Death for death’s sake
The attacks in Sri Lanka confirm we live in an era of barbarism.
Here’s the most horrific thing from the barbaric assault on Christians and holidaymakers in Sri Lanka. In the Zion Evangelical Church in the eastern city of Batticaloa, Christian children were gathered for Sunday school. Given it was Easter Sunday their teacher asked them a special question. ‘How many of you are willing to die for Christ?’ According to a teacher who survived what was about to happen, all the children put their hands up. The children then spilled out into the church grounds to play. Photos show them looking sunny and happy. Minutes later, an Islamist terrorist, who had failed to get into the church itself, walked among the group of children and blew himself up. Twelve children were killed. Many of their teachers were killed, too. Their crime was to be Christian.
Details like this demand an urgent and serious assessment of the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism. Because this terrorism, even by the historical standards of terrorism, is peculiarly hateful, misanthropic and barbaric. What drives someone to detonate a suicide belt while standing among children? It brings to mind the suicide bomber who in July 2005 drove his car into a group of children who were accepting sweets from a US solider and blew himself up. Twenty-four children were killed. Or the female suicide bomber in Iraq in September 2006 who blew herself up among families who were queuing for kerosene. Try to imagine what happened next. A terrifying glimpse was offered by an eye-witness report in the Washington Post: ‘Two pre-teen girls embraced each other as they burned to death.’
It brings to mind the twin suicide bombings at All Saints Church in Peshawar in Pakistan in September 2013, when an Islamist extremist blew himself up among poverty-stricken Christian women and children who were queuing outside the church for a free meal, while his associate blew himself up inside the church where people ran to take cover. One-hundred-and-twenty-seven people were killed. And of course it brings to mind the Manchester Arena bombing of 2017, which faded strikingly fast from the forefront of the British political consciousness, in which an ISIS-inspired extremist blew himself up among parents and children leaving an Ariana Grande concert. The youngest victim was an eight-year-old girl. It’s likely many people in Britain don’t even know her name. It was Saffie Roussos.
These are only a handful of the thousands of acts of barbarism carried out by Islamist extremists in recent years. From the US to Europe, from the Middle East to the subcontinent, tens of thousands of people have been slaughtered by Islamist extremists. This terrorism seems to have utterly dispensed with the old rules of engagement. Its battleground is as likely to be a church or a school or a hospital or a queue of children as it is a piece of land claimed by an opposing military outfit. It follows no moral code whatsoever. Its defining feature is a glaring and terrifying absence of moral restraint. Anything is acceptable. Anyone can be killed. There is no code or rule or even basic human impulse that says to these groups: ‘Don’t do that. Not here. Not at a Sunday school.’
This means the new barbarism is very different to the violent groups that existed in the 1970s and 1980s. These outfits, like the PLO or the IRA, were usually, though not always, restrained by their own political motives and ambitions, contained and controlled by their own political beliefs. Their claim to represent a political outlook and a political constituency meant they tended to behave within a basic moral framework. Their claim to be serious political actors meant they carefully tailored and targeted their militaristic acts. Their acts of violence were frequently bloody, of course, but they rarely did what Islamist terrorists do today: seek to kill as many people as possible, ideally women and children, in a kind of perverse display of pornographic misanthropy, and with no higher aim than to devastate lives, communities and the human family more broadly.
For a few years now, some observers – not nearly enough – have tried to get to grips with the new barbarism, with this utterly unanchored, unrestrained, death-glorying violence. A 2005 New York Times piece titled, ‘The mystery of the insurgency’ commented on Iraqi insurgents’ massacre of civilians and how historically unusual it was. This ‘surge in the killing of civilians’ reflects ‘how mysterious the long-term strategy remains’, it said. The writer arrived at a horrifying conclusion: that maybe there was no long-term strategy; that maybe killing civilians was the strategy, was the overriding aim. Death for death’s sake.
‘Counter-insurgency experts are baffled’, said the NYT piece, because these civilian-targeting groups in Iraq had ‘developed no alternative government or political wing and displayed no intention of amassing territory to govern’. Of course this changed later, with ISIS, which did amass territory. But even this contained within it ‘the mystery of the insurgency’, given that the Islamic State territory was defined by its perverse celebration of extreme violence which it recorded and distributed online. If anything, its territory looked less like a traditional state or guerrilla nation than a staging post for the internationalisation of ‘the surge in the killing of civilians’. A piece of land from which spectacles of deaths could be organised.
What was really unfolding in Iraq back then was the new barbarism. The Western leftists who excused, and in some cases even celebrated, the ‘Iraqi insurgency’ were utterly missing the point of what was happening – not an anti-imperialist rebellion, as they dreamed, but the spread of a new, unhinged breed of violent misanthropy. Of something we had not previously seen, certainly not in our lifetimes. This is post-state, post-political, post-morality violence. It speaks to and is no doubt inflamed by the hollowing out of political and international norms in recent years. It feels genuinely apocalyptic. But there is another factor which, it seems increasingly likely, is contributing to the intensification of the new barbarism: the striking and self-defeating reluctance of many in the West to condemn this barbarism or even to speak openly about its origins or uniqueness.
The aftermath of the attacks in Sri Lanka capture Western liberal elites’ cageyness about morally and politically confronting the new barbarism. There has been no talk of fascism and hatred and our moral responsibility to stand up to these things, as there was after the mosque massacres in Christchurch. There has been no emergence of a Christian solidarity movement, in contrast with the numerous, and correct, cries of solidarity made to Muslims after Christchurch. Indeed, focus too much on Islamist terrorism these days and you risk being accused of Islamophobia. ‘Christians used to do this kind of thing’, they will say, inaccurately, in order to deflect attention from their own unwillingness to take a strong moral stance on Islamist extremist violence. Or they will point out that America and Britain and other nations are still engaged in violent conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, even though they must know, somewhere inside their moral universe, that there is an immeasurable difference between America’s military campaigns in the Middle East (which are wrong) and the wilful slaughter of children queuing for sweets or teenage girls collecting petrol.
Whether it is their accusations of Islamophobia or their morally relativistic comparison of today’s new barbarism with the behaviour of Western armies, the liberal elites’ key aim seems to be to avoid having to take a strong position on this new, strange, spectacularly anti-human violence. And this moral cowardice has now crossed the line from being irritating and has become possibly dangerous in itself. Certainly it does nothing to challenge, far less try to stop, the rise of the new barbarism. A weak and morally disorientated West that will not strongly condemn the nihilistic ideology behind the slaughter of Christians in Sri Lanka, or the bombing of children in Manchester, or the gunning down of rock fans in Paris, is a West that cannot feign surprise when such violence continues. It is no longer enough to say ‘That’s awful’ and then move on – we need a serious reckoning with the war on Christians, the rise of 7th-century barbarism, and the collapse of any semblance of moral restraint among the new terrorists.
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