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January 17, 2005

The power of resentment: a response to Karin von Hippel

Versión en español: El poder del resentimiento: una respuesta a Karin von Hippel

If the International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security in Madrid to be held on 8-11 March 2005 is to make any headway in addressing perhaps the most serious security issue in the world today then it should not, in my view, start from the premises assumed by Karin von Hippel in her openDemocracy article “Five steps for defeating terrorism”.

Karin von Hippel looks for the causes of terrorism in the condition of those who perpetrate it, and lights on such factors as poverty, deprivation, and injustice: "It is hardly surprising that many (ordinary Saudis or Algerians or Egyptians) direct their anger at the United States which often supports their authoritarian and non-representative leaders…If Europe and North America can do more to make good on commitments already made to eliminate poverty, to end civil conflicts, and to promote social inclusion and democratisation where this is required the popularity of terrorists…could begin to wane significantly." Although the intention is not exactly to blame the United States for the terrorist attacks on it, the implication is that the US is, nevertheless, part of the cause, and that a radical change of US policy towards the "third world" – particularly the middle east - will be part of the solution.

If you look at the actual condition of terrorists down the ages, however, you will not easily find the common factor that Karin von Hippel is looking for. Some terrorists have been poor and attempting to find a way out of poverty; some have suffered deprivation of one form or another, or been victims of injustice. But by no means all, and by no means the worst.

The Jacobins were for the most part privileged members of the rising élite, impatient for power but also eager to punish. The Russian anarchists of the 19th century were not badly off from the point of view of material and social privileges, and their grievances were more the work of the imagination than the result of either observation of, or sympathy towards, the ordinary people of Russia. This point is brought home not merely by Dostoevsky, Turgenev and others, but also by Anna Geifmann in her detailed study of the origins of Russian terrorism, Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917 (1995).

The point holds for many modern terrorists. Even the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which purports to represent the “oppressed” Catholics of Northern Ireland, is very far from recruiting from those whose oppressed condition it loudly advertises. Membership is a privilege, and the IRA is now one of the most profitable businesses in the province. There is no evidence that Osama bin Laden’s entourage is any different, and the suggestion that his kind of terrorism arises as a protest against poverty or injustice is laughable.

The impulse to hate

It seems to me that we will be nearer to understanding terrorism if, instead of looking at what is common to the condition of the terrorists, we look at what is common to the condition of their victims. The targets of terrorism are groups, nations or races. And they are distinguished by their worldly success - either material or social. The original terror was directed against the French aristocracy - soon supplemented by all kinds of real and imaginary groups supposed to be aiding them. The Russian anarchists targeted people with wealth, office or power. The great terror of Stalin, initiated by Lenin, was directed against groups alleged to be profiting from the system that impoverished the rest - the kulaks, the bourgeoisie, the agents of capitalist encirclement.

The Nazi terror picked on the Jews, because of their undoubted material success, and the ease with which they could be assembled as a group. Even the nationalist terrorists of the IRA and variety are targeting nations thought to enjoy wealth, power and privilege, at the expense of others equally entitled. And if you want to know why the US has become a prime target for modern terrorists, you only have to look at its lifestyle. Here is the very epitome of material success, that it “had it coming” or was just "asking for it", as many of the left say, if only to each other.

Success breeds resentment in those who envy it, and resentment breeds hate. This simple observation was made into the root of his political psychology by Nietzsche, who identified ressentiment, as he called it, as the distinguishing social emotion of modern societies: an emotion once ordered and managed by Christianity, now let loose across the world.

I don’t say that Nietzsche’s impetuous analysis of our condition is correct. But surely he was right to identify this peculiar motive in human beings, right to emphasise its overwhelming importance, and right to point out that it lies deeper than the springs of rational discussion. In dealing with terrorism you are confronting hatred, bred of resentment. This resentment is not concerned to improve the lot of anyone, but only to destroy the thing that it hates. That is what appeals in terrorism, since hatred is a much easier and less demanding emotion to live by than love, and is much more effective in recruiting a following.

We can all join together in hating someone, far more easily than we can join together in loving him. And when the object of hatred is a group, a race, a class or a nation, we can furnish from our hatred a comprehensive stance towards the world. That way hatred brings order out of chaos, and decision out of uncertainty. Surely that is a better explanation of the process whereby terrorists are recruited than those offered either by Karin von Hippel or Mary Kaldor.

This doesn’t mean that the targets of terrorist attacks are always innocent, or that there are no legitimate grounds for resenting them; nor does it mean that there are no changes of policy that might diminish the strength of the hatred or turn it away from the terrorist path. It means only that we should never lose sight of the principal factor, which is that terrorism is a deliberate act, caused by a human motive.

The tendency to hate lies in all of us, and can be overcome only by a religious or quasi-religious discipline. And I suspect that one of the most important issues to consider at the Madrid conference (which therefore will not consider it) is that of the relative effects of the various religions, in diverting resentment away from its natural course or, on the contrary, amplifying it to the point of implacable hatred. This would mean that the conference would have to break the chains of political correctness that hamper Karin von Hippel. It would have to allow itself at least to entertain, if not finally to endorse, the idea that Islam, in the form invoked by Osama bin Laden and his followers, fails dismally to teach us, as Christianity teaches us, that hatred is a sin.

With the collaboration ofSafe Democracy Foundation
Members of the Club de Madrid

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