Alt-jihad – Part I: Dying to kill

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By Khaled Diab

In the first of a series of articles exploring the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, Khaled Diab examines whether far-right suicide attackers could become a phenomenon.

Friday 30 March 2018

The Austin serial bomber, Mark Conditt, a 23-year-old unemployed man, has taken the secret with him to the grave of what motivated him to carry out his deadly attacks, which sowed terror in the community. The two who were killed in the attacks were an African-American office worker and an African-American high school student, both of whom were from families connected to the civil rights movement. Among the first to be injured were an African-American and a Hispanic woman were injured.

Was Conditt motivated by racial hatred? If so, why were some of his targets apparently random, such as the tripwire bomb he placed near a road in a quiet area of Travis County, Austin, which injured two white men? Was this revenge against a prosperous community for his unemployed status? Did his conservative religious views play a role in his bombing spree and choice of targets? Was he seeking to punish what he likely regarded as a sinful and god-forsaken society?

Whatever his actual motives were, one incredibly disturbing aspect of Conditt’s attacks was his preference to blow himself up rather than be captured. This qualifies him as a ‘suicide bomber’. This will strike many Americans and Europeans as odd. In the mainstream western mind, suicide attacks are inextricably linked to Muslims, with many conservatives, from Christian pastors to populist right-wing politicians, declaring Islam to be a ‘death cult’. Just last month, Ukip’s Gerard Batten opined that: “[Islam] glorifies death. They believe in propagating their religion by killing other people and martyring themselves and going and getting their 72 virgins.”

Although it is true that nowadays the majority of suicide attacks are carried out by Muslims, usually in Muslim-majority countries, the world leaders in suicidal terrorism were once Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, the Marxist guerrilla group, who transformed suicide attacks into a powerful weapon of asymmetric warfare. The Tamil Tigers constructed “the concept of martyrdom around a secular idea of individuals essentially altruistically sacrificing for the good of the local community,” according to Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism.

This is not a million miles away from Japan’s Kamikaze pilots of World War II. Whether or not people like to refer to them as suicide attackers, western soldiers also have a long history of being involved in suicidal missions. What after all is more suicidal than, say, leaving your trench to run through the no-man’s land of World War I? With the almost certain death involved in some of the deadlier battles of the Great War, involvement in them was akin to a suicide mission.

Such academic comparisons aside, could suicide attacks become a weapon of non-Islamic terrorists in America and Europe?

Well, though not (yet) widespread, this is already occurring, albeit it is a phenomenon that has gone largely unremarked. Take William Atchison, the 21-year-old petrol station attendant who, in December 2017, entered Aztec High School in New Mexico, killed two pupils, injured several others, and then turned the gun on himself. Atchinson was a white supremacist who fantasised, in online gaming forums, about killing Jews. The trouble for him is that there were none around him. “Had Atchison lived in a city with a significant Jewish population, it is even possible the tragedy he caused might have taken an anti-Semitic form instead of the shape that it did,” concluded the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

A far more spectacular suicide shooting occurred last year at the Route 91 Harvest music festival, when Stephen Paddock, 64, who murdered 58 concert goers and wounded a staggering 851, before turning one of his many guns on himself. Chillingly, months of investigation have uncovered no clear motive for Paddock’s rampage. He was a germaphobe, had a gambling addiction and, though once rich, had lost a lot of his wealth in the last year of his life. He also complained of anxiety and pain.

This phenomenon has been in the making, under the radar, for many long years. In 2015, Chris Harper-Mercer, 26, killed nine at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where he was a student, later shooting himself in the head during a gunfight with police. Harper-Mercer was described as a hate-filled white supremacist, albeit an anti-religious one.

In 2012, Adam Lanza murdered his mother. Perhaps propelled by his paranoid belief that human civilisation was beyond redemption and that “the only way that it’s ever sustained is by indoctrinating each new child for years on end.” Lanza drove to one of these alleged indoctrination factories, Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he shot dead 20 young children, one for each of his young years in this world. As first responders arrived, Lanza shot himself in the head. Also in 2012, a white supremacist soldier-turned-rocker committed suicide after killing six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

Considering how so many Americans are convinced that mass shootings are not motivated by ideology, it is remarkable how many of them are carried out by men who subscribe to white supremacist, conservative Christian or racist worldviews.

Other American mass shootings in which the assailant took their own life occurred in 2007 and two in 2006, including one involving a rare female shooter. That is not including all the possible suicide by police that may have occurred.

This grizzly phenomenon stretches back to the previous millennium. Two such attacks occurred in 1991: one in which the attacker killed four faculty members at the University of Iowa and another where the killer murdered 23 at a Texas cafe. Known as the Luby’s massacre, the Texas attack was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting in US history. Apparently driven by misogyny, George Hennard, before opening fire, screamed, “All women of Killeen and Belton are vipers,” after crashing through the window of a Luby’s cafeteria with his car.

Mad or bad?

There is a psychological link between suicidal urges and committing mass murder, according to Scott Bonn, a professor of sociology and criminology, in which “alienating social forces” lead “fatalistic individuals increasingly [to] kill others, and in many instances themselves, in catastrophic acts of rage and violence”.

Despite the differential treatment of the mainstream media and politicians towards white and Muslim mass shooters, recent research has suggested they share a great deal in common, namely a suicidal urge to kill and be killed.

And there is strong evidence that suicidal tendencies are, at least partly, determined by social factors, as first posited by the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who classified suicides into three basic groups: egoistic, altruistic and anomic. There are certain problems with Durkheim’s ideas, namely his insistence that “a given effect must always have a single cause, and that this cause must be of the same nature as the effect,” as Robert Alun Jones of the University of Illinois points out.

Even though Durkheim’s work is too reductionist, the framework he pioneered, as Bonn suggests, is useful not only in understanding suicide but in understanding suicide attacks. It also challenges the simplistic tendency in the West to classify Muslim suicide attackers as evil and ideologically driven, while white suicide attackers are deranged, psychologically disturbed ‘lone wolfs’. Of course, ideology plays a role (after all, the vast majority of such attacks are carried out by violent salafi jihadist groups), but it is, by far, not the only factor. Looking at the social-psychological background helps contextualise how and why such (self-)destructive ideas emerge and how they find some willing recruits. In short, the mad or bad dichotomy is a false one.

Enormous social upheavals can push a minority of people, who under other circumstances may have functioned peacefully in society, over the edge. The attendant despair can cause people to develop the desire to take their own lives and/or the lives of others. The absence or dismantling of social safety nets exacerbates this problem, by depriving these individuals of the kind of emotional, community and economic support to bring them back into the fold. Many even manage to remain undetected for years as they entertain ever bloodier fantasies of murder. The breakdown of law and order, or the disintegrating of the state, creates the kind of social vacuum that facilitates and enables such behaviour. In fact, such behaviour can sometimes be a desperate cry for belonging, especially amongst vulnerable individuals who join tight-knit radical groups, which function as their surrogate family.

This helps explain why different Muslim societies show different propensities for suicide attacks. In some, they are non-existent, while in others, they, along with more conventional forms of terror attacks, occur on a regular basis. In this light, it is hardly surprising that the largest number of suicide bombings occur in Iraq and Syria, two countries where war has completely destroyed the state, made life a misery and even crushed hope for a better tomorrow.

Deathwish or higher purpose?

This highlights how, while some suicide attackers may not be suicidal and carry out their deadly actions for mostly ideological reasons, a sense of altruism in which their individual existence matters not a jot when compared with their perception of the greater good, many, many others appear to be driven by the inverse: suicidal tendencies looking for an outlet. Since almost every society regards murder, both of the self and others, as a grave sin and a crime, the potential suicider with homicidal urges needs to find a way to legitimise and express these proscribed tendencies.

This occurs fairly often in the Palestinian context, where people have collectively to contend with the Israeli occupation, Palestinian oppression and a political and social situation that seems to be in constant, perpetual and ceaseless decline. When you add addition personal difficulties on top of the collective hardships, the explosive cocktail is there for the possibility of politicised suicide-homicides.

One stark manifestation of this was the wave of uncoordinated attempted stabbings by mostly young Palestinians, quite a proportion of whom appeared to be out to commit suicide by soldier. This was particularly the case for some young Palestinian women who, in addition to the occupation and socio-economic despair, had the additional burden of a suffocating patriarchy with which to deal.

This higher level of desperation can make the line between the political and the personal vaguer in the case of women than men. This can lead some troubled women to seek a more “honourable” path to taking their own lives, according to Nadia Dabbaghh, a child and adolescent psychologist and the author of the informative and taboo-breaking study Suicide in Palestine. “Rather than bring shame or dishonour to their entire family and even their community by running away or committing suicide, these women sought escape through an act that would by and large be viewed as patriotic,” observes Dabbagh.

This also sheds light on why it appears to be that America is the only wealthy industrialised country to be suffering not only from routine mass killings, but from ones that regularly feature the suicide of the attacker. This is due not only to America’s lax gun laws and the ease with which firearms can be acquired, but also to the destruction of the social safety net, the eradication of solidarity and support mechanisms, the gaping and growing inequalities, the extremely poor or non-existent healthcare millions of Americans receive, and the emergence of tribalism and identity politics as a substitute for meaningful socio-economic and political reform.

Does this mean we are likely to witness a trend of ultra-right suicide attacks in the coming years?

I hope not but it is entirely possible, especially if radical white supremacist and Christian groups, as well as anti-government militias, choose to exploit systematically these human weapons of mass murder by actually recruiting and actively brainwashing vulnerable individuals to carry out suicide attacks.

What is far more likely to continue apace is the sharp and alarming increase in far-right violence, including terror attacks, not just in America, but also on the other side of the Atlantic, including in the UK.

When, a decade ago, I warned that America was falling prey to a Christian jihad many laughed at me. When I cautioned that the greatest terror threat facing Europe and America was from white supremacists and neo-Nazis, readers did not take me seriously.

But the emerging reality could prove worse than I feared. But when dealing with this threat, we must learn from our mishandling of Islamic extremism. We must be vigilant, not vigilante. We must seek justice, not retribution. We need to excise the demons causing these toxic ideologies, not demonise the people who fall prey to them. We must fight ideas with better ideas.

Read part II – Delusions of grandeur and persecution

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For Buddha and country

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By Kapil Komireddi

The toxic Buddhist-Sinhala supremacism and triumphalism in Sri Lanka means the country’s fragile “peace” is just the prelude to another war.

Wednesdaw 18 September 2013

Still Counting the Dead Image“The most dangerous creation of any society,” the late American novelist James Baldwin wrote in 1963, is “a people from whom everything has been taken away, including, most crucially their sense of their own worth.”

In Still Counting the Dead, an extraordinary account of the savage denouement in 2009 of Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, Frances Harrison introduces us to such people: Tamil survivors who, displaced from home, are now dispersed across the developed world’s detention centres and immigrant neighbourhoods. A former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka, Harrison travelled to Australia, Britain, Norway, Germany and other undisclosed places to interview the war’s survivors. Their testimonies have no silver linings. They have escaped the fighting, but are captive to its experience. And they see in the reluctance of the world to recognise their loss an extension of the torment they endured on the battlefield.

The war itself was the culmination of a dispute that has been raging, with varying intensity, for millennia. Its origins can be traced back to the arrival in Sri Lanka, around 2,500 years ago, of Vijaya, a thuggish prince banished from his father’s kingdom in eastern India. Vijaya, the legend goes, married an indigenous ogress and established his rule over the island. This, at any rate, is the origin myth of the Sinhalese, who constitute the overwhelming ethnic majority of present-day Sri Lanka. The Tamils, emanating from the nearby peninsula of southern India, claim that their settlements predated Vijaya’s arrival. The Sinhalese embraced Buddhism, the Tamils remained largely Hindu, and there were occasional battles on the island. But on the whole the two communities cohered, if not in peace and harmony, then in cordial hostility, for more than 2,000 years. Sri Lanka generated a composite culture.

Then modernity arrived in the form of Western imperialism, overhauling ancient pluralism and exposing native elites to its most insidious ideological innovation: nationalism. Influential Sinhalese voices soon began clamouring for the creation of a “pure” homeland, rid of not just the British but also the supposedly treacherous Tamil newcomers they had brought along to work the tea plantations, banishing the ancient Tamil presence on the island to an exile beyond the popular consciousness.

In language borrowed from European demagogues of the early 20th century, Sinhalese nationalists demanded the restoration of an unadulterated past that had never truly existed. The powerful Buddhist revivalist Anagarika Dharmapala claimed that the Sinhalese were an “ancient, historic, refined people” who had transformed Sri Lanka “into a paradise” – only to see it destroyed by the “barbaric vandals” in their midst. Invoking religious histories, and citing colonial surveys and dubious ethnographies, Sinhalese chauvinists fabricated a hierarchy of citizenship within Sri Lanka and demanded corresponding political privileges for the majority. This was self-empowerment through exclusion – a majority that sought to validate its dominant position by placing minorities directly beneath itself.

Once British rule ended in 1948, the early governments of independent Sri Lanka resisted this majoritarian impulse. But theirs was a feeble attempt. By 1972, Sinhala chauvinism was enshrined in the country’s constitution. Sinhala was made the sole official language of the state, Buddhism the favoured religion, and minorities were pushed to the margins even on the national flag: the sword-wielding lion, the Sinhala totem, occupied the centre. Bigotry was now backed by the law. Tamils could not gain admissions to universities, did not have access to the language of the law, and were erased from the symbols of the state. And yet the country’s Sinhala overlords expected them to pledge allegiance to Sri Lanka.

Politically conscious Tamils scattered into various protest forums. Their appeals for equality within Sri Lanka, however, were rapidly eclipsed by the separatist cry for Eelam – a Tamil  homeland carved out of the country’s northeast. The fight for Eelam was led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, a formidable Tamil guerrilla who founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1976. The LTTE heralded its arrival by slaughtering thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers in 1983. Sinhalese mobs reacted by butchering thousands of Tamils living in the country’s south. Sri Lanka’s civil war had begun in earnest.

Differences that could conceivably have been resolved through dialogue dragged on for decades on the battleground, hardening into a stalemate. India at first eagerly boosted the LTTE. Then, as if to create a balance, it engineered a brittle peace accord between Colombo and the Tamil nationalists and dispatched its own peacekeeping forces to Sri Lanka to monitor it. But Indian soldiers, far from keeping the peace, engaged in hostilities with the LTTE. Tamils accused Indian soldiers of raping and murdering civilians. The Indian mission was a disaster. New Delhi pulled out. War re-erupted in Sri Lanka.

Funded mainly by expatriate Tamils, the LTTE gradually grew into a sophisticated terrorist organisation. It pioneered the use of suicide bombers, one of whom assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 in retribution for his decision, as prime minister of India in 1987, to send Indian troops to Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran, an unyielding zealot, proved he was also a fool, alienating with this single move the region’s major power. For an entire decade, the LTTE became non grata in India.

Then 9/11 happened and the LTTE, listed internationally as a terrorist organisation, lost its legitimacy. Sinhalese nationalists seized the moment. Prabhakaran, a military tactician, could not comprehend the political shift that had occurred. He ordered Tamils to boycott the crucial presidential elections in 2005. Had they voted, the relatively moderate Ranil Wickremasinghe may well have won Sri Lanka’s presidency. Their boycott resulted in a narrow victory for Mahinda Rajapaksa.

A ruthless nationalist and a fierce believer in Sinhalese supremacy, Rajapakse waited for two years before unleashing his forces on the Tamil scrublands to the country’s north. Prabhakaran had mismanaged the Tamil cause so thoroughly that as the Sri Lankan forces marched into Tamil strongholds by April 2009, pulverising everything in their sight, none of Sri Lanka’s neighbours made a noise. Echoing the indifference of the governments, the world’s leading news media stayed away. More than 60,000 people were killed in the last three months of the fighting – yet there wasn’t a single foreign reporter on the ground.

As the government forces penetrated the rebel territory, Tamil civilians retreated further north, halting only when they became trapped between the advancing soldiers and the sea. The “safe zones” designated by the government for civilians were in fact death traps. Harrison tracks down a Tamil journalist who filed reports from the scene for as long as he could before crossing over with his father in the last weeks of the war to the government side. Every step of their journey became a prolonged arbitration with death. Corpses were strewn everywhere, jets pounded the land from the skies, and soldiers fired from all angles. Finally, when they reached the government side, father and son were stripped. An old man and his young son standing naked in a long queue of displaced people, all awaiting interrogation: Harrison’s prose frequently evokes such harrowing images. They were the luckier ones.

A Tamil shopkeeper with shattered legs, currently seeking asylum in Australia, recollects being taken from a hospital and made to witness five executions, each with a single bullet to the back of the head. It’s as if Sinhalese soldiers, long accustomed to imagining Tamils as indomitable agents of mass murder, erupted with an uncontainable fury after vanquishing them. Trophy videos recorded on mobile phones show Sinhala soldiers summarily executing blindfolded Tamil men and piling up trucks with naked corpses of raped Tamil women. Harrison meets a young female refugee in London, the wife of a possible Tamil Tiger collaborator, who was picked up from her home, taken to a villa to identify a group of blindfolded men, and then locked up overnight in a room and raped by two soldiers. These are the twice-humiliated: physically defeated by war, psychologically desiccated by its winners.

Despite her sincerest efforts, Harrison can at times seem too lenient in her cross-examination of the Tamils she meets. She interviews a young Norwegian Tamil who travelled to Sri Lanka in the hope of becoming a suicide bomber. He was raised in Norway, didn’t speak any Tamil, and it’s not clear if he had any Tamil friends. What is the proper reaction to his conduct? Is it to endorse, by offering sympathy, his self-image as a freedom fighter? What of the Sinhalese children and mothers and fathers whom he would have murdered had his tender ambition of blowing himself up been realised? Is it proper then to restrain or even a kill a person who, if left untouched, would distribute death among innocent civilians? Harrison doesn’t probe such questions.

It is to her credit, however, that she acknowledges the limits of her project at the outset: the plight of the Tamils. But the question remains: if the comforts of Norway and the complete isolation from Sri Lanka couldn’t anesthetise the Norwegian to the “cause”, how, having witnessed the horrors of the war, is this young man now likely to behave? Has the dream of becoming a martyr for the “motherland” really abated?

Perhaps these are questions better left to the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese nationalists who form its support base. The current generation of Sinhala nationalists, filliped by victory, have become afflicted with triumphalism. They cannot abide any criticism of the state. The overwhelming evidence of war crimes, compiled at great personal risk by individuals like Harrison, has failed to elicit even the slightest admission of wrongdoing in Colombo. Foreign activists are barred from entering the country and domestic campaigners for accountability keep disappearing.

Democracy is almost dead in Sri Lanka. Virtually every important government post is now held by a member of the Rajapaksa family. And rather than striving to heal Tamil wounds, their government is busy scratching them. President Rajapaksa recently inaugurated a luxury hotel in the Tamil heartland for the comfort of Sinhala chauvinists touring the battlefields where their ethno-supremacist narratives were so violently confirmed.

But as Harrison hints, far from coming to a permanent end, the long conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils has graduated to a new phase. The only insurance against another outbreak of fighting is to reinvent Sri Lankan nationalism in ways that will make it possible for all of its citizens to assert their identity. Sri Lanka will have to return to the political drawing board and revise the constitution to diffuse among all its inhabitants the privileges that are reserved exclusively for the Sinhalese. But Rajapaksa, busy atrophying Sri Lanka’s independent institutions, stands in the way of such a reconciliation. His immense network of executioners and torture chambers cannot, however, produce a lasting peace.

“Force”, as Baldwin wrote, “does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does.” Far from exhibiting strength, it reveals only “the weakness, even the panic” of its proponents, and “this revelation invests the victim with patience”. Ultimately, Baldwin warned, “it is fatal to create too many victims”. Rajapaksa has done exactly that. The volatile peace he presides over is only a prelude to another war.

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