Thursday, May 25, 2006

Why's Man

Brendan O’Neill looks at the picture that has emerged after 10 months of analysis of the London 7/7/ bombers and finds ... nothing, nothing, nothing at all.

[Y]ou might think they did it as part of some Islamist conspiracy, or to register their opposition to the war in Iraq, or because they were evil and wished to topple British, even Western civilisation. In fact, as the UK government’s narrative on 7/7 now reveals, there is little hard evidence that they did it for any of those reasons. The truth appears to be that 7/7 was meaningless; it was a nihilistic attack carried out by four fairly ordinary blokes for no easily discernible aim or agenda. And tragically, those who died in it may as well have been killed by an earthquake or in a train crash. It is time to stop trying to read meaning into 7/7, and get over it.

Before the shock of that last statement revolts you, give him a chance. And, no, we will never stop trying to understand. That would be to cease to be human. Only in places like Auschwitz do people stop making sense of what happens to them. Primo Levi wrote that, as he stood parched for water on a bitter cold day, he reached out a window to grab an icicle that hung from the roof, and a guard slapped his hand away. "Why?" he asked. "Hier gibt es kein warum," the guard barked back. "There is no why here."

But elsewhere, there is. And humans cannot rest from asking why. O’Neill knows this. He quotes the bitterness of the mother of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered by a radical Islamist: "What is so regrettable … is that Theo has been murdered by such a loser, such an incoherent person. Murder or manslaughter is always a terrible thing but to be killed by such a figure makes it especially hard."

And even as O'Neill paints a picture of killers without a cause, the very lines he traces around them give clues. They are not like millions of other young men who, whatever their rage, whatever their dark fantasies, do not carve a path of carnage to the grave.

[A]l-Qaeda is ‘not a bunch of foreigners brought up on the dusty backstreets of Cairo or Ramallah and hell-bent on launching war against a faraway West; they tend to be young, respectable, often middle-class and sometimes naive men, many of whom were born or educated - and even radicalised - in the West. For all the talk of a “clash of civilisations”, al-Qaeda is a largely Western phenomenon.

Well, not quite. It is by and large a phenomenon of young Muslim men in the West. It is of men caught between two worlds, in the free-fall between irreconcilable cultures. In a mobile and integrated world there are many such men. In college I knew a Korean-American guy whose upper-middle class parents spoke little English. Their son did not speak either tongue fluently enough to express his fine, quick mind. His narratives often dissolved into comic book sound-effects. It was sad.

He had a nihilistic and destructive quality to him. He was vulnerable to cults, which in that day and age meant things like Amway. But his culture did not have a fall-back position of "jihadi martyr." But, as O'Neill notices, the 7/7 bombers mostly "seem to have been motivated by a burning desire to become martyrs, which is effectively the radical Islamist equivalent of becoming an overnight celebrity."

It is not the only path. The Columbine killers, Timothy McVeigh, even Levi's anonymous concentration camp guard, all found different paths to the same bad end. But it is one path. And it is one that concerns us.

O'Neill dismisses the anti-war commentators who blame the 7/7 attacks on Western foreign policies.

Even Khan’s video statement saying why he bombed London, shown on al-Jazeera a few months after 7/7, does not directly mention Iraq. Media reports said the video proves Khan was driven by ‘Iraq and Palestine’, but in fact he spoke in vague terms about how ‘your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world’.

And the Columbine killers were picked-on. And they resented that. And McVeigh's vision of a federal government overreaching its proper powers is not all fiction. But that isn't an explanation for why they, and not others, went on a rampage.

This has become a common feature of al-Qaeda-style attacks in recent years: some small group of people crashes a jet or plants a bomb for no immediately discernible reason, and then various commentators rush to explain why they did it. The bombers do the dirty work, and commentators do the intellectual work. What in fact appear as random and indiscriminate acts of violence against innocent civilians are dressed up as anti-imperialist gestures against an uncaring or out-of-touch West. It seems that al-Qaeda-style groups don’t need a political agenda, or to claim responsibility for their attacks; both of these things are graciously provided by commentators in the West in the aftermath of every bombing.

True. But that doesn't mean there's no "why" there.