by Ronnie Landau, Author and journalist

Ronnie Landau

Ronnie Landau

Europe’s home-grown terrorists – who exactly are they? And what exactly are they? What exercises, motivates and animates them?

Mile upon mile of column inches and endless hours of television and radio broadcasts are devoted every day to analysing the ideological, sociological and pathological roots of this ‘radicalisation’ and to identifying the source from which this growing menace derives its energy and its authority. What accounts for the proliferation, opinion-formers continually ask, of this nightmarish threat? And will measures intended to alleviate only exacerbate the dangers?

Answers to this conundrum would, variously, include a corrupt West-loathing version of Islam preached in certain madrasas; a pseudo-theological hatred of modernity spewed out on hundreds of websites; the violent reaction of Europe’s political underclass(es) to the bombing of one Arab country after another; the disinterment of the memory of Western crusades against Islam and the consequent rejection of the present in favour of the rebirth of a medieval past.

Then there is the oppression, real or imagined, of Muslims, on both a national and international level – in other words the subjugation of Muslim minorities within our secular ‘Christian’ societies and that of Muslim countries within the global family of nations; a crude, time-honoured but widely accepted belief in a Jewish and/or Zionist conspiracy (à la Protocols); or a complex amalgam of all these ‘reasons’.

But I suggest a rather different explanation, though one that does not exclude elements of these other factors. Putting aside moral considerations, dare I suggest it must be unutterably thrilling, exciting, the ultimate buzz, once you have decided an enemy, easily identified, is unimprovably and irredeemably your foe, to plot, plan and carry out headline-grabbing attacks against this foe within societies that are, at one and the same time, incredibly powerful – that’s why you hate them, after all, – but also made up of the softest of targets, easily vulnerable to attack?

In the minds of these alienated young people for whom the alternative is a crushingly tedious life without work, prospects or hope, I imagine it must be absolutely exhilarating, electrifying almost beyond words, to take on the hated ‘system. By flexing their terrorist muscles, they succeed in dominating television news in virtually every nation, spawning endless discussions and generating debates in the House of Commons, among Republican presidential hopefuls and the alarmingly-influential blogosphere. These individuals, to put it crudely, are having the time of their young lives and it has little to do with ideology. If we fail to grasp that, we’re missing an important point.

Never underestimate the destructive craziness to which impressionable, peer-led, testosterone-fuelled young men can succumb. In the 1950s, we had scrapping Teddy boys, in the ‘60s mods and rockers and, later, football hooligans. Now there are rebels armed with both a ‘cause’ and high explosives and funded from shadowy sources in Middle Eastern countries.

The fact is some (many?) human beings are hard-wired to seek stress, danger, conflict and a fondness for living on the edge – especially when they are young and striving to find their place in the world. Through history, conventional wars, organised conveniently by tribal elders, tyrants, princes, and leaders of nations committed to imperial expansion, used to meet this deeply ingrained psychological need.

But the spate of urban terrorism would seem to be a parable for the darker side of modernity. It is, in part, the outcome of existential problems of identity, the alienation and isolation of individuals and groups within our vast, modern societies which have become depersonalised and conformist. Islamic fundamentalism appeals to people’s need for a sense of belonging, loyalty and, yes, community; a need left dangerously unfulfilled by modern centralised society. It encourages a psychological state where people can be sucked into the bureaucratic process.

‘Bureaucracy’ – classically defined as the placing of a moral distance between oneself and the consequences of one’s actions and decisions – is a human invention which can subjugate its human inventor, undermine human conscience and allow individuals to abdicate personal moral responsibility.

As with those Germans and others who could be persuaded to carry out the most unimaginable atrocities during the Nazi Holocaust and yet consider what they were doing as morally no worse than brushing dandruff off their jackets, the perverse logic of modern terrorism raises profound questions about the ease with which people can fall into a pattern of conformity and obedience to orders, particularly when those orders emanate from ‘authority’.

In the words of C P Snow: “When you look at the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.”

So, granted licence by the ideologists of hate to abandon normal moral constraints, terrorism can be seen from the perspective of its perpetrators as an appalling kind of ‘entertainment’, as a source of the most powerful adrenalin rush. After the war, members of the SS talked of the terror they spread throughout Nazi-occupied Europe as a drug of unusual potency.

And there is something else. In Euripides’ timeless tragedy Medea, the anti-heroine, reviled and humiliated both as a barbarian (ie non-Greek) and as a woman, commits arguably the worst premeditated crime of all – double infanticide. Yet the playwright seems to be saying, as does Shakespeare 2,000 years later via the character of Shylock, that if you crush and trample a person or a people for long enough, the thirst for vengeance when the downtrodden finally decide to fight back will be excessive and break all known rules.

• The third edition of Ronnie Landau’s ‘The Nazi Holocaust: its history and meaning’ will be published by IB Tauris in January . Price: £14.95