WMC News & Features

Robin Morgan on the terrorist mystique

We've been here before.

And we will be, tragically, here again. And again. The sidewalk shrines, the candles, the flowers, the mourners, the rage. The strikes by ISIL, or the Islamic State, or, as the Arabs call them, the Daiesh, the strikes against Beirut, against the Russian airliner, against Paris, prove that ISIL has more people—tens of thousands of soldiers—and greater scope and reach than had been thought.

So the expectable attempts at analysis are brought forth again, going around in circles: Why are young men so drawn to this super-violent sect, or so it was thought—but it's not a sect. It’s dreams of a glorified, mythified past reinstating the caliphate. For a poor man, it's a salary—just that. Food. Bread. As well as a sense of being worth something, fighting in a larger cause, and if he is religious, of course, the reward of martyrdom. But why, people ask, why the better-educated? How can they—from middle-class, even some upper-middle-class backgrounds—how can they go and join ISIL? They also join for religious reasons, for dreams of a glorified past, and for expectations unfulfilled because, though they are educated, there are no jobs for them. And, of course, the prize: the promise of female slaves is a huge inducement.

But until we go beyond those superficial analyses, we will keep repeating this tragic scenario over and over and over. Because the terrorist is the logical incarnation of patriarchal politics in a technological world.

The terrorist is the son practicing what the father (in power) has always practiced, and claimed to have found his identity in doing. So the son imitates him. And, as usual, with a paternal mixture of pride and alarm, the father either disowns or affirms the son according to how closely the son does or doesn't follow in his footsteps. You can hear it in the father's preaching and practicing. To the Reagan Administration in the United States, the Nicaraguan contras were freedom fighters, not terrorists, and the disappearance squads of General Pinochet in Chile were law enforcers, not terrorists. Yet militant black South Africans fighting apartheid, and Palestinian paramilitary groups fighting occupation—they were terrorists. To the Soviet Union, on the other hand, the People's Army in El Salvador was a revolutionary force in its insurgency, while the people's resistance in Afghanistan was a terrorist phenomenon. Pretty ironic, that.

The terrorist mystique is twin brother to the manhood mystique, and the mythic father of both is the Hero. The terrorist has charisma because he is the technological-age manifestation of the hero, and this is a democratization of violence, because now every man can be a hero. The hero triumphant when he wins his revolution and moves into the presidential palace—that's George Washington and Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro and Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. And he’s the hero martyred when he loses and is destroyed. That’s Spartacus, Crazy Horse, Zapata, Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara—and of course the martyrdom promised by Islamic fundamentalism.

Without the propaganda of the hero myth, murder is a sordid business. But with the hero myth, any act of violence is made not only possible but inevitable. The rapist gets transformed into the seducer, the tyrant rules by divine right, and the terrorist reconstitutes the Hero. Look at him. There he stands, young, lean, garbed all in black, his face in shadow or masked by a balaclava, his gestures as swift and economical as a predatory cat's. Not only does his muscled body bear the magic tools of death, but he himself is a magic tool of death. His commitment is total. He's a fanatic of dedication, a mixture of impetuosity and discipline. He's desperate and therefore vulnerable, he's totally at risk and therefore brave, he's an idealist yet a hardened realist, and most of all, he is someone wholly given over to a passion. But his passion is death. He is what passes for manhood. In that he seeks (or risks) exalted annihilation, and in that he threatens (or promises) the same, he actually magnetizes us. He fascinates us as an avatar of power.

We recognize this as an unhealthy power. We recognize less what lies behind his ski mask. What lies behind is what we have invoked for generations—the eroticizing of violence: the Demon Lover.

What lies behind is the leading man of popular entertainment culture, the hero of millions, the Lone Ranger, Zorro, all the masked comic book heroes, the depersonalized abandon of Mardi Gras, of Carnival, the Masked Ball, the swashbuckler, the highwayman, the pirate, the daredevil, the outlaw, the Frog Prince, the Beast menacing Beauty; the costumes, uniforms, disguises worn by men of the church and the military, as Virginia Woolf noted in Three Guineas, and by men of the corporation with their own uniforms, and by the hip radicals, or the biker, or the chieftain. The hero's disguises and the emperor's clothes were cut by the same tailor—and for the same purpose.

But this is nonsense, you might think: The terrorist is a man who wears a ski mask or a stocking mask because he doesn't want to betray his identity; he simply doesn't want anyone to know who he is, that's all.

My point, exactly.




Robin Morgan
Co-founder. Women's Media Center, Host & Producer of WMC Live with Robin Morgan, Writer, Activist
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