The last of the shellshocked were being evacuated as I headed back toward Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s famed tourist-filled walkway where another disgruntled “soldier of Islamic State” had ploughed a van into the crowd, killing at least 13 and injuring more than 120 from 34 nations. Minutes before the attack I had dropped my wife’s niece near where the rampage began. It was deja vu and dread again, as with the Paris massacre at the Bataclan theatre in 2015, next door to where my daughter lived.
At a seafront promenade south of Barcelona, a car of five knife-wielding kamikaze mowed down a woman before police killed them all. One teenage attacker had posted on the web two years before that “on my first day as king of the world” he would “kill the unbelievers and leave only Muslims who follow their religion”.
Mariano Rajoy, the president of Spain, declared that “our values and way of life will triumph” – just as Theresa May had proclaimed “our values will prevail” in March when yet another petty criminal “born again” into radical Islam drove his vehicle across Westminster Bridge to kill and wound pedestrians.
In Charlottesville the week before, the white supremacist attacker who killed civil rights activist Heather Heyer mimicked Isis-inspired killings using vehicles. “This was something that was growing in him,” the alleged attacker’s former history teacher told a newspaper. “He had this fascination with nazism [and] white supremacist views … I admit I failed. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”
The values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground around the world to those of narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical Islam. This is not a “clash of civilisations”, but a collapse of communities, for ethno-nationalist violent extremism and transnational jihadi terrorism represent not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their unravelling.
This is the dark side of globalisation. The western nation-state and relatively open markets that dominate the global political and economic order have largely supplanted age-old forms of governance and social life. People across the planet have been transformed into competitive players seeking fulfilment through material accumulation and its symbols. But the forced participation and gamble in the rush of market-driven change often fails, especially among communities that have had little time to adapt. When it does, redemptive violence is prone to erupt.
The quest for elimination of uncertainty, coupled with what social psychologist Arie Kruglanski deems “the search for significance”, are the personal sentiments most readily elicited in my research team’s interviews with violent jihadists and militant supporters of populist ethno-nationalist movements. In Hungary, we find strong support for the government’s call for restoring the “national cohesion” lost with the fall of Miklós Hothy’s fascist regime in the second world war. In Iraq, we find nearly all young people coming out from under Isis rule in Mosul initially welcomed the stability and security it offered, despite its brutality, amid the chaos following the US invasion.
In the world of liberal democracy and human rights, violence – especially extreme forms of mass bloodshed – is generally considered pathological or an evil expression of human nature. But across most history and cultures, violence against other groups is claimed by the perpetrators to be a sublime matter of moral virtue. For without a claim to virtue it is difficult, if not inconceivable, to kill large numbers of people innocent of direct harm to others.
Ever since the second world war, revolutionaries and insurgents willing to sacrifice themselves for causes and groups have prevailed with considerably less firepower and manpower than the state armies and police forces they oppose. Meanwhile, according to the World Values Survey, the majority of Europeans don’t believe democracy is “absolutely important” for them; and in France and Spain we find little evidence of willingness to sacrifice much of anything for democracy – in contrast to the willingness to fight and die among supporters of militant jihad.
How can we resist, compete with, and overcome these strengthening countercultural pressures in the present age? Perhaps, for some, a re-enchantment and communitarian rerooting of our own values of representative government and cultural tolerance provides an answer. Preserving what is left of the planet’s fauna and flora and avoiding environmental catastrophes may offer a new course for others. Or the coming generation, if allowed, may offer whole new ways of understanding.
Young people are viewed mostly as a youth bulge and a problem to be pummelled rather than as a youth boom
Yet no countervailing message will spread in a social vacuum, in the abstract space of ideology or counter-narrative alone. The means of engagement are critical, requiring close knowledge of communities at risk. Most often, people join radical groups through pre-existing social networks. This clustering suggests that much recruitment does not take place primarily via direct appeals or following individual exposure to social media (which would entail a more dispersed recruitment pattern). Rather, recruiting often involves enlisting clusters of family, friends and fellow travellers from specific locales (neighbourhoods, universities, prisons).
Our research into the history of Isis-inspired attacks in western Europe clearly indicates that initial attempts by those directly commissioned by Islamic State, and without involvement from locally pre-existing social networks, mostly failed; however, as that involvement broadened and deepened, attacks became progressively more lethal. In our research, we find loose but wide-ranging connections between jihadist circles in Barcelona and much of western Europe, the Maghreb, the Levant and beyond that stretch back even before the attacks of 9/11.
The necessary focus of engagement must be youth, who form the bulk of today’s radical recruits and tomorrow’s most vulnerable populations. Volunteers for al-Qaida, Isis and many extreme nationalist groups are often young people in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, people between jobs and before finding their life partners. Having left their homes and parents, they seek new families of friends and fellow travellers to find purpose and significance.
We need a strategy to redirect radicalised youth by engaging with their passions, rather than ignoring or fearing them, or satisfying ourselves by calling on others to moderate or simply denounce them. Of course there are limits to tolerance, and dangers of worse violence in appeasement of the intolerable. Our partisan divisions include real differences in values that politicians and pundits hype and ply into existential threats. But there are still vast common grounds in a world where all but the too-far-gone can live life with more than a minimum of liberty and happiness, if given half a chance. It is for this chance that some of our forebears fought revolutions, civil wars and world wars.