Skip to comments.The radical loser (Long Read)
Posted on 09/02/2006 3:55:01 PM PDT by Valin
Hans Magnus Enzensberger looks at the kind of ideological trigger required to ignite the radical loser - whether amok killer, murderer or terrorist - and make him explode
(snip) Since before the attack on the World Trade Center, political scientists, sociologists and psychologists have been searching in vain for a reliable pattern. Neither poverty nor the experience of political repression alone seem to provide a satisfactory explanation for why young people actively seek out death in a grand bloody finale and aim to take as many people with them as possible. Is there a phenotype that displays the same characteristics down the ages and across all classes and cultures? No one pays any mind to the radical loser if they do not have to. And the feeling is mutual. As long as he is alone and he is very much alone he does not strike out. He appears unobtrusive, silent: a sleeper. But when he does draw attention to himself and enter the statistics, then he sparks consternation bordering on shock. For his very existence reminds the others of how little it would take to put them in his position. One might even assist the loser if only he would just give up. But he has no intention of doing so, and it does not look as if he would be partial to any assistance.
Many professions take the loser as the object of their studies and as the basis for their existence. Social psychologists, social workers, social policy experts, criminologists, therapists and others who do not count themselves among the losers would be out of work without him. But with the best will in the world, the client remains obscure to them: their empathy knows clearly-defined professional bounds. One thing they do know is that the radical loser is hard to get through to and, ultimately, unpredictable. Identifying the one person among the hundreds passing through their offices and surgeries who is prepared to go all the way is more than they are capable of. Maybe they sense that this is not just a social issue that can be repaired by bureaucratic means. For the loser keeps his ideas to himself. That is the trouble. He keeps quiet and waits. He lets nothing show, which is precisely why he is feared. In historical terms, this fear is very old, but today it is more justified than ever. Anyone with the smallest scrap of power within society will at times feel something of the huge destructive energy that lies within the radical loser and which no intervention can neutralize, however well-meaning or serious it might be.
But anyone wishing to understand the radical loser would be well advised to go a little further back. Progress has not put an end to human suffering, but it has changed it in no small way. Over the past two centuries, the more successful societies have fought for and established new rights, new expectations and new demands. They have done away with the notion of an inevitable fate. They have put concepts like human dignity and human rights on the agenda. The have democratized the struggle for recognition and awakened expectations of equality which they are unable to fulfil. And at the same time, they have made sure that inequality is constantly demonstrated to all of the planet's inhabitants round the clock on every television channel. As a result, with every stage of progress, people's capacity for disappointment has increased accordingly.
"Where cultural progress is genuinely successful and ills are cured, this progress is seldom received with enthusiasm," remarks the philosopher Odo Marquard (book): "Instead, they are taken for granted and attention focuses on those ills that remain. And these remaining ills are subject to the law of increasing annoyance. The more negative elements disappear from reality, the more annoying the remaining negative elements become, precisely because of this decrease in numbers."
This is an understatement. For what we are dealing with here is not annoyance, but murderous rage. What the loser is obsessed with is a comparison that never works in his favour. Since the desire for recognition knows no limits, the pain threshold inevitably sinks and the affronts become more and more unbearable. The irritability of the loser increases with every improvement that he notices in the lot of others. The yardstick is never those who are worse off than himself. In his eyes, it is not they who are constantly being insulted, humbled and humiliated, but only ever him, the radical loser.
But what happens when the radical loser overcomes his isolation, when he becomes socialized, finds a loser-home, from which he can expect not only understanding but also recognition, a collective of people like himself who welcome him, who need him?
Then, the destructive energy that lies within him is multiplied his unscrupulousness, his amalgam of death-wish and megalomania and he is rescued from his powerlessness by a fatal sense of omnipotence.
For this to take place, however, a kind of ideological trigger is required to ignite the radical loser and make him explode. As history shows us, offers of this kind have never been in short supply. Their content is of the least importance. They may be religious or political doctrines, nationalist, communist or racist dogmas any form of sectarianism, however bigoted, is capable of mobilizing the latent energy of the radical loser.
This applies not only to the rank and file but also to their commanders, whose attraction is based in turn on their own self-definition as obsessive losers. It is precisely the leader's deluded traits in which his followers recognize themselves. He is rightly accused of being cynical and calculating. It is only natural that he should despise his followers. He understands them all too well. He knows they are losers and, finally, he thus considers them worthless. And as Elias Canetti put it half a century ago, he therefore takes pleasure in the idea that if possible, everyone else, including his followers, should meet their death before he himself is hanged or consumed by fire in his bunker.
The radical loser has not disappeared either. He is still among us. This is inevitable. On every continent, there are leaders who welcome him with open arms. Except that today, they are very rarely associated with the state. In this field too, privatization has made considerable advances. Although it is governments which have at their disposal the greatest potential for extermination, state crime in the conventional sense is now on the defensive worldwide.
To date, few loser-collectives have operated on a global scale, even if they were able to count on international flows of cash and weapon supplies. But the world is teeming with local groupings whose leaders are referred to as warlords or guerrilla chiefs. Their self-appointed militias and paramilitary gangs like to adorn themselves with the title of a liberation organization or other revolutionary attributes. In some media, they are referred to as rebels, a euphemism that probably flatters them. Shining Path, MLC, RCD, SPLA, ELA, LTTE, LRA, FNL, IRA, LIT, KACH, DHKP, FSLN, UVF, JKLF, ELN, FARC, PLF, GSPC, MILF, NPA, PKK, MODEL, JI, NPA, AUC, CPNML, UDA, GIA, RUF, LVF, SNM, ETA, NLA, PFLP, SPM, LET, ONLF, SSDF, PIJ, JEM, SLA, ANO, SPLMA, RAF, AUM, PGA, ADF, IBDA, ULFA, PLFM, ULFBV, ISYF, LURD, KLO, UPDS, NLFT, ATTF ...
"Left" or "Right", it makes no odds. Each of these armed rabbles calls itself an army, boasts of brigades and commandos, self-importantly issuing bureaucratic communiqués and boastful claims of responsibility, acting as if they were the representatives of "the masses". Being convinced, as radical losers, of the worthlessness of their own lives, they do not care about the lives of anyone else either; any concern for survival is foreign to them. And this applies equally to their opponents, to their own followers, and to those with no involvement whatsoever. They have a penchant for kidnapping and murdering people who are trying to relieve the misery of the region they are terrorizing, shooting aid workers and doctors and burning down every last hospital in the area with a bed or a scalpel for they have trouble distinguishing between mutilation and self-mutilation.
There is also no mistaking other similarities, such as the fixation with written authorities. The place of Marx and Lenin is taken by the Koran, references are made not to Gramsci but to Sayyid Qutb. Instead of the international proletariat, it takes as its revolutionary subject the Umma, and as its avant-garde and self-appointed representative of the masses it takes not The Party but the widely branching conspiratorial network of Islamist fighters. Although the movement can draw on older rhetorical forms which to outsiders may sound high-flown or big-mouthed, it owes many of its idées fixes to its Communist enemy: history obeys rigid laws, victory is inevitable, deviationists and traitors are to be exposed and then, in fine Leninist tradition, bombarded with ritual insults.
The movement's list of favourite foes is also short on surprises: America, the decadent West, international capital, Zionism. The list is completed by the unbelievers, that is to say the remaining 5.2 billion people on the planet. Not forgetting apostate Muslims who may be found among the Shiites, Ibadhis, Alawites, Zaidites, Ahmadiyyas, Wahhabis, Druze, Sufis, Kharijites, Ishmaelites or other religious communities.
Contrary to what the West appears to believe, the destructive energy of Islamist actions is directed mainly against Muslims. This is not a tactical error, not a case of "collateral damage". In Algeria alone, Islamist terror has cost the lives of at least 50,000 fellow Algerians. Other sources speak of as many as 150,000 murders, although the military and the secret services were also involved. In Iraq and Afghanistan, too, the number of Muslim victims far outstrips the death toll among foreigners. Furthermore, terrorism has been highly detrimental not only to the image of Islam but also to the living conditions of Muslims around the world.
The Islamists are as unconcerned about this as the Nazis were about the downfall of Germany. As the avant-garde of death, they have no regard for the lives of their fellow believers. In the eyes of the Islamists, the fact that most Muslims have no desire to blow themselves and others sky high only goes to show that they deserve no better than to be liquidated themselves. After all, the aim of the radical loser is to make as many other people into losers as possible. As the Islamists see it, the fact that they are in the minority can only be because they are the chosen few.
Experts around the world are not the only ones wondering how the Islamist movement has been able to recruit so many activists with its promises, far outdoing its secular rivals. No clear answer is in sight. All that is clear is that there must be explanations in the history of the Arab civilization that brought forth the world religion of Islam. This civilization reached its apogee at the time of the Caliphate. At this time, it was far superior to Europe in military, economic and cultural terms. The Arab world views this period with misty-eyed nostalgia; even today, 800 years later, it plays a central role in the consciousness of the region. In the intervening period, the power, the prestige, the cultural and economic weight of the Arab world has been in continual decline. Such an unparalleled demise is a puzzle and a sore point, generating an acute sense of loss. The Indian-born Muslim poet Hussain Hali (1837-1914) expressed this in his epic poem The Ebb and Flow of Islam: (snip)
(No more Olmert! No more Kadima! No more Oslo! )
Man you're a fast reader!
Unfortunately with a .95 confidence interval you would also mistakenly identify 5000 as terrorists who were not. Actually a Bayesian calculation would give you a better idea of the problem. Most likely if you found a positive on your test the likelihood would be it is a false positive and not a terrorist.
That is one problem. The bigger problem is a cross sectional and laundry list effort in identifying terrorists misses the crucial dimension which is process.
People of faith often develop doubts and uncertainty. One common way to deal with this inner problem is to redouble efforts and become so unquestioning one no longer has to face inner uncertainty. Another way is to "die for the cause." That is to deal with self-doubt you end your life, prove your faith and achieve recognition (Thymos).
If I were a person trying to ferret out terrorists look for those in the group who are prone to doubts. They may be middle class, exposed to Western ideas or failures in their secular lives but the common denominator is their faith has been challenged internally and this becomes their overwhelming problem.
Protestant end-of-the-world sects usually redouble their proselytizing when their date is passed. We lionize martyrs to the faith both in history and in the present. This alone should tell us something about human nature.
The Elias Canetti reference is very good. He wrote "Crowds and Power;" This is certainly a worthwhile book since it received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His morals left something to be desired.
I forgot to add--good post!
People of faith often develop doubts and uncertainty.
People who don't worry me.
It is unlikely anyone will come up with a DSM IV type laundry list documenting a likely terrorist.
I read a book on profiling a number of years ago...Oh man! I fit a number of thier profiles!
Just a word of warning, don't set me off! :-)
I had a lightbulb moment reading the article.
Bloom, The Lucifer Principle is a fascinating analysis of science and history that relates to this question.
Bloom, The Lucifer Principle
He joins DU.
book I recommend
Oh sure force me to buy another book! :-)
I actually walked out of B&N the other day without buying a book.
pls, what's this?
Rather than being used as probable cause for detention, if such a test existed it would be quite useful for determining people worth keeping an eye on for suspicious activity. E.g., being positive on the test PLUS visiting terrorist websites PLUS buying components for destructive devices would be probable cause for being brought in for a chat