On The “Unspeakable” “Nihilism” Of Terrorist Violence

I don’t follow the news. I consciously avoid checking newspapers for anything except soccer coverage. I flick away from news updates on the television. I honestly don’t know what news stations are on my television. I don’t take the free newspaper at the train station.

I ought to be handicapped by this intentional ignorance but in fact, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. There are news updates on the screens at the petrol station. There are news tickers in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. There was even a television at the table in a restaurant we went into on Sunday. It was showing the news. Before we sat down, I asked the waiter if I could just turn the thing off. He said “Sure”, not quite comprehending why an otherwise pleasant customer would be so belligerent towards fresh and current information.

Fundamentally, I am not in the least bit handicapped by my news-poor information diet because news is the equivalent of cognitive fast food. Everything that matters climbs up to my lofty position of intellectual dis-interest. I understand the economic crash. I grasp austerity. I may not know what the Irish government PR spokespeople are trotting out this week, but I will be able to get the information when they actually stop spinning and make decisions. News today largely covers words spoken and documents released. I try to skip that level and just enter the conversation when the bullshit dance has finished.

This news-avoidance technique is an excellent way to reduce stress in my life. I don’t listen to radio programmes about politics and so the amount of buffoonery passed off as expert comment in my life is massively reduced. I don’t read the newspaper editorials passed around on Twitter so I am not troubled by the illogical bludgeoning of the English language that would otherwise enrage me. Instead I click on the links to animated gifs of cats being funny, the sermons about Jesus and the youtube videos of preternaturally gifted children with violins. There is no bottom to those vaults of goodness.

Sometimes the news breaks through. This weekend is one of those times. The terror attack in Nairobi is sufficiently alarming that my insulated antennae have nonetheless picked up on the details. Regardless of how often we make this observation, it remains a sentence we have to state: if this wasn’t an attack on dark skinned people in equatorial Africa, this would be the only story on the news. Instead, it is slightly less important than the fact that a Scotsman with sideburns won a cycling race.

I hope that as the weeks go by and the news distils into actual information, we won’t forget the direct connection made by Al Qaeda between their suicide bombing campaign against Pakistani Christians and the American government’s ongoing use of drones. I am not so sure that will happen, sadly.

One of the things that is happening is that the attacks on Nairobi are almost instinctively being understood as irrational. (The irony is Satanically dark.) How are we to understand what has happened? Well, say the experts, there are certain people in the world, let’s call them Baddies, who want to cause destruction. They aren’t like you and I, you see, these people. They are irrational.

The explanation for why such a co-ordinated attack on a shopping mall in a leafy part of Kenya is worth anyone’s hassle then forks into two final notes. Either the Muslim religion practised by the attackers is irrelevant, as David Cameron insisted or it is the most relevant piece of information, as various “hard-headed” columnist asserted.

The revelation that the mastermind behind the latest Kenyan attacks may be a Northern Irish born British citizen and even more shocking, a lady, has led to journalists and talking heads spewing vast amounts of tortured logic onto pages and browsers. The Belfast Telegraph editorialises on the implications of Samantha Lewthwaite’s Co. Down origins:

If someone of her background can be so readily recruited and become so fanatical, then how many others may also be recruited by these terrorist organisations?

The real enemy is those who warp the minds of the impressionable and then send them out to do unspeakable deeds against innocent people in pursuit of a nihilistic vision shared by no rational people and often based on an extreme misreading of the Koran to give it some sort of validation.

Countering those warped teachings is the most difficult anti-terrorist fight of all.

This is boiler plate stuff. Newspapers and television stations must have store cupboards filled with such prose that they trot out after every “Muslim” atrocity. First, notice the fear. HOW MANY OTHERS? Probably very few. Secondly, notice the description of the movement. It is “fanatical”, “nihilistic” and “unspeakable”. Finally, notice how open that final sentence is. The most difficult fight is for the hearts and minds but that doesn’t for a moment have any implications on the actual physical fight for territory, influence and resources that the United Kingdom has been waging in Afghanistan for half a generation.

When we consume the news unthinkingly, we are exposed constantly to the idea that actions like the assault in Nairobi are unthinkable. This is a comforting lie we tell ourselves. It creates a universe where we all live that is marked by civilization and culture and which excludes those people who do things like suicide bombings, orchestrated truck bombings or assaults on shopping districts, hotels and subways.

At no point do we make a connection between the way we are trained to perceive people like Al Shabab and the way that people who join Al Shabab view us. After all, drones are instinctively unspeakable machines and we use them with such little care that they have commonly killed children and old ladies. Depleted uranium is not a device that any civilized people would deploy in battle and yet America has been more than happy to unleash it on the people of Iraq. “Well,” you say, “that’s America. What’s Kenya got to do with that?” Well can you tell me what the difference is between Saudi Islam and the religion that dominates in Iran? Few of you can and yet the difference is so stark to those within those cultures that they would find it hard to imagine why a fair person would group them together. As we run down the list, the sad fact is that the conduct of the West in the Middle East and Central Asia, in the Horn of Africa and in South East Asia since 2001 has been scandalous. There is no drastic distortion of reality involved in painting a picture of our society that is so savage, you would have reason to fear sharing a planet with us.

When the narrative we buy into about violent Muslim activism is that it is nihilistic, unspeakable and fanatical, we are not achieving the moral judgment that we think we are. We are further continuing a trend of dehumanising people who are in fact, human beings. The cruel irony of societies without any shared over-arching metanarrative about value, human flourishing or the purpose of life (the West) declaring other societies that have a very clear understanding of what life is for (Wahhabist Islam and its off-shoots) nihilistic is the seed bed of violence.

Now remember: I am a Christian pacifist. I don’t think anything justifies lethal violence. I utterly condemn attacks like the one in Nairobi, for whatever my condemnation is worth(!). I am not seeking to create a moral equivalency between drone strikes and assaults on shopping centres. But in the same way that you are willing to trust American democracy to make wise and prudent choices with the military hardware at their disposal, you must be able to see that an attack on a symbol of globalised, consumerist capitalism in a third world capital (a shopping mall in Kenya) is a conceptually viable military move for the Al Shabab. Understanding people’s motivations doesn’t mean condoning their actions.

Every term we commonly deploy around this conversation, this “War on Terror” is mired in such confusion that we are effectively blinded from clear thought. The enemy we are fighting is never clearly defined. The allies we are fighting with support the enemies we are fighting against. Who are the we who are fighting anyway. The “Coalition of the Willing” stretches across the world but is Ireland fighting alongside Britain? We don’t torture, instead we have policies of enhanced interrogation. They, they torture. And they rape. And they pillage. They target unarmed combatants. We might kill unarmed combatants but we’re appopriately sad about it when we do. As Obama put it:

For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now if someone was to suggest that Obama was being disingenuous here, we would think them a harsh cynic. This shows us that we do our utmost to think the best of people who are like us. Let us beware then when people like us tell us that people over there are not like us at all. That’s the oldest story humanity tells about itself. It always leads to blood crying out from the ground.

Your Correspondent, He’ll bleed when he’s dead

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