That the London killers were native Brits surprised a lot of people, which is testimony to our capacity to forget our own history. The 7/7 terrorists were neither the first British terrorists (take Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” for example), nor the first terrorists born and bred in a Western democracy. The executioner of Daniel Pearl was a textbook British Establishment sort, having been well raised and educated (he had studied at the prestigious London School of Economics) by a good family. He went to secular schools, he was exceedingly upward-mobile, he did not suffer any deprivations or traumatizing slights from infidels. One day, in a mosque, he made a free decision to become a terrorist. All of this has been known for years, and it is quite easy to compile a long list of native American, British, French, German, Spanish, and Italian terrorists–suicide and otherwise. Mohammed Bouyari, the assassin of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, was born and bred in the Netherlands. And our own “Johnny Jihad” was the product of wealthy families in a stylish neighborhood in San Francisco, who went to Afghanistan to kill fellow Americans.
These facts were known, but got relegated to that part of the spirit that shelters active thought from unpleasant truths. The knowledge that our societies contain people ready to kill us had not penetrated the awareness of the British people, and, with them, countless Europeans and Americans.
Why were so many well-educated and well-informed people surprised, even shocked? Why were the facts ignored? Many of them have provided an “explanation”: They believed that people raised in cultured, democratic, societies–whatever their ethnic background and whatever their political or religious beliefs–are immune to the emotional poisons that transform normal people into terrorists. No doubt the belief was, and in many cases remains, genuine. But this intellectual conceit–which underlies a vast multicultural enterprise that dominates media and schools and universities throughout the Western world–totally ignores the history of the West. It is as if fascism and Communism–products of the finest European societies–never happened, or that, even if they happened, they were anomalies (Benedetto Croce called Italian fascism “a parenthesis”) that didn’t really matter for the purposes of understanding human nature and human society, and of crafting suitable policies.
George Orwell got it just right when, in the winter of 1940, he bitterly observed “highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” He knew what his countrymen, and most of the intellectual elite of the West, have relegated to a quiet intellectual closet: that Hitler and Mussolini had created monstrous mass movements in two of the most civilized, and most cultured countries in Europe. The Duce and the Fuhrer were wildly popular in the countries of Dante and Vivaldi, Beethoven and Goethe; they were not the products of some alien culture. They sprang from the most profound beliefs and passions of the highest cultures in the world (and those passions and beliefs spread to France and England, as well as to central and eastern Europe), which is why there was hardly any effective popular resistance in fascist Europe. The great evil was only abandoned by the Europeans when it was defeated on the battlefield.
The horrors of Communism have been similarly removed from active memory, albeit through a slightly different mind game. The ideals of Communism are still unaccountably admired in our popular culture–just a few days ago the Brits themselves voted Karl Marx (who lived in London for many years) the greatest intellectual in recent times–even though it is grudgingly admitted that it worked out badly in practice. This sort of deception sank to dramatic depths in Italy during the dark years of the Red Brigades terrorists, when the leaders of Europe’s most sophisticated Communist party proclaimed the brigadiers “misguided comrades.”
Both fascism and Communism inspired mass murder and individual martyrdom for “the cause,” just as radical Islam does today. Like Osama bin Laden and his ilk, Hitler and his cohorts raged against the democracies. Both blamed the free peoples for Germany’s and the Muslims’ misery and bragged of the superiority of Aryans and Muslims over decadent, corrupt, and self-indulgent free men and women. Stalin went one step further, blaming democratic capitalism for the misery of the entire world, while proclaiming the superiority of the new Soviet man.
There are many ideologies and many charismatic leaders who can inspire blind loyalty, often accompanied by equally blind hatred, even to the point of self-immolation. The operational model for the suicide terrorists of today comes from Japan’s kamikazes–soldiers from a highly civilized country–in the Second World War. Freedom and democracy do not protect us against such people; Indeed, in the past century, free nations elevated them to power, and kept them there until we dominated them. The evil can’t be explained by economic misery, or social alienation, or even by the doctrines adopted by the terrorists. The problem lies within us.
Nasra Hassan, who interviewed terrorists and their families, noted in Saturday’s London Times that
None of the suicide bombers–they ranged in age from 18 to 38–conformed to the typical profile of the suicidal personality. None of them was uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded, or depressed. Many were middle-class and held paying jobs. Two were the sons of millionaires. They all seemed entirely normal members of their families. They were polite and serious, and in their communities were considered to be model youths. Most were bearded. All were deeply religious…
To be sure, those terrorists came from Palestinian camps–not from London or San Francisco or Amsterdam, but we can recognize the London bombers, and the Amsterdam killer, and the San Francisco jihadi. They are not misfits or sociopaths. They are people who find it fulfilling to kill us and destroy our society. As time passes, we will meet more and more of them. And, in the fullness of time, we will remember that Machiavelli warned us half a millennium ago that “man is more inclined to do evil than to do good,” and that the primary role of statesmen and other leaders is to contain the dark forces of human nature. Evil cannot be “fixed” by some social program or suitably energetic public-affairs strategy, or by “reaching out” to our misguided comrades. It must be dominated.
Otherwise it will dominate us.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.