I have tried - and failed - to put myself into the mind of a terrorist

Cradle a child in the ideology of resistance and you will make him go where our imaginations cannot
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The Independent Online

There's a moment in one's attempt to understand the mind of a terrorist, or, if you prefer, freedom fighter, secessionist, let's just say any active member of any armed resistance movement, when one's imagination falters.

There's a moment in one's attempt to understand the mind of a terrorist, or, if you prefer, freedom fighter, secessionist, let's just say any active member of any armed resistance movement, when one's imagination falters.

More than falters, fails. No matter how hard you try, no matter how conscientiously you clear your mind of the clutter of prejudice and partisanship, you cannot make the next step to comprehension. Intellectually, the experience is like walking into a door you hadn't seen was there. One moment you're proceeding, however gingerly and distastefully; the next you're on your back and everything is darkness.

The moment I'm talking about, of course, is when the terrorist or freedom fighter straps on his or her belt of exploding nails and boards the bus crowded with strangers, or kneels to hack off the head of a hostage - in the latest instance a Nepalese cook, but it could have been anybody - or promises, for even a promise can be an act of violence beyond our understanding, that "For every one of us you kill, we will wipe out 50 children".

Yes, yes, I know that when you have a cause to further there are no innocents. The stranger is your enemy if he happens to be sojourning in the wrong place; and if your enemy's child is his vulnerability then you must strike him there. This is no time for softness. The other party drops its bombs on children and you must fight fire with fire.

Such reasoning I can grasp. And you may say that if I can grasp the reasoning I must be able to grasp the deed wherein reason is converted into action. But I cannot. God withholds the hand of Abraham in the moment of his sacrificing Isaac. Of the many meanings of that story, one is that a line can be drawn between intention and fulfilment. There is a chance, even in the final instant, for anger to relent, for a different decision to be made, for consciousness of the sacredness of another life to strike you, no matter how sacred the cause in which you meant to take it.

That's the door I keep walking into - the otherness of the other person. How are you able to convince yourself, in the moment of the deed, that whatever grievance has been visited upon you, you are justified in visiting upon someone else? Must there not be a flash of illumination in that arc of the knife which God prevented Abraham from completing, not only of the mysterious inviolability of a life that isn't yours to take, but of the supreme egotism of your reasoning?

Hold your weapon and think about it. Something terrible has been done to you. Let's not argue the toss about how terrible, whether you had it coming, whether you've misread history, etc. Let's grant you your outrage and even your despair. Something terrible has been done to you. Agreed, agreed, agreed. What must follow from that? That something terrible must be meted out in return? Why? Who are you to measure outrage against outrage? Who are you to say that your suffering is to have a higher value placed on it than someone else's? In that split second when you are eyeball to eyeball with the divine equivalence of human souls, might it not be logical of you to conclude - never mind compassionate, forget compassion - might it not dawn on you with the light of reason that there is no righting your sense of wrong, not by you, not ever by you, because you above all people cannot be the judge of it, because resistance, retaliation, revenge - give it what name you like - cannot ever be anything but a privileging, that is to say a sentimentalisation, of yourself?

That's a lot of reasoning, and perhaps reasoning never stilled any hand raised in murderous intent. But there is a distillation of reason that is meant to come to our aid at such a moment, a sudden impulse if not of beneficence then at least of self-disgust, whose very purpose is to turn us back from action. And before the idea of a person in whom such a distillation of reason is absent, my imagination fails.

To explain a blood-thirst we cannot otherwise get our heads round we point to religion. Indeed the bloodthirsty often point to religion for us. Acknowledging responsibility for the beheading of the Nepalese cooks and cleaners, the army of Ansar al-Sunna invoked its deity. "We have carried out the sentence of God against 12 Nepalis who came from their country to fight the Muslims and to serve the Jews and the Christians... Believing in Buddha as their God."

Where one person's God restrains Abraham, another's spurs him on. And it's a giddy roundabout we jump on when we try to sort peaceful Gods from bloody ones.

Myself, I'm not sure I blame religion for busying itself with political resistance as much as I blame political resistance for enlisting God. Look for a universally fetishised figure and it is the freedom fighter, not the priest. Cradle a child in the ideology of resistance and you will make him go where our imaginations cannot. Resistance is what closes the mind to reason. The assumption of a wrong, and the assumption that it is divine to fight it. Divine, today, to the tune of 50 children's lives for that of every fighter. And divine, tomorrow, by virtue of calculations we cannot yet begin to make.

Of course, if we see capitulation as the only alternative to resistance, there's no argument. We shoot traitors as a matter of course, and our heroes, whatever else we believe, are those who fight, hang on, resist with the last drop of their blood and that of whoever else happens to be to hand.

Don't ask me where between craven capitulation and blind resistance we should pitch our tent. But after the events of last week, with warriors in their own cause making the earth fit for no one, my hero is the man who says shit happens, and walks away.

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