In one of The Dark Knight‘s pivotal scenes, Alfred descends into a strictly ordered and starkly lit Batcave as Bruce Wayne is doggedly patching himself up. After helping his employer with some stitching, Alfred realizes that Master Bruce doesn’t fully comprehend the dystopian miasma of violence that the Joker has brought upon Gotham City:
Alfred: A long time ago, I was in Burma, my friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never found anyone who traded with him. One day I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.
Bruce Wayne: Then why steal them?
Alfred: Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
It’s a fantastic scene from a cinematic standpoint, but a problem occurs when you pull the Joker out of the movie as one crazy-ass allegory for chaos and death. And especially when you make the leap of trying to fit terrorism into the framework provided by the Joker, to use the the Joker as a rubric for terrorism.
No one better proves this than the Ft. Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan.
Because we lose any chance of gaining useful insight when we label Hasan a terrorist, stuffing him into a box of our choosing. Instead of trying to see the box that he saw himself in, and carefully crafted for himself.
Terrorism isn’t about creating chaos simply for chaos’s sake. Terrorists don’t kill for the pure joy of killing, they aren’t evil embodiments of some dark sinister incomprehensible force. That’s where the Joker fails as a metaphor for terrorism.
The Joker is terrorism only as we see it, he perfectly embodies terrorists only as we perceive them. But that perception is never the entire story. If anything, the Joker embodies just how limited society’s take on terrorism so often is – we are unwilling to approach it unless it seems to be disfigured by insanity, the twisted product of a warped and disturbed mind.
But viewing terrorists that way masks who they really are. It hides their true identities, and prevents us from either understanding or preventing their actions.
Because terrorists see themselves as soldiers. As commandos who use asymmetric tactics to fight a war worth dying in, a war that transcends their lives, and any interpretation of right or wrong and Good vs. Evil that we – as outsiders – might bring in from the outside.
Another man perfectly embodies the link between the commando and modern terrorism, serving as a singular human channel the asymmetrical forces perfected during WWII flowed through on their way to becoming modern terrorism.
Ali Mohammad made his first appearance on the radar of US Intelligence in 1984, where he walked into the Cairo CIA station and volunteered his services. Although the Agency suspected he was a plant, they sent him to work out of their Frankfurt station in German to infiltrate a mosque that was suspected to have ties to Hezbollah. As soon as he was in the mosque’s door he declared he was an American spy, not realizing that the mosque had already been penetrated by the Agency. His cover and his attempt at becoming a double-agent was immediately blown.
But before the CIA could even place him on the State Department’s watch list to prevent his entry into the United States, he had already traveled to California on a visa-waver program. A year after arriving in California, Ali entered the United States Army and soon managed to get himself placed at Fort Bragg’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center – the very place American Special Operations had been born.
It was this facility that Ali Mohammad, working for al-Qaeda at the time, penetrated to absorb its teachings. After photocopying them at Kinkos, he used training manuals he’d stolen from the facility to write the training guide that would become “al-Qaeda’s playbook.” This playbook provided instruction on everything from creating secure cells of terrorists that mimicked the small units that Special Forces deployed in, to the asymmetric tactics of unconventional warfare. And alongside these combats tactics were the more delicate instructions on how to subvert members of an enemy society, and turn them against the parts of that society it was your mission to destroy.
From their very start, before the Green Berets were even institutionalized, American Special Forces were a component of the Army’s Psychological Warfare Branch. Special Forces, the Green Berets included, were meant to be used from the start to inflict psychological damage.
To instill fear in the enemy. To terrorize him.
Ali Mohammad not only became an intimate member of al-Qaeda who provided the group with an incalculable amount of information – even training bin Ladin’s personal bodyguards – but would also be tied to each one of their attacks.
He did everything from take the original surveillance photos of the US Embassies in Africa to train al-Qaeda’s earliest members in hijacking tactics, espionage, and all means of unconventional warfare, provides perhaps the clearest modern link between the terrorism we now face and the warfare we can find its origins in.
The men we call terrorists view themselves as fighting the good fight, as dying for for something greater than themselves. Each and every one of them, to a man. They view themselves as serving a cause, as sacrificing their life at the altar of some worthy or noble duty. Judging their moral calculus, pressing our own ideas of when killing is or isn’t justified onto them, does absolutely nothing to help us understand or analyze their actions and their origins. Lives we see as innocent, they see as necessary or unavoidable collateral damage.
Because innocence and innocents alike are lost in the stench of terror’s breath.
In times of war, civilians lose their lives. By the thousands, sometimes by the millions. But in the context of war, as a society we’re okay with that. Innocent lives can be sacrificed at the altar of warfare, it’s an unfortunate but unavoidable side-effect that we don’t really let ourselves be troubled by. And in the same way, killing civilians doesn’t trouble terrorists either.
The shooter of an Arkansas military recruitment center, Abdulhakim Muhammad, who made his initial extremist contacts online before ultimately converting to radical Islam while in prison, changed his plea shortly after his arrest:
“My lawyer has no defense,” Muhammad wrote in the two-page letter, dated Jan. 12. “I wasn’t insane or post-traumatic nor was I forced to do this act.”
In the letter, Muhammad described himself as a soldier in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and called the shooting “a Jihadi Attack.”
“This was a jihad: attack on infidel forces. That didn’t go as plan. Flat out truth,” Muhammad wrote in the letter.
The men who ascribe to Radical Islam do not see themselves as terrorists, they see themselves as soldiers. And their training and conversation no longer happens in terrorist camps or in personal exchanges – as was the case with the 3/11 Madrid bombings, conversion and radicalization often occurs in the amorphous world of online interactions.
Terrorism has always been and will always be the little brother of warfare. Its primary goal is to make the targeted society’s members feel like they’re at war. Terrorism is at its awful finest when no one knows if they might die next, when death comes at random to their doorstep – unannounced and shrouded in unpredictability.
That’s the point of the chaos. That’s why they want to make the world to seem like it’s burning.
And to sow this illusion of warfare, the men we label terrorists must themselves become soldiers. They prepare themselves for going to battle and likely death by saying goodbye, and letting go of their earthly possessions. They see themselves as fighting and dying in a war, often against an outside aggressor whose violence can only be responded to in kind.
The only time terrorism seems complicated or nuanced is when we bring our own moral framework into a situation where it doesn’t apply. The men who see themselves as soldiers, who we would call terrorists, don’t fit into our moral framework. So if you really want to understand terrorism, you have to leave your own moral framework and interpretations behind.
If you can do that, then you’re ready to continue on down the rabbit hole.
And you’re ready to learn about the role Gideon played as the godfather of all terrorists, and about how modern terrorism is simply another step down a path we’ve all been on since the beginning of history.
Category: books, counterinsurgency, Current Events, domestic terror, islam, news, politics, terrorism | Tags: civil unrest, commandos, domestic terrorism, Ft. Hood, innercity violence, malcolm x, militant islam, moral questions, racial wealth disparity, terrorism, terrorist attacks, war on drugs, welfare state, WWII Comment »