The Boston Marathon bombings have prompted us to reconsider the role that righteous anger in young men plays in extremist politics.
We’re usually told that terrorist acts can be traced to “root causes” – that such acts are born of despair over lack of economic opportunity and the peaceful benefits of a pluralist secular society. This doctrine was reaffirmed in then-candidate Barack Obama’s first major foreign policy speech (The War We Need to Win) and has been hauled out every time a terrorist attack on U.S. soil occurs.
Yet, in almost all of these cases, the terrorists were already living in a secular pluralist society and capable of enjoying its benefits. So how can poverty and lack of opportunity be the “root cause”?
The tremendous power of this idée fixe goes back to the very beginning of modernity in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. Thinkers argued that tyrannical ambition, military strife and civil war were caused by denying human beings their basic right to pursue their own material self-interest. Once they enjoyed the balm of security and well-being, the sources of aggression would melt away, leaving us free, as Voltaire encouraged, to “cultivate our garden.”
Hobbes was particularly critical of the way in which ancient philosophers headed up by Aristotle encouraged young men to believe themselves capable of achieving heroic deeds that would benefit everyone and give them an immortal reputation. And this brings us back to terrorism.
What if terrorism had little, if anything, to do with economic deprivation or lack of individual opportunity? What if it were rooted in the capacity of young men for righteous anger, harnessed in the service of what they fervently believe to be a divine mission to bring justice to the world?
Homer’s Iliad begins with the rage of Achilles – that’s the key to understanding war and peace. Achilles believes the gods are on his side, and if the gods aren’t, he’s willing to shake his fist at them. Plato and the other ancient thinkers try to redirect this anger away from fanatical extremism to the spirited service of the common good, a republic of laws.
Righteous anger is where we should start in trying to understand terrorism and addressing its psychological deformities. Many studies suggest that male traits of aggressiveness may be hard-wired in the brain. Studies also show that young men are one of the chief causes of violence in all societies, political or otherwise. But these studies usually conclude with the need to extend the feminist project to young men, persuading them to become more tolerant and peaceful.
But what if the bellicose capacities of young men were summoned into existence by the perception of justice and injustice, the conviction that injustice has to be fought and justice upheld? I’d argue that these perceptions exist in every society. The point is not to try to get rid of righteous indignation but to convert it to the service of a view of justice that’s sane and reasonable – in our world, liberal democracy.
Hobbes understood that many young men begin as Achilles. They want honour from serving what they perceive to be a noble cause. While he thought this passion could be tamed by material well-being, he didn’t think it could be entirely eradicated. The social contract would always have to be on guard against the wolves prowling its dark perimeters.
Since then, however, there has been a tendency to think that the entire world has become like that social contract, or is on the verge of becoming so, if only we could extend the benefits of commodious living to those who still cling to aberrant passions of righteous zeal. And yet reality contradicts this belief every day, as we saw in Boston.
In the romanticization of revolution, revolutionaries are often portrayed as young idealists fighting the grip on power and privilege of rigid old men. In reality, as the history of revolutions amply shows, young revolutionaries aim precisely to establish a state where they will have absolute power to force others into a collective straitjacket.
Their contempt for what they perceive as the bloated softness of society is translated into a demand that the masses be purified of their corrupt material pleasures. That desire for a totalitarian collective purged of its lusts is what drives young men who believe they’re fighting for jihad. The ideology of jihadism, a sedulous blend of religious messianism hitched to the service of a totalitarian utopia, only increases the dangerous appeal of this distorted kind of idealism.
The first step in recognizing this danger, therefore, is to speak frankly about what it is, and not cling to the comforting delusion that the spread of Western-style materialism will be sufficient to counteract it. We have to remember that, at bottom, our own liberal democratic civilization has never been premised solely on material well-being and comfort.
Liberal democracy, born from Locke’s and Spinoza’s more edifying accounts of liberty, has its own account of a noble soul, one that doesn’t try to hide from the possibly dangerous passions of righteous anger innate to spirited young men, but can help them to understand themselves and become the vigorous defenders of the common good rather than its enemies.
Waller R. Newell is a professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University. His new book Tyranny: A New Interpretation is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.