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It's the Ideology, Stupid

What do Robespierre, Stalin, Hitler, Che Guevara, and Mullah Omar have in common?

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
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The designers and practitioners of revolutionary violence, moreover, are not usually poor, disadvantaged, uneducated, or lacking in avenues for advancement. Osama bin Laden is from a wealthy family, and world-class political mass-murderers before him include the middle-class Lenin, son of a high-ranking civil servant, and the Sorbonne-educated Pol Pot. Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that such figures—who cannot be placated with economic well-being because they are motivated by a principled hatred of the West—make up only 1 percent of all political killers, we still must understand them if we are to make sense of the violence they orchestrate—and forestall it. 

Ideological motivation alone is not enough to distinguish the terrorist. Many assassins have a twisted view of the justice of their cause. The killer of Martin Luther King Jr. thought his victim was a dangerous Communist. The Washington Beltway sniper had formed Black Muslim loyalties in prison. Even John Lennon’s assassin believed he was removing an evil force from the world. Common sense tells us that these lone assassins are not terrorists in the same way as al Qaeda or as past leaders and comrades in other cohesive extremist political movements. 

Instead, terrorists are revolutionaries committed to killing, even to the extent of genocide, to bring about a better world. To join this particular tribe, members must carry out acts of large-scale political murder for the sake of the ideal they share: a future society that will end all alienation, vice, and unhappiness forever by submerging the individual in the bliss of the righteous collective. This future utopia can only be brought about if the one group or force standing in the way is annihilated, for that group or force is construed as the cause of all human unhappiness, injustice, and oppression. This is a trait common to revolutionary movements from the Jacobins all the way down to the jihadists of today. 

Depending on the movement and the era, the impediment to universal bliss may be the bourgeoisie, capital, the kulaks, the Jews, America, Israel, the infidel. Destroying this evil force, sometimes embodied in a nation-state, sometimes in a class or race, revolutionaries believe, will liberate mankind forever. The very violence of the deed will itself be cathartic for the “warriors,” transmuting their souls as heroic avatars of the cleansed world to come—the Communist new order, the Third Reich, the Year Zero proclaimed by the Khmer Rouge, the worldwide caliphate that will supposedly restore original Islamic purity. Whether working in the United States or abroad, today’s jihadist revolutionaries are bent on the eventual overthrow of the American government and all other liberal democracies and their replacement with a global Islamist dictatorship as little resembling true Islam as true democracy. While sometimes imitating the language of freedom and equality, revolutionary movements as far back as the Jacobins have originated in the conviction that representative government and the Enlightenment are disastrous for human dignity and can only degrade all that is virtuous and dutiful.

Only these idealists of death, the practitioners of utopian genocide, provide a category for comprehending al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thus enabling us to distinguish political mass murder from school massacres, hate crimes, assassinations, and idiosyncratic apocalyptic rampages like Charles Manson’s “bringing down helter-skelter.” The revolutionaries’ motivation is not “terrorism,” an increasingly empty abstraction. Rather, terrorism is a means, and it is but one means toward the end of the collectivist utopia, alongside relentless propaganda, bribery, intimidation of opponents, paralegal military action, conventional warfare, charitable good works among potential converts, tactical compromises with ordinary political processes, and the ceaseless psychological conditioning of young people in the need to fight against the oppressive force supposedly blocking the people’s road to happiness, all of these integrated and directed by the blueprint for the coming new society. From Robespierre to Stalin, Hitler, Che Guevara, and Mullah Omar, they should be described for what they are—revolutionaries, whose violence today serves their belief in the world of tomorrow where they will rule. 

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