A disturbed teen crashes a light plane into an office building in Florida and leaves a suicide note, apparently praising the work of bin Laden. Relieved that hundreds were not killed, officials properly assure us that his desperate act is a sign of mental illness or family despair, and not connected to global terrorism. At the Los Angeles airport a supposedly unhinged Egyptian Ã©migrÃ© murders innocents at the El Al airline counter; we are reminded by pundits and diplomats that the anti-Semite once again acted alone and thus was not a part of an al Qaeda cell.
Snipers in Maryland and Virginia blast apart civilians at random. Thereafter we are advised that although one was an angry black Muslim and the two previously had expressed approval of the September 11 attacks and had very disturbing appurtenances in their car, both were not in any formal sense a part of al Qaeda. Arrests of various conspirators on both the east and west coast, who either visited Afghanistan or helped to organize Islamic "charities" as fronts for terrorists raise more controversy than relief — as anguished relatives swear that the indictment of such American patriots is proof of anti-Islamic prejudice rather than proper homeland security. We still do not know the exact circumstances of the anthrax letters; yet we are lectured that earlier reports that one of the September 11 murderers may have had a cutaneous form of the rare disease and that letters connecting the bacilli with terrorist fury were probably bogus.
This caution is perhaps fine and proper, as it should be since there is not always legal proof implicating any of these events with a worldwide al Qaeda network. But in some sense, it doesn't matter.
The violent terrorist acts share an ostensible theme of either reflecting the aims of al Qaeda or professing some sympathy with radical Islamic fundamentalism. They are as dangerous as the work of terror cells because they presage a sporadic, spontaneous, and nearly unpredictable outbreak of violence that is also decentralized and untraceable. In short, rather than being al Qaeda shock troops, these killers and criminals are al Qaedistic — or perhaps show symptoms of a malady we should call "al Qaedism."
One did not need to be a formal follower of Hitler to be fascistic, or a member of Stalin's party to be communistic. In fact, the Greek suffix "-istic" ("like" or "pertaining to") can mean simulation of, or empathy with, the real thing. What are the symptoms of such a pathology like al Qaedism? How does it spread? And how can it be eradicated?
Thousands of Americans are wicked or mentally troubled, often with records of criminal activity or signs of such intent. Most murder, maim, rob banks, or commit other such mayhem, and leave it at that — seeking no claim of higher political import for their odious crimes. But not at all — and not after 9/11.
On the campus in the 1970s, both petty criminals and megalomaniac thugs sought to mask their selfish and narcissistic agendas under the more cosmic cloak of the antiwar movement, national liberation, or utopian egalitarianism. So the felons of the Black Panther Party, the grim killers and bank robbers of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and many of the mad bombers of the Weathermen were encouraged by the rhetoric of the nebulous resistance movement to act out their violent propensities — in hopes that allegiance to some half-baked philosophy would make them revolutionaries rather than the felons they were.
So it was with criminals like the would-be mass murderer Richard Reid and the two snipers, who all had either a prior rap sheet or displayed signs of real instability, but perhaps wished to evolve from two-bit losers into momentary warriors — on the idea that their crimes might at last find transcendence in some sort of ad hoc jihad. In that sense, the cheap rhetoric of al Qaeda — a godless and oppressive United States wars unjustly against poor Muslims and the dispossessed of the globe; Jews conspire everywhere; decadent Western society must cede to a puritanical Islam — can energize an otherwise pedestrian cruelty and thereby salvage a cause from a personal sense of failure and inadequacy.
Rather than confront the reality of past character flaws, mental instability, failed marriages, or the bleak future of no money, dead-end jobs, or social ostracism, the al Qaedist — whether an erstwhile Black Muslim, a Middle Eastern immigrant with a criminal past, or mixed-up pampered suburbanites who dabble in fundamentalism — seeks notoriety for his crimes, and therein perhaps at last a sense of importance.
Unfortunately to the sniper's innocent targets in Virginia and Maryland — or any others who will die by unhinged al Qaeda wannabes — it makes no difference whether they were the victims of terror or terroristic behavior. Law-enforcement officials, of course, are growing worried about such trends — as if the ideology of al Qaeda quite independently across time and space can infect crazy, mean people and prompt them to act out their dreams in violently anti-American fashion. Al Qaedism, after all, can serve as a sort of receptacle for extreme lunatics of the anti-Americanism brand who seek purer and more violent avenues of expression.
In the 1930s there were literally thousands of unbalanced Westerners outside Germany who paraded around in black shirts and aped Hitler. No doubt had the Third Reich not been demolished the more deranged would have continued to dress-up their criminality with Nazi slogans, violent anti-Semitism, and terrorist acts. But by 1945 few would-be National Socialists were prominent. Violent fellow travelers were common in the 1930s and 1940s; indeed, the archives of arrested Stalinists often reveal those who tried to find some higher plane to act out their innate criminal propensities, alleviate deep personal maladies, or simply assuage their own failure by displaying anger toward Western society. Yet we see few such dangerous misfits after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
To rid us of al Qaedists, then, we must first not merely destroy al Qaeda, but do so in such comprehensive and humiliating fashion that the easy emulation of the radical Islamicist agenda not only draws opposition from friends and family but utter ridicule. And at home, Americans must not be afraid to address extremism when they see it, refute it — and do so in such a way that its perpetrators incur shame and odium on themselves rather than inspire the criminal, hateful, or mentally ill to equate their anger and failure with a virulent anti-Americanism.
I suppose it was entirely legal last Halloween for the New Black Panther Party and its Islamic fundamentalist allies — firebrands like Imam Abdul Alim Musa, Imam Muhammad Asi, Imam Abdel Razzag Al Raggad, and others — to voice empathy for the Taliban, express publicly racist and anti-Semitic hatred, and convey sympathy for those who murdered 3,000 Americans. But it was not a very moral act for C-Span to broadcast that repulsive propaganda live from the National Press Club at a time of war.
Watching protesters in the recent antiwar march in Washington on public television no doubt gives balance to the debate, but again broadcasting at taxpayer expense shots of posters that declared "I love Iraq, bomb Texas" or photos of the President of the United States with a Hitlerian mustache and Nazi salute crosses the line of good taste.
By the same token it is very American for zealots to shout displeasure at their government, but their slurs that the president of the United States, the vice president, and the secretary of defense are the "true axis of evil" rather than Stalinist North Korea, fascistic Iraq, or theocratic Iran have consequences in the future that we cannot predict in the present. And we should be concerned that an apparent Iraqi national, recently returned with permission from Saddam Hussein's regime, leads Americans in chants about their amoral war. We should cringe too when the former attorney general, Ramsey Clark compares an American administration to Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Gestapo. There are ripples from such hate and we are seeing how insidiously they can lap into crazy minds.
In other words, there is a moral responsibility to oppose such extremism, and, yes, subversion. Such hateful anti-American language can lend a sense of legitimacy and encouragement to a John Muhammad, a mixed-up teenage John Lee Malvo, or an angry anti-Semite Hesham Mohamed Modayet at the Los Angeles airport, and so elevate their pathologies into something apparently 'meaningful,' or perhaps even enrage them to at last act.
Of course, the real task of preventing isolated but often violent and deadly terroristic acts requires the defeat and degradation of al Qaeda abroad. But stopping al Qaedism here at home is as much a social and cultural, as a legal or military, challenge. We cannot censor those who carry signs that advocate bombing Texas, but we should surely censure them — and hope that another loser like John Williams, John Walker Lindh, Jose Padilla, or Richard Reid is not watching them on C-Span, ready to attack Americans as a creepy jihadist John Mohammed, Abdul Hamid, Abdullah al-Muhajir, or Abdel Rahim.