Are terrorists just too religious?
The Manila Times, April 28, 2013
Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/ /Imagine all the people / Living life in peace — “Imagine” by John Lennon
THERE is something deeply disturbing about terrorism, and it is not just the horrific killing of innocents, as in the death of an 8-year old boy and two other bystanders in the Boston bombing.
It is its nature that while it is a most gruesome deed, it is done not to satisfy the terrorist’s basest, selfish impulses—as ordinary crimes are— but for something he believes, or thinks he believes, is a noble cause, something that is bigger than his small self.
Bin Laden is most probably a megalomaniac mass murderer, but after all has been said, there is still that lingering question why a scion of a Saudi Arabian clan would devote his life and probably his billions of dollars to what he believed was a holy war against the US infidel that he even reveled in the killing of 5,000 human beings in the World Trade Center carnage.
The suspected Boston bombers—especially the 19 year-old Dzhokhar Tarnaev— could have lived a comfortable life in the US. They instead believed that they had to risk their lives to kill people for what they thought is some higher good. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 of his fellow Americans in his bombing of an Oklahoma building in his belief that this would spark a revolt against what he believed was a tyrannical US state. Terrorism seems to arise from some deep human impulse, albeit in a perverted version: Man’s need to transcend himself, to become part of bigger whole. Yes, quite ironically, it’s the same impulse responsible for much of humanity’s achievements and its religions.
You would be surprised that a defining mythic episode of Judaism and Christianity would fall under most definitions of terrorism.
In the Exodus, because plagues and infestation weren’t enough, it was the killing by the Angel of Death of all Egyptians’ first-born that convinced the Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery. If that were true, it was terrorism on a genocidal scale. With an estimated Egyptian population of 3.5 million at that time, that would have meant the killing of about a million innocent firstborns, from those in the cradle to the elderly nearing the grave—in order to terrify the Pharaoh.
The Old Testament indeed relates many episodes of terrorism, an indication that such atrocities were not rare in ancient times. When some Israelites began to worship other gods, Numbers 25: 3-4 narrates that Yahweh ordered Moses, to terrify them: “Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord against the sun.”
Could all these Biblical accounts of an angry God killing innocents for His higher purpose been etched in humanity’s collective consciousness that the notion that to murder for such lofty aims is all right? Indeed, this justification was obviously that of the Spanish Inquisition, which ordered thousands of “heretics” burned to the stake. Even (St.) Thomas More, a lawyer, social philosopher, and Renaissance humanist had six “heretics”— actually the first Protestants—executed when he was Lord Chancellor.
It isn’t terrorism but a heinous crime when a gang kidnaps a tycoon’s and demand millions of pesos in ransom. It was terrorism though when the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped tourists in Dos Palmas and demanded ransom, and claim that they did it as part of their jihad to establish an Islamic state. It seems there has to be a broader, even higher purpose for a violent act to be classified as “terrorist.”
But the religious would point out that the most horrific episodes of terrorism—to broaden the use o—f the term —are those committed by atheists—Hitler most especially, if one believes he rejected his childhood Catholicism, as well as the communist megalomaniacs Stalin, Mao, and even Khmer Rouge Pol Pot.
But these mass murderers also didn’t kill for fun, or to amass fortunes. In the same manner that the faithful believe in some higher (Divine) purpose, these mass terrorists believed in something bigger than themselves (defined by what they thought by history and “rationality”), the achievement of which for them justified the killing of millions of innocents.