The natural desire to find purpose and satisfaction in a cause that is greater than ourselves is indeed a powerful force. As we search for the meaning of life we also search for something that is worthy of our complete devotion. When rooted in goodness and truth, this quest can take one down a path of love, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion; such a path leads to freedom. When rooted in evil and deception, it can take one down a path of hate, vengeance, violence, and destruction; such a path leads to oppression, and it can make terrorism an appealing thing.
If we are to achieve anything meaningful, we will certainly have to struggle. The call for struggle and sacrifice, therefore, has its appeal, and it is often underestimated, while the desire for comfort and pleasure is often overestimated. This then begs the question, what is the meaningful thing for which we should struggle? What is that thing to which we should completely devote the energy of our fleeting lives?
According to Laurence Rees, author of Hitler’s Charisma, Hitler’s rise to power can be attributed, in part, to his ability to tap into this basic human desire. He reasoned that, greater than any man was the race to which he belonged. Though man would die, his race would live on. Hitler decided, therefore, that the best cause to which a man could devote his life was that to improve his race. So, with a firmly-entrenched Darwinian worldview, and without any sense of the sacred, he rationalised his reign of death and terror as a necessary means to a glorious end. Death and destruction was seen as the acceptable cost of creating a better race and a better world. To his followers, therefore, he offered death, struggle, and sacrifice for a so-called great and worthy cause.
If many are to embrace such a cause then the conditions must be ripe. These include deep and widespread feelings of resentment toward a common enemy. Such was the case in post WWI Germany, and such is the case in many parts of the Muslim world today. Terrorists and potential terrorists perceive themselves as victims of unwarranted aggression and oppression, be it legitimate or not. In their eyes, their enemies are the terrorists, while they are but freedom fighters and holy warriors. As evidenced by the emergence of ISIS, the resurgence of al Qaeda, and the presence of their many sympathisers around the globe, the necessary conditions to spread the toxic ideology of Jihadism are ripe indeed.
Add to these conditions the common objective of achieving a great dream, through a great cosmic struggle, that ends not only in victory over your oppressors but also in the creation of a bright new world. Not only does this provide people with something to fight against, but it provides them with something to fight for, which is a powerful force of motivation.
To simply dismiss terrorists as nothing but psychopaths is to do ourselves a disservice. Terrorism is not the result of mental illness; it is the logical conclusion of an evil, deceptive, and toxic ideology, planted in the fertile soil of deep resentment and hostility, and cared for with promises of redemption, victory, and the dawn of a glorious new age.
The challenge before us, then, is by no means easy. If we are to have any success in countering terrorism, we would do well to understand its roots of resentment, its twisted ideology, and its disturbing appeal. The war for hearts and minds is indeed on. Winning this war requires earnest self-reflection and a sincere search for goodness and truth. Freedom and peace are on the line; and this struggle, I believe, is worthy of our devotion.
(Kevin Richard is a freelance Quebec journalist and Discourse Online contributor. This article first appeared in The Sherbrooke Record, an English language daily serving Quebec’s Eastern Townships.)