The Wounds That Refuse to Heal

Todd Gitlin is the author of "The Twilight of Common Dreams" and the forthcoming "Media Unlimited: Life in the Torrent of Image and Sound." He is New York editor of the Web magazine and teaches at New York University

How does a man convert himself into the instrument of a massacre? What goes on in his mind or his heart when he sets out to smash a jetliner into a skyscraper? How does it happen that scores or hundreds or thousands of such men and women decide that they have been called to demonstrate their piety by obliterating their enemies and the pride of their enemies? And that nothing will stand in their way, not even their own earthly existence?

To decide that some heaven-bent destiny calls you to heap up mountains of corpses and leave some 100,000 mourners among the families of the lost and millions more among their acquaintances and desolation all around is not the product of a moment’s revelation or a casual notion. It is a life work. It requires resolve, repeated self-renewal and tremendous feats of self-purgation. It requires moral suicide, and the people who resolve to do whatever is necessary to destroy their Great Satan of choice devote themselves to years of planning, so that their lives become the planning and they disappear into their tasks.

Each of the 19 terrorist hijackers, along with others who await their own opportunities to strike, must think of himself as already a dead man. He has left behind his ordinary life, which he now thinks was tantamount to enslavement. Thanks to a charismatic leader and the brotherhood he finds among co-conspirators, he swells up, makes himself extraordinary, a superman.


Once he lived amid corruption. The West may have tempted him, even America itself with its laissez faire, its free women, its arrogant power, its objectionable foreign policy. Now he convinces himself that there is a devil responsible for his and his people’s wounds. He convinces himself that his hatred is love--for his people or his God--and that he must regenerate himself as pure righteousness and fling himself against absolute evil. As a man, he does not matter. He melts himself down into a symbol, a symbol at war with symbols. Deploying himself against the twin cathedrals of world capitalism and its chief military citadel, he will overcome earthly limits. The world dissolves.

Thus violence is crucial in his scheme. Violence is at once his break from yesterday, his link to a glorious past and his door to the luminous future. Claiming ancient vindication, denying his modernity except when it comes to technique--airplane training machines, suicide bombs, the Internet--he struggles to fuse the glorious past with a glorious future and burn up the present between them. Physical suicide completes his moral suicide. To such a man, there can be no civilians. His pure totality is at war against the enemy’s impure totality. Of this, sacred men assure him.

If the dead matter at all, it is as symbols themselves, symbols of the raw power, he believes, that has brought him and his people low. Their deaths will stand for his rectitude, inspirations to those who will come along behind him, inspired by his martyrdom. On videotape, his exploits will become an ideogram of terror delivered and redelivered to the enemy, until the day of their final defeat.

Staggered, mournful, enraged, we grope our way out of the shock of Sept. 11, trying to understand who these people are, where they come from and why they want to kill. Is it because of our values, as President Bush said; if so, which ones? Is it because we in the United States are free or because we are powerful? Do they hate us because of who we are or what we do? When did this hate start? Who else feels it or is likely to start feeling it?

We had better inquire deeply into this hatred because terrorists are neither gods nor animals who massacre and ruin and call their acts godly and because there are others, possibly already in place, equally consecrated to their furious cause, ready to murder again, even with joy in their hearts. To stop terrorism will require more than military self-defense, more than police and courts.

Can there be any doubt, to thoughtful people of all persuasions and nations, that to defeat not only this month’s mass killers but the next wave, and the one after that--not just to condemn them but to defeat this scourge--there is an urgent need for some disciplined curiosity?


One provocative point of departure is Amin Maalouf’s “In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.” It is not a biography of Osama bin Laden or a history of the Afghan war or a sociology of the Saudi regime or an anatomy of the Israel-Palestine conflict or an analysis of American power. This striking and pungent polemic, mostly as wise as it is brief, is so searingly pertinent, it confirms that there really is a history to historic events, that the mass murder of Sept. 11, while indelibly shocking, is not wholly surprising. It was not inevitable--better security may have averted these particular assaults--but it had a design and a logic.

There is nothing fancy about Maalouf’s book, no specialized vocabulary, no self-promotional bravado. He operates on two planes. First, he propounds grand generalities, then he focuses on Islamic fundamentalism. The fit between the two is imperfect. But the thesis is profound.

Identity begins by “reflecting a perfectly permissible aspiration” but becomes a “false friend,” Maalouf argues. Everyone has many identities. Whoever oversimplifies himself or herself disappears into abstractions and forgets actual life. Religion today serves as the most compelling invitation to surrender the truth about our complex identity. In particular, the Islamic fundamentalism that not so long ago was marginal in the Arab world has become the main repository of a passion for pure belonging, a passion exacerbated by the unsettlements of globalization and by the particular histories of Saudi and Afghan politics, though no less heinous because it has a history.

At the bottom of dangerous identities are wounds, though again wounds are not valid alibis. “In the midst of any community that has been wounded,” as Maalouf writes, “agitators naturally arise. Whether they are hot-heads or cool schemers, their intransigent speeches act as balm to their audience’s wounds. They promise victory or vengeance; they inflame minds. Whatever happens ‘the others’ will have deserved it. ‘We’ can remember quite clearly ‘all that they have made us suffer’ since time immemorial: all the crimes, all the extortion, all the humiliations and fears, complete with names and dates and statistics.” Now a stripped-down identity slides toward ruthless war. “The transition from one meaning to the other is imperceptible. We are denouncing an injustice, we are defending the rights of a suffering people--then the next day we find ourselves accomplices in a massacre.” This massacre can be undertaken in the name of secular (the Khmer Rouge) or “ethnic” (the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda) ideals, but, on a global scale today, it is most likely to be religious. Religious communities, Maalouf writes, are “global tribes: tribes because of their stress on identity, global because of the way they blithely reach across frontiers. In a way, belonging to a faith community is the most global and universal kind of particularism.”

Globalization has an ironic dimension: It moves terror’s suitcases around the planet. It cries for responses of the mind and heart. Maalouf “dreams not of a world where religion no longer has any place but of one where the need for spirituality will no longer be associated with the need to belong. [W]hat has to do with religion must be kept apart from what has to do with identity. And if we want that amalgam to stop feeding fanaticism, terror and ethnic wars, we must find other ways of satisfying the need for identity.”

A tough-minded critic will find such idealism nave. The zealot who prefers his single-minded identity is unlikely to be impressed. But Maalouf is speaking to terrorism’s potential recruits, and his long view is a necessary view. A realist, he knows that Christianity’s crusading days are, in the main, centuries gone. Its fragments--Catholicism, Orthodoxy, the many shards of Protestantism--hold no terror. (The speed with which Jerry Falwell blamed gays and decadents for the attacks, and President Bush leaped to crusader rhetoric, before partial retractions, should erase any complacency on this score.) In any event, Maalouf’s deep concern is with Islamic fundamentalism.


Terrorist fundamentalism emerged when secular modernization failed. Arab governments are corrupt and autocratic. Islam once held other political alternatives, but they too failed. As a route to modernity, rationalism was a simplification that succeeded elsewhere but failed to seize hold of the Islamic world. (“Is it not the first duty of nationalism to find for every problem a culprit rather than a solution?” Maalouf writes.) So did the hugely ambitious Pan-Arabism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, himself “a fierce enemy of the Islamists.” Marxism was another simplification that failed. (The communism that eventually invaded Afghanistan and left it in ruins ran out the string of secular fanaticisms.) So did Frantz Fanon’s Third-Worldism of the 1960s and 1970s, proposing that when the colonized, who had suffered an “absolute wound,” rose up to kill the colonizer, violence canceled violence, and the world could be born again. This treacherous fantasy died, largely because nationalism (as Fanon himself well understood in his more lucid moments) commanded more loyalty than his own thinly understood universals.

But in the Arab world, nationalism failed to solve problems: “It wasn’t until the nationalist leaders, and Nasser above all, reached an impasse, partly through a series of military setbacks and partly because they were unable to solve the problems of underdevelopment, that a significant section of the population began to lend an ear to the voices of religious radicalism, and that, in the 1970s, beards and veils started to burgeon as signs of protest.”

Western ideals have a weak presence in the Arab world. “Arab nationalism, annexed by regimes that are authoritarian, incompetent and corrupt, has lost much of its credibility.” As in Iran before the Islamic Revolution, and Egypt and the Palestinian Authority today, fundamentalists recruit by offering welfare to the oppressed. To this day, the Arab states, suppressing legitimate dissent, erase all dissent but the fundamentalists’ and willy-nilly help them recruit. Maalouf despises the totalitarians of fundamentalism but despises equally the Islamic regimes that, suppressing democratic expression, drive the idealistic young toward fundamentalism. (I wonder whether he would revise the order of his detestations today.)

Certain truths are best seen from the margins, and the truths about identity and its demonic temptations are among them. Maalouf, in his early 50s, was born into an Arabic-speaking Greek Catholic family in Lebanon, lived there, editing a Beirut newspaper, until 1976, when he moved to France, where he has lived ever since, writing novels and a history, “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.” It will be objected that he exaggerates multiplicity because his own multiple identities are so vivid to him. He is aware of the danger that his experience is peculiar. But he has distance enough from all tribes to recognize that, in history, religions morph. Societies bend them more than they bend societies. As James Carroll argues in his fine book “Constantine’s Sword,” not only was Christianity stamped from its inception by Roman rule of Palestine, but it was bent again by Constantine’s use of the cross as its crusading symbol, and his installation of a religion of peace as an imperial weapon. As the great historian Marshall Hodgson pointed out, Islam started out bearing the marks of the warring society where it began. Today’s fundamentalists will surely evolve, one way or the other. So there is hope that Islam will one day find its Reformation.

Maalouf writes quietly, but he is unsparing. “By what right,” he asks, “could I claim that the Taliban in Afghanistan have nothing to do with Islam, nor Pol Pot with Marxism, nor Pinochet’s regime with Christianity?” (On the scale of slaughter, however, it must be granted that the murderous Pinochet is the odd man out in this company.) Each abomination “exhibits one possible application of the doctrine in question--not the only nor even the most widespread one, but however vexatious the example, it can’t just be set aside.” Each doctrine is susceptible to many interpretations, and it is fruitless to hunt for the “real” Islam (or Marxism or Christianity). The texts will not dissolve maniacal hatred. Still, it would be good to hear more religious leaders declare that mass murderers go to hell, not heaven. One devoutly wishes to hear rabbis condemn Jewish West Bank settlers who think the Bible entitles them to build fortresses against Canaanites, and clergy warning against American crusaders pining to rid the world of evildoers.

Maalouf, the radical idealist, has the temerity to tell people how to think about their identities and their religions: “If the men of all countries, of all conditions and faiths can so easily be transformed into butchers, if fanatics of all kinds manage so easily to pass themselves off as defenders of identity, it’s because the ‘tribal’ concept of identity still prevalent all over the world facilitates such a distortion,” a distortion we cling to “through habit, from lack of imagination or resignation, thus inadvertently contributing to the tragedies by which, tomorrow, we shall be genuinely shocked.” Shocked we are and remain.