This past Sunday, TheNew York Times published a front page article that purported to tell the story of an American teenager’s journey from playing b-ball in Minneapolis to joining the fight for the Muslim Caliphate in Syria.
But the article left the young man at its center, Abdi Nur, a cypher. All we learn is that he was slim, apparently liked playing basketball, and was attending a local community college with the hope, perhaps, of becoming a lawyer. The newspaper did report that there are, according to best estimates, a few dozen Americans (the article gives various specific figures that, unfortunately, don’t add up) and perhaps 3,000 Europeans who have joined or attempted to join jihadi groups. But it didn’t give us anything about their lives either. It was the same with all the coverage of Mohammed Emwazi, raised in London since he was six, who studied IT at the University of Westminster and worked for a Kuwaiti computer company before rocketing to fame as Jihadi John of various ISIS snuff flicks. Yes, we now know his name and we have seen some columns asserting that the atmostphere at the university was friendly to fundamentalists—but who the hell was he? A similar dynamic was at work in what has been written about ShamimaBegum, Kadiza Sultana, and Amira Abase – the three teenage girls who snuck out of London on a flight to Istanbul and now are, presumably, arranging to make their way to Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria that is not far from the Turkish border. We know their names but almost nothing else about them.
The Times noted that, in the U.S., a cluster of radicalized American kids developed in the Minneapolis area. According to the paper, the local mosque has accused a 30-something volunteer of pointing kids in the direction of militant action. But we don’t learn anything about him either.
Sadly, it seems, there’s not much to find out about any of these people. This is not a criticism of them. They are, for the most part, just starting out in life. They are largely unformed and, probably, like most of us at their age, trying ideas and identities on for size. We’d probably like them if we met them on the street. I’m sure they are good kids. Dutiful sons and daughters. Thoughtful. Caring. Open to experience. Energetic. They are exceptional only in that they are not exceptional. They are the norm. And so we don’t know how to talk about them.
We seem to want our terrorists larger than life – people who have gone through a grand conversion experience or a quick boil in the stew of radicalization. We don’t know how to talk about terrorists who have not gone through anything extravagant. We don’t know how to cope with absolutely normal terrorists.
Fortunately, there is a narrative of how an ordinary kid becomes a violent extremist. The Childhood of a Leader, a 75-year-old short story by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, chronicles the life of Lucien Fleurier, a bourgeois Mama’s-boy who morphs, as he reaches adulthood, into a violent anti-Semite. It was published in French in 1939 and translated into English 9 years later.
Like most kids, Lucien spends much of his childhood trying to find himself in a family and world that doesn’t seem to care what he feels. He loves his doting mother with an almost erotic intensity – but is repulsed by his own feelings. He fantasizes about being an orphan, but his guilt over this implied rejection of his family moves him to redouble his outward expressions of affection. His father – who owns a factory in the countryside – is, for the most part, a distant and dreary presence. He clearly expects Lucien to take charge of the family business when he grows up. This troubles the youth, who sees himself as a follower, not a leader. Lucien’s not sure he’s got the strength of character to run a factory.
In short, childhood offers Lucien little to encourage him to forge his own identity. Instead, he is mired in bad faith. No matter what he does, he finds himself inauthentic – a loving son who fantasizes about being a castaway, a kid who expects an inheritance he doesn’t deserve and doesn’t think he can handle.
In pursuit of an identity – any identity – he apprentices himself to people who seem self-possessed: older students who strike him as more decisive than he is, adults who seem to offer a firm sense of the world. He flirts with surrealism and has a brief affair with an older man (this scares the hell out of him, because, whether he’s gay or not, he knows he doesn’t have the guts to face the judgment of society, his family, and his peers.) His late-teen years are, as they are for most of us, an egotistical time. He picks up and drops friends and role models without wondering who they are or what they feel. Almost without thinking, he manipulates people under his control. He hooks up with a girlfriend he doesn't really care about. The sole question, for Lucien, is selfish: “What am I here for?”
Then, a guy he knows asks him to sign an anti-Jewish petition. Lucien had previously shown no interest in Jews. In fact, he had no experience with them whatsoever. He simply lived his reasonably cushioned life—summers at Férolles, the factory town, the rest of the year in Paris. But this makes the appeal perfect: Lucien doesn’t have to feel anything or know anything to put his signature down. So he signs and begins hanging out with the fascist cabal.
A short time later, his group, out for a night on the town, mugs a Jewish man, and Lucien spontaneously throws the final knock-out punch. With this single swing, he finds exactly what he has been craving. Previously a nebbish, a nothing, he has become someone who acts from conviction. He has an identity – he hates Jews – and that identity allows him to project a sense of authority. “The real Lucien—he knew now—had to be sought in the eyes of others, in the frightened eyes of Pierrette and Guigard [two friends who are impressed by his anti-Jewish views], the hopeful waiting of all those beings who grew and ripened for him, these young apprentice girls who would become his workers, people of Férolles, great and small, of whom one day he would be master. So many people were waiting for him, at attention: and he was and always would be this immense waiting of others.”
This, Lucien decides, is what he is here for, this is who he is. “I am the cathedral,” he tells himself. He wants – deserves, even – to be worshipped, and to achieve this end he doesn’t need opinions. Indeed, it’s better if he doesn’t have any – because then he can do horrible things without feeling or thinking anything at all, just telling himself it’s a matter of conviction. And, he doesn’t need any interest in the feelings or thoughts of others – because to let these things in is to admit that your convictions could be wrong. He assimilates anti-Semitism and hews to its line. The more resolute he is, the more people will watch, follow, attend to his views. And if he ceases to hold the line, he knows, he will lose his grasp on people’s attention and imagination.
In the final moment of the story, Lucien looks at his reflection in a store window. He expects to see the newly-serious committed man he has become in his mind. Instead, he encounters what he has always seen: “a pretty headstrong little face that was not yet terrible.” Nonplussed but still resolute, he knows what he has to do: “I’ll grow a moustache,” he decides.
It’s a banal decision, yet a telling ending.
For more than a decade, we have deluded ourselves into believing that terrorism is something radically other, outside our milieu of multi-culti tolerance and democracy. We believe that jihadis have to have been injected with some theocratic brainwashing virus or grown up in some stultifying medieval culture. Sartre’s ¾-century-old story reminds us that the appeal of terror is not alien. It is wired into modern life. Every person wants to make their mark—yet doesn’t know what to do to make it happen. We live on a ruthlessly competitive and utterly unfair planet. We seek to be extraordinary yet find ourselves condemned to be insignificant and ordinary, bit players even in our own lives. Despite contemporary rhetoric, we do not live in an inclusive world. Our system discards many without a care or even a thought. Our big cities – supposed melting pots – are segregated by race, by class, by country of origin. And as inequality rises, the lines of demarcation are getting more extreme even as we pretend they are being erased.
And then, on the verge of despair, people find a way they can differentiate themselves. Like Lucien, they grasp at this chance to be respected and revered. Like him, they discover something alien from their lives which offers them the chance to have what the world so far has denied them: an identity, a chance to become a leader, an opportunity to become a person to be reckoned with, a person with firm commitments that lead to spontaneous and resolute action. In search of identity, then, they become exactly what they are not. This is, of course, the essence of bad faith. The lure of violence, hatred, and terror is one of the outward expressions of this thin veil of nothingness that separates us from who we desire to be.
It is so ordinary it seems impossible to comprehend.