It is hard, these days, to know where to start addressing the issue of global terrorism.
The main reason for this is two-fold: First, the proliferation of ignorant and dangerously naive dialogues is staggering; and the absence of a commitment to drill down and get beyond political cliches, is getting scarier by the moment. I’ve seen two media interviews that even came close to taking a position on actually doing something to the current breed of terrorists.
What we are dealing with now, is a post-political, post-religious phenomenon, rooted in deep, irreversible and very early psychological damage. People who shoot schoolchildren, by the hundreds, in the head; rape little girls in front of their parents; and behead people who disagree with them, have no feelings about what they do. They are beyond changing and, most sobering, they are beyond containment.
I’ve had two life-changing experiences that qualify me to comment on terrorism. Part of my undergraduate work took place in England (at Leeds University). I was an “American in Residence” in the development of the first American Studies program in the UK. Unbeknownst to me, I discovered, once I arrived in Leeds, that the university and the surrounding intellectual community, was the seat of the Communist Party in Europe, and the preferred school for the children of almost every brutal regime and fanatical movement in the world. (In particular, African, Middle Eastern, and Chinese rulers.)
All of us foreign students lived in the same dorm, ate dinner together every night, and socialized regularly. In spite of our political differences, we built close personal bonds and, I thought, had a genuine affection for each other. This was particularly true for the students from the Middle Eastern countries (from the Saudi Kingdom to Syria). When it was time for us to leave the UK and return to our home countries, we all got together to share our goodbyes.
As often happened, one of the Middle Eastern fellows, who I was particularly close to, began a debate of sorts with me about politics. These were almost always good-natured, intellectually stimulating interchanges. But this interaction began to feel very different and very threatening. My friend was getting extremely agitated and hostile. I asked him what was going on, and why he was so angry. His response was indelibly sobering and disturbing. He said, looking me right in the eye: “If I was told to kill you right now, I wouldn’t hesitate.” As stunned as I was, I asked him why, after all our time together, would he kill me? He replied, with no hesitation, “Because you’re an American and a Jew.”
The second experience occurred during one of the years of my internship in my psychotherapy training. I was assigned to the Chicago office of the Federal Probation and Parole Department, which oversaw a pre-release center which processed prisoners as they transitioned from incarceration to a variety of quasi-free living situations.
My role was to counsel with the inmates about their concerns and plans for dealing with their new status. Most had predictable concerns and feelings about their transitions. A few shared with me some of the most stunning information I had ever been exposed to in my life (or since that time). They were “hitmen.”
Some were in the Mafia; some were free-lancers. All of them talked about killing people with the routineness and casualness of someone sharing a list of errands with a friend. They had absolutely no feelings about what they did, and when I asked them what they planned to do after their release, they all said the same thing: “Kill people.” A number of them added that killing people is just what they do, and they do it well.
What both of these experiences taught me was that there were people throughout the world that were so evil, disturbed, or whatever label you choose, that for the safety of all of us, they needed to be dead. Whatever residual naivete I had had, was obliterated by these experiences. I also learned that there are two kinds of naivete – humorous naivete and dangerous naivete. We live now, in a time of dangerous naivete.
So, what should we be doing now?
First, we need to know and understand exactly what we’re dealing with; and I don’t simply mean Islamic extremism. On the one hand, we’re dealing with a very severe case of domestic pathological denial: Islam is not a religion of peace and it is frozen in time, somewhere around the 12th century. It is the only major world religion that has not undergone a reformation.
Secondly, Arab cultures without exception, have failed their people. I’ve always been amazed by the ability of Arab and non-Arab apologists who gloss over the daily brutality, the relegation of women to the status of domestic animals, and the endemic, grinding poverty of their citizens, who live in countries ruled by genetically blessed tyrants, hording billions of dollars that they’ve done nothing to earn.
Lastly, I’m continually puzzled by our own obliviousness to the connection between tribalism and poverty, as well as the threat we pose to sectarian forces throughout the world. America, with a handful of exceptions, is alone in requiring assimilation as a prerequisite to success and viability in our culture. We dilute orthodoxies and closed cultures faster than any place on earth. And it is precisely that ability that makes us so hated by terrorists. We threaten their control over others, to such a degree, that they are driven to kill us.
The failure of Arab cultures guarantees terrorist groups a constant flow of recruits. When your own society is so thoroughly corrupt and brutal, it is much less painful to demonize someone else, than to look inside and take responsibility for your own misery. Couple this with the enormous burden of choice, and you have the perfect motivation for directing your hate toward a target whose success highlights the abysmal failure of your own society.
Given a potentially endless supply of recruits, we need to understand that ISIS is fundamentally a cult. Cults require two constituencies — a small, charismatic, psychotically focused leadership group; and an infinite supply of emotionally wounded, empty souls, looking for someone to tell them what to do with their purposeless lives.
We also know, from studying cults, that the removal of the core leadership group, results in a disintegration of the cult. The followers lose their direction and fade back into the meaninglessness that they came from.
What we need to do, then, is to bring terror to the terrorists. We need to do the minimum to hold the foot soldiers of ISIS at bay, and have a laser-like focus on eliminating the leaders. This requires a commitment to a mission, or campaign; a kind of super-surge, involving all military resources, with the goal of killing every single leader, as well as everyone supporting them.
It frustrates me no end, to hear discussions that make it clear that we know exactly where the leaders of ISIS and its companion terrorists are, and yet we spend our resources on fighting foot soldiers and bombing buildings.
Whenever I put forth this proposal, I am criticized for being no better than the terrorists. I have no problem with that. Years ago, I was at a conference of business leaders and one of the sessions was on what to do in the event of a home invasion. The session was led by a retired San Diego police officer who had extensive experience with the crime. One of the participants asked if it would be a good idea to have a gun in the house. The officer responded: “It’s a good idea if you’re willing to walk up to a home invader, look him right in the eye, and put a bullet in his head. If you’re not willing to do that, don’t have a gun in the house. It’ll just be used against you and your family.”
Obviously, I have strong feelings about the war on terror. My father fought in World War II, and the war didn’t end because of patience or small initiatives. Remember Dresden and Hiroshima? I also grew up with Holocaust survivors. We knew, in America, about concentration camps, years before they were liberated. I shudder every time the media reports the latest atrocity committed by ISIS. And I wonder, with fear and sadness — what will it take to get us to destroy evil?
Morrie Shechtman, of Kalispell, is chairman of Fifth Wave Leadership, a management consulting firm specializing in human capital development.