Yes, terrorist attacks such as recently took place in Paris and Brussels periodically grab the world’s attention. But Jon Kay, the editor of the Walrus, says the perceived threat terrorism poses has never come to pass.
Kay will argue in favour of the motion “The terrorist threat has been grossly exaggerated in Canada” at the Great Canadian Debate taking place in Toronto on April 18, 2016. Chris Alexander, who also authored an op-ed for the Walrus, will argue against.
By Jon Kay, April 15, 2016
In 2016, we associate terrorism primarily with Islamic jihadists. But the human instinct to purify mankind through violence is not new. Nor is it specific to any one religion or civilization. We’ve seen it before. And we’ve defeated it before.
More than a century ago, Italian poet F. T. Marinetti—who later would become a fascist and a Mussolini supporter—tried to rouse his fellow artists from their bourgeois slumber with a 1908 document he called the “Futurist Manifesto.” Article 9 infamously stated, in part: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for.”
Unsettling as these ideas may seem, Marinetti viewed his project in utopian terms. “Mythology and the Mystic Ideal are defeated at last,” he wrote. “We’re about to see the Centaur’s birth and, soon after, the first flight of Angels! . . . We must shake at the gates of life, test the bolts and hinges. Let’s go! Look there, on the earth, the very first dawn! There’s nothing to match the splendor of the sun’s red sword, slashing for the first time through our millennial gloom!”
Each ideology left a trail of indiscriminate, terroristic slaughter. When paradise is the goal, the end always justifies the means.
These are not merely the ravings of some pretentious artist taken up with his own ideological grandeur. Marinetti’s exhortations capture the desperate, romantic search for human purpose that emerged as Europe gave up the rituals of Christianity and the seasonal rhythms of agricultural life, in exchange for the gritty, noisy, dehumanizing gearbox of industrial capitalism. Fascism, Nazism, Marxism, Bolshevism, communism, anarchism—all of these utopian movements blossomed roughly at this same historical moment. All tried to answer the same big question: If not God, if not the harvest, if not the family—then what?
In each case, the answer was the same: Build a new Jerusalem, perfect a new kind of man. Each ideology left a trail of indiscriminate, terroristic slaughter. When paradise is the goal, the end always justifies the means.
These fanatics inevitably bring an aesthetic dimension to the project of mass murder. (Marinetti’s reference to “hygiene” captures this perfectly.) Which is to say, fanatics seek to cleanse the world of human pollutants—be they capitalists, Jews, or infidels. God himself once was the ultimate hygienist: Long before the Koran was written, the Judeo-Christian almighty was on Biblical record repeatedly annihilating huge swaths of life in the name of moral purity—most notably in the great flood.
Here in the West, we very recently have found a way to control these utopian, genocidal impulses—though we had to go through Hitler and Stalin to get us here.
Here in the West, we very recently have found a way to control these utopian, genocidal impulses—though we had to go through Hitler and Stalin to get us here. But that is not true of the Muslim world, where the disruptions of modernity arrived much later—and which began its transformation from a more socially and technologically retrograde baseline. This is why it is Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims, not Jews or Lutherans, who now are blowing themselves up in the name of hate and paradise.
But this phase inevitably will pass. Throughout history, terrorist groups either transform into legitimate political actors—as in South Africa, Northern Ireland and (more controversially) the West Bank. Or they keep ratcheting up the hideousness of their tactics until they eventually alienate their supporters and unify their enemies. That is what is happening to isis, which is steadily losing ground in Iraq and Syria. It is also happening in Pakistan, where a Taliban splinter group recently blew up families playing together in a park.
The prediction that mass Islamist slaughter would become a daily occurrence within Western nations—which was in wide circulation in those fearful days after 9/11—never came to pass.
In the meantime, we will use whatever means we have—military, intelligence, propaganda—to protect ourselves from violence, and prevent terrorist groups from finding new recruits. But the idea that we are engaged in some endless, apocalyptic war against the whole of Islam; and that the prosecution of this war must be regarded as the defining project of Canada and other Western nations; simply isn’t true. In arithmetic terms, Islam’s civil war is much less deadly than the great global conflicts of the twentieth century. And, from our selfish North American perspective, it is useful to note that almost all of the casualties are Muslims who live on the other side of the world.
Yes, the terrorists succeeded in Paris and Brussels. But the prediction that mass Islamist slaughter would become a daily occurrence within Western nations—which was in wide circulation in those fearful days after 9/11—never came to pass. Here in Canada, the death toll from Islamist terrorism since 9/11 has been precisely three. Single traffic accidents sometimes claim more lives than that.
No one disputes that there are evil jihadists out there, plotting to kill us all and destroy Western civilization outright. But they are doing a bad job of it. And their edifice of hate and nihilism is destined to collapse—just as it did for the parade of Western hate ideologies that afflicted our own societies in our parents’ and grandparents’ age. Knowing this should allow us to combine a sense of perspective with a spirit of vigilance.
Jonathan Kay is the editor-in-chief of The Walrus.