megalomania. From the outset, the Nazis entertained delusions of world domination. As such, their goals were boundless and non-negotiable. In this sense, they were not only unreal, but also non-political.
Consulting a map was never going to be enough to persuade Hitler and his followers that the struggle of one small European country against the rest of the world was hopeless. On the contrary. The radical loser has no notion of resolving conflicts, of compromise that might involve him in a normal network of interests and defuse his destructive energy. The more hopeless his project, the more fanatically he clings to it. There are grounds to suspect that Hitler and his followers were interested not in victory, but in radicalizing and eternalizing their own status as losers.
Their pent up anger discharged itself in a war of unprecedented destruction against all those others who they blamed for their own defeats. First and foremost, it was a matter of destroying the Jews and the opponents of 1919. But they certainly had no intention of sparing the Germans. Their actual objective was not victory, but elimination, downfall, collective suicide, the terrible end. There is no other explanation for the way the Germans fought on in World War II right to the last pile of rubble in Berlin. Hitler himself confirmed this diagnosis when he said that the German people did not deserve to survive. At a huge cost, he achieved what he wanted â he lost. But the Jews, the Poles, the Russians, the Germans and all the others are still around.
The radical loser has not disappeared either. He is still among us. This is inevitable. On every continent, there are leaders who welcome him with open arms. Except that today, they are very rarely associated with the state. In this field too, privatization has made considerable advances. Although it is governments which have at their disposal the greatest potential for extermination, state crime in the conventional sense is now on the defensive worldwide.
To date, few loser-collectives have operated on a global scale, even if they were able to count on international flows of cash and weapon supplies. But the world is teeming with local groupings whose leaders are referred to as warlords or guerrilla chiefs. Their self-appointed militias and paramilitary gangs like to adorn themselves with the title of a liberation organization or other revolutionary attributes. In some media, they are referred to as rebels, a euphemism that probably flatters them. Shining Path, MLC, RCD, SPLA, ELA, LTTE, LRA, FNL, IRA, LIT, KACH, DHKP, FSLN, UVF, JKLF, ELN, FARC, PLF, GSPC, MILF, NPA, PKK, MODEL, JI, NPA, AUC, CPNML, UDA, GIA, RUF, LVF, SNM, ETA, NLA, PFLP, SPM, LET, ONLF, SSDF, PIJ, JEM, SLA, ANO, SPLMA, RAF, AUM, PGA, ADF, IBDA, ULFA, PLFM, ULFBV, ISYF, LURD, KLO, UPDS, NLFT, ATTF ...
"Left" or "Right", it makes no odds. Each of these armed rabbles calls itself an army, boasts of brigades and commandos, self-importantly issuing bureaucratic communiqués and boastful claims of responsibility, acting as if they were the representatives of "the masses". Being convinced, as radical losers, of the worthlessness of their own lives, they do not care about the lives of anyone else either; any concern for survival is foreign to them. And this applies equally to their opponents, to their own followers, and to those with no involvement whatsoever. They have a penchant for kidnapping and murdering people who are trying to relieve the misery of the region they are terrorizing, shooting aid workers and doctors and burning down every last hospital in the area with a bed or a scalpel â for they have trouble distinguishing between mutilation and self-mutilation.
But none of these mobs has been able to keep up with globalization. In cases where their ideological exploitation focuses on national and ethnic conflicts, this is only natural. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, groups seeing themselves in the tradition of internationalism have forfeited the support of a superpower in terms of propaganda and logistics. Under the pressure of global capital, they have abandoned their fantasies of world domination and now claim only to represent the interests of their local clientele.
Since this cut-off point, only one violent movement has been capable of acting globally â Islamism. It is undertaking a large-scale attempt to siphon off the religious energy of a world faith with around 1.3 billion believers that is not only still very much alive, but which even in purely demographic terms is also expanding on every continent. Although this Umma is subject to much inner fragmentation and badly affected by national and social conflicts, the ideology of Islamism is an ideal means of mobilizing radical losers because of the way it amalgamates religious, political and social motives.
A further promise of success lies in the movement's organizational model. Turning its back on the strict centralism of earlier groupings, it has replaced the omniscient and omnipotent central committee with a flexible network: a highly original innovation that is entirely of its time.
Besides this, however, the Islamists are perfectly happy to plunder the arsenal of their predecessors. It is often overlooked that modern terrorism is a European invention of the nineteenth century. Its most important ancestors came from Czarist Russia, but it can also look back on a long history in Western Europe. In recent times, the left-wing terrorism of the 1970s has proved a source of inspiration, with Islamists borrowing many of its symbols and techniques. The style of their announcements, the use of video recordings, the emblematic significance of the Kalashnikov, even the gestures, body language and dress, all this shows how much they have learned from these western role models.
There is also no mistaking other similarities, such as the fixation with written authorities. The place of Marx and Lenin is taken by the Koran, references are made not to Gramsci but to Sayyid Qutb. Instead of the international proletariat, it takes as its revolutionary subject the Umma, and as its avant-garde and self-appointed representative of the masses it takes not The Party but the widely branching conspiratorial network of Islamist fighters. Although the movement can draw on older rhetorical forms which to outsiders may sound high-flown or big-mouthed, it owes many of its idées fixes to its Communist enemy: history obeys rigid laws, victory is inevitable, deviationists and traitors are to be exposed and then, in fine Leninist tradition, bombarded with ritual insults.
The movement's list of favourite foes is also short on surprises: America, the decadent West, international capital, Zionism. The list is completed by the unbelievers, that is to say the remaining 5.2 billion people on the planet. Not forgetting apostate Muslims who may be found among the Shiites, Ibadhis, Alawites, Zaidites, Ahmadiyyas, Wahhabis, Druze, Sufis, Kharijites, Ishmaelites or other religious communities.
III. The spectacle
In one respect, however, the Islamists are without doubt a twenty-first-century phenomenon: where their understanding of the media is concerned, they leave their predecessors far behind. Earlier disciples of terror also relied on "propaganda through action", but the kind of worldwide attention achieved today by a nebulous grouping like Al Qaida was not granted to them. Trained by television, computer technology, the Internet and advertising, Islamist terror now gets higher viewer ratings than any football World Cup. The all-important massacres are staged in Hollywood-inspired style, modelled on disaster films, splatter movies and science fiction thrillers. This too is evidence of a dependency on the hated West. In the media output of terrorism, the Society of the Spectacle as described by the Situationists comes into its own.
More momentous still, however, is the strategic use of suicide attacks, an invincible weapon that cannot be seen by surveillance satellites and which can be deployed practically anywhere. It is also extremely cheap. In addition to these advantages, this form of terror also exerts an irresistible attraction on the radical loser. It allows him to combine destruction and self-destruction at the same time as acting out both his megalomaniac fantasies and his self-hate. Cowardice is the last thing he can be accused of. The courage that is his hallmark is the courage of despair. His triumph consists in the fact that he can be neither fought nor punished, since he takes care of that himself.
Contrary to what the West appears to believe, the destructive energy of Islamist actions is directed mainly against Muslims. This is not a tactical error, not a case of "collateral damage". In Algeria alone, Islamist terror has cost the lives of at least 50,000 fellow Algerians. Other sources speak of as many as 150,000 murders, although the military and the secret services were also involved. In Iraq and Afghanistan, too, the number of Muslim victims far outstrips the death toll among foreigners. Furthermore, terrorism has been highly detrimental not only to the image of Islam but also to the living conditions of Muslims around the world.
The Islamists are as unconcerned about this as the Nazis were about the downfall of Germany. As the avant-garde of death, they have no regard for the lives of their fellow believers. In the eyes of the Islamists, the fact that most Muslims have no desire to blow themselves and others sky high only goes to show that they deserve no better than to be liquidated themselves. After all, the aim of the radical loser is to make as many other people into losers as possible. As the Islamists see it, the fact that they are in the minority can only be because they are the chosen few.
Experts around the world are not the only ones wondering how the Islamist movement has been able to recruit so many activists with its promises, far outdoing its secular rivals. No clear answer is in sight. All that is clear is that there must be explanations in the history of the Arab civilization that brought forth the world religion of Islam. This civilization reached its apogee at the time of the Caliphate. At this time, it was far superior to Europe in military, economic and cultural terms. The Arab world views this period with misty-eyed nostalgia; even today, 800 years later, it plays a central role in the consciousness of the region. In the intervening period, the power, the prestige, the cultural and economic weight of the Arab world has been in continual decline. Such an unparalleled demise is a puzzle and a sore point, generating an acute sense of loss. The Indian-born Muslim poet Hussain Hali (1837-1914) expressed this in his epic poem The Ebb and Flow of Islam:
"The historians doing research today
whose scientific methods are magnificent,
who plumb the archives of the world
and explore the surface of the earth â
the Arabs fuelled the fire in their hearts,
their rapid gait was learned from the Arabs."
Looking down from this high ground, Hali describes the decline over time, in several stanzas, the last of which reads:
"We are neither trustworthy government officials
nor proud towards courtiers,
we do not earn respect in the sciences,
nor do we excel in crafts and industry."
It is not easy to put oneself in the position of a collective that has experienced such a downfall extending over a period of hundreds of years. No wonder the blame is put on a hostile outside world in the form of the Spaniards, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the European colonial powers and the American empire. But other societies such as India, China and Korea have suffered no less under the rule of invaders and from the attacks and raids of foreign powers. But in spite of this, they have successfully faced the challenges of modernity and risen to become important players on a global scale. The question therefore inevitably poses itself as to the endogenous causes of the downfall of the Arab world. As long as this question remains unanswered, the Arab world's enormous scientific, technical and industrial deficit will remain unexplained and inexplicable.
The Arab world's sense of pride is hurt not only by military inferiority to the West. Far worse is the impact of intellectual and material dependency. In the last 400 years, not a single noteworthy invention was made by the Arabs. Rudolph Chimelli quotes one Iraqi author as saying: "If an Arab had invented the steam engine in the 18th century, it would not have been built." No historian would contradict him. This means that for any Arab who cares to think about it, the very objects on which everyday life in the Maghreb and the Middle East depends represent an unspoken humiliation â every fridge, every telephone, every power socket, every screwdriver, not to mention hi-tech products. Even the parasitic oil states, frittering away their future security, are obliged to import the technology from abroad; without Western geologists, drilling experts and civil engineers, fleets of tankers and refineries they would not even be capable of exploiting their own resources. In this light, even their wealth is a curse that constantly reminds them of their dependency. Not including the revenue from crude oil, the economic performance of the entire Arab world today counts for less than that of a single Finnish telecommunications company.
The Arab world has proved similarly unproductive where its political institutions are concerned. Imported forms of nationalism and socialism have failed everywhere, and democratic stirrings are routinely nipped in the bud. Of course, blanket statements of this kind can only aim to say something about the state of the whole. They tell us nothing about individual capabilities, that are subject the world over to the genetic normal distribution. But in many Arab countries, anyone who expresses independent ideas puts their own life at risk. Which is why many of the best scientists, engineers, writers and political thinkers live in exile, a brain drain that can certainly be compared with the exodus of Jewish elites from Germany in the 1930s, and which is likely to have similarly far-reaching consequences.
Although the methods of repression that are customary in Arab countries refer back to the traditions of oriental despotism, in this field too, the unbelievers have proved indispensable as teachers. From machine pistols through to poison gas, they invented and exported all of the weapons that have been used in the Arab-Islamic world. Arab rulers also studied and adopted the methods of the GPU and the Gestapo. And of course, Islamist terrorism is also unable to do without such borrowings. Its entire technical arsenal, from explosives to satellite telephones, from aircraft to television cameras, comes from the hated West.
That such an all-encompassing dependency should be experienced as unbearable makes perfect sense. Especially among displaced migrants, regardless of their economic situation, the confrontation with Western civilisation leads to a lasting culture shock. The apparent superabundance of products, opinions, economic and sexual options leads to a double bind of attraction and revulsion, and the abiding memory of the backwardness of one's own culture becomes intolerable. The consequences for one's own sense of self-esteem are clear, as is the urge to compensate by means of conspiracy theories and acts of vengeance. In this situation, many people cannot resist the temptation of the Islamists' offer to punish others for their own failings.
Solutions to the dilemma of the Arab world are of no interest to Islamism, which does not go beyond negation. Strictly speaking, it is a non-political movement, since it makes no negotiable demands. Put bluntly, it would like the majority of the planet's inhabitants, all the unbelievers and apostates, to capitulate or be killed.
This burning desire cannot be fulfilled. The destructive energy of the radical losers is doubtless sufficient to kill thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and to cause lasting damage to the civilization on which they have declared war. One indication of the potential impact of a few dozen human bombs is the level of day-to-day controls that has come to be the norm.
But this is actually the least of the losses to civilization resulting from terrorism. It can create a general atmosphere of fear and trigger counter-reactions based on panic. It boosts the power and influence of the political police, of the secret services, of the arms industry and of private security operatives; it encourages the passing of increasingly repressive laws and leads to the loss of hard-won freedoms. No conspiracy theories are required to understand that there are people who welcome these consequences of terror. There is nothing better than an external enemy with which to justify surveillance and repression. Where this leads is shown by the example of Russian domestic policy.
The Islamists can consider all this a success. But it makes no difference to the actual power relations. Even the spectacular attack on the World Trade Center was not able to shake the supremacy of the United States. The New York Stock Exchange reopened the Monday after the attacks, and the long-term impact on the international financial system and world trade was minimal.
The consequences for Arab societies, on the other hand, are fatal. For the most devastating long-term effects will be born not by the West, but by the religion in whose name the Islamists act. Not just refugees, asylum seekers and migrants will suffer as a result. Beyond any sense of justice, entire peoples will have to pay a huge price for the actions of their self-appointed representatives. The idea that their prospects, which are bad enough as it is, could be improved through terrorism is absurd. History offers no example of a regressive society that stifled its own productive potential being capable of survival in the long term.
The project of the radical loser, as currently seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, consists of organizing the suicide of an entire civilisation. But the likelihood of their succeeding in an unlimited generalization of their death cult is negligible. Their attacks represent a permanent background risk, like ordinary everyday deaths by accident on the streets, to which we have become accustomed.
In a global society that constantly produces new losers, this is something we will have to live with.
The article originally appeared in German in Der Spiegel on November 7, 2005.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger is one of modern Germany's most interesting and celebrated writers. Among his books of poetry are "The Sinking of the Titanic" and "Mausoleum". His prose works include "Europe, Europe" and "Civil Wars".
Translation: Nicholas Grindell.
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