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It is very important to say that “historical dislocation” transcends the framework of a specific culture, crossing the temporal, geographical, and ethnic boundaries. My research demonstrates the universality of this precondition for modern and post-modern terrorism in various parts of the world. As much as Russian terrorism in its day, Islamist fundamentalism is bred by historical dislocation, or a “trauma of uprootedness.” Like the displaced and the insecure Russian extremists hundred years ago, consigned to the periphery of the emerging modern culture, the Islamic terrorists are largely a “lost generation”, dislocated from their traditional societies, confused and miserable. Like their Russian counterparts, they seek destruction of the world in which they are miserable.
FP: You describe perpetrators of violence as its very first fatalities. What does this mean?
Geifman: Against their penchant to bemoan the suffering masses, Russian radicals in the early 20th-century persistently exhibited the mentality summarized by a trendy motto: “the worse, the better”. The idea presupposed that deterioration of the country’s domestic situation would contribute to the growing instability of the regime and thus benefit the radical cause. Jessica Stern said correctly: terrorists “thrive on festering conflicts.” They do so everywhere, from the Middle East and Afghanistan to Indonesia and Kashmir.
The 1881 assassination of tsar Alexander II, the only liberal on the Russian throne, was perhaps the most glaring example and symbol of “the worse, the better” tactic and its consequences. When the tsar walked out of his palace to die on the fateful day of 1 March, he had left on his desk a completed proposal for a limited form of elective parliamentary representation—a project entailing a gigantic step in the steady course of the country’s liberalization. Subversion would have been rendered meaningless, and the extremists’ position as self-proclaimed defenders of the common good would have become unjustifiable, had the liberal line been implemented. As it was, Alexander III, the disheartened son and successor of the assassinated reformer, promptly reversed his broadminded policy for the sake of “tightening the system.” Violence spared the extremists from the dreaded irrelevance.
Such is the mentality that drives terrorists to set up their headquarters and rocket launching sites near or in kindergartens and schools at times of conflict–to maximize inadvertent civilian casualties and use them to portray the enemy as “baby killers.” A trademark of the Hamas operations during the 2009 fighting in Gaza was the use of children as human shields which the organization leaders flaunt. The terrorists have also incorporated other uninvolved civilians into their terrorist network, having built an extensive militant infrastructure in resident and industrial areas. Booby traps have been installed in homes, hospitals, educational institutions, and mosques; Hamas also placed snipers between buildings in which people were hiding to evade the Israelis during exchanges of fire. A combatant planting an explosive device and then running to hide inside a building full of civilians waving a white flag has turned into a symbol of Islamist terror strategy.
Terrorist leaders persistently count on hardship as an effective propaganda device, to blame the enemy and validate violence in the eyes of the afflicted Gaza residents. Suffering—amplified when opportunity allows—thus turns into another means to promote the cause.
FP: What do you hope this book will help achieve?
Geifman: There are several important points. As in my previous publications, I sought to convey the idea that an archetypal terrorist is not what his comrades (and other image-makers) portray him to be—a robin hood, a fighter for a lofty goal. Death Orders demonstrates that a very large percentage of terrorists are utterly indifferent to the ideology that supposedly drives them into battle. Many of them are hard to distinguish from common criminals. There is also an entire chapter devoted to terrorists as “used goods”, whose acts of suicidal terror are but camouflaged self-destructiveness. The book creates a portrait of the terrorist as a traumatized, week, and anxious individual for whom violence, justified in ideological terms, is a self-destructive lifestyle, an alternative to his otherwise miserable life. Before any meaningful policy may be enacted against the perpetrators of violence, we need to be very clear who we are dealing with—the misfits who are out to recast the world, in which they are misfits.
Speaking of policy: it is certainly possible to combat terrorism and defeat it. Russia was the first country to do this—and the book describes a rare success story of Prime Minister Petr Stolypin, who meant it when he said “You will not intimidate us!”
Most important for me was to show via comparison between modern-day Jihadism and early-20th century terrorism that both belong to the family of “fundamentalists”. It does not matter that today’s Islamists profess devotion to Allah, whereas the Russian radicals wanted to replace religion with Marx’s “social paradise”. This book ventures beyond politics to a less tangible sphere of existence, presenting the new type of terrorism as a “death cult” and a dark spiritual experience.
FP: Anna Geifman, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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