The Islamic State (IS) imagines that anyone and everyone is old enough to die. As a member of IS, that deadly prerequisite comes with the territory---the lives of men, women, and children however innocent, are redefined as necessary casualties in the war against the infidels. But the Islamic State’s dissonance with the values of Western liberal humanism not only arises out of the violently messianic ideological commitment of its members to a radical interpretation of Islam, it also spews from a depth and scale of hatred so intense that it is barely comprehensible to the rational mind.
For an IS member to cold bloodedly murder their fellow human beings all in the name of a “holy” cause does indeed take a lot of hatred and intolerance. But what is the deeper cause of that hatred and intolerance? Or to put it more precisely, what makes someone amenable to a sentiment so venomous and fatal? I believe that the cause is centered more around external pressures than it is around religion.
There are competing theories as to why IS will stop at nothing to harm others on both a local and mass scale. Can we chalk it up to the Freudian idea of the primeval cruelty embedded within human nature? Or is it something more exterior to human nature, something more socially and historically structural, especially when we are talking about living in the materialistic, consumerist cage fight that is a modern capitalist society?
Anyone who has ever lived in a modern capitalist society doesn’t have to be told that it has its risks and pitfalls. When the pain of those risks and pitfalls are felt so acutely there arises the distinct possibility that the afflicted will begin to trace within themselves the outlines of a deprived and alienated inner self. As those feelings come together and coalesce into a hardened core, it produces a traumatized self. And as any traumatized self is wont to do, it desperately seeks the order and certainty and meaning that it struggles to find in modern existence. If it cannot find what it’s looking for in the everyday mainstream, the traumatized self can fall prey to dangerous ideologies and attitudes like those espoused by the Islamic State which offers it much of what a modern capitalist life can fail so miserably to do.
The internal psychological conflicts that all humans undergo are evidently clear in a winner-take-all capitalist existence. These conflicts are over any number of issues: love, race, religion, sex, money, power, etc. The easiest way to deal with them is for some to lash out, to blame someone else for their misfortune. Tragic outcomes aside, it’s quite understandable if the affected individual is bent and broken mentally and emotionally and scarred perhaps for life. This is the dark side of the modern capitalist system that many find impossible to ignore. Its institutionalized costs can bring out the worst in people and compel them into “losing it” as we say and advance to the stage of taking measure for measure in regards to their perceived mistreatment.
There is a limitation to this externally systemic gravitation. No human being is born with a blank slate of a consciousness. Every person is born with some pre-birth level of innate knowledge. Their self-identities and ways of seeing the world are partially constructed and governed by that pre-existential knowledge.
But this does not appreciably mitigate the role that the thicket of external contingencies play in the evolution of an individual’s character. Karl Marx was largely on the right track when he wrote, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Against the tide of those who oversimplify by chastening the distressed of a capitalist society to look at no one else but themselves in the mirror, what has happened in San Bernardino, Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Nice, and Munich, and in other cities around the globe did not originate somewhere in the deep recesses of the perpetrators’ souls.
Rather than having an organic basis, these vile acts are more likely the result of a highly-predatory, exclusionary socio-economic system that estranges the multitudes who cannot cope with its unreasonable demands. It is an elitist, dysfunctional, and schizophrenic form of capitalism that subordinates ethics and morality to the sidelines and exerts its take-no-prisoner philosophy relentlessly and ruthlessly.
We are all beholden to the structural, environmental, and civilizational stimuli inherent in a modern society. No one is immune to the price that has to be paid to conform to it. This underscores the societal challenge that lays in front of those who are least able to cope with it. All the military action, all the counterintelligence, and all the universal goodwill and humanism will not be enough to defeat IS without a fuller understanding of the societal interplay of capitalist drives, dictates, and desires that can turn the most anodyne of people into monsters.