Terrorists as Nihilists?

I recently received Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority in the mail.  I’m looking forward to having the time to read this challenging book.*  Did peruse it for a few minutes and noticed this interesting quotation in one of the footnotes:

Nor do I pretend to understand the stark nihilism that drove the terrorists that day and that drives their brethren still.  My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction. 

This is from Barack Obama back in 2004.  Now what is remarkable about this quotation is that it flies in the face of one of the few things that terrorism experts actually agree on.  Indeed, no matter how much they disagree about what does motivate terrorists  – foreign occupation, religion, they hate our freedom, etc – they stand relatively united against the claim that terrorists are nihilists.  Here is just one example – from terrorism expert Scott Atran in his 2006 article “The Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism”:

It is nonsense to claim that Al Qaeda and its sympathizers have no morality and simply want to annihilate Western civilization. In general, charges of nihilism against an adversary usually reflect ignorance of the adversary’s moral framework or an attempt publicly to cast it as simply evil to mobilize domestic support for war.     

*Huemer has Bryan Caplan to thank for my purchase – and I’m probably not the only one who ordered based on Caplan’s recommendation.

3 thoughts on “Terrorists as Nihilists?

  1. It’s amazing to me that our president doesn’t understand one of the biggest challenges his own country faces- terrorism. How can he combat it if he doesn’t understand what it is?

    1. To be fair to him, a lot of time has elapsed since 2004 and this could have been rhetorical. But yes, it doesn’t inspire confidence. On the plus side, he hasn’t given in to Samantha Power and others and done much on Syria – so perhaps he understands the point that University of Chicago prof. Robert Pape makes about foreign occupation being a macro cause of at least suicide terrorism.

  2. 70 years ago it was fascism. 60 years ago it was international communism. Today it is terrorism. Empires need enemies. They need enemies to scare people into following and rallying around the state. They need enemies to justify a loss of citizen’s liberty to be replaced by a perceived security. They need enemies to justify large taxes,large government and bloated government employment. The elitists and globalists behind the scenes,who are the real power in America,use the Hegelian dialectic to achieve and keep power. Its all about gaining and maintaining power. Al Qaeda was a CIA invention. Most,but not all, terrorism in America are “false flag” events. The power elites in America keep telling the American people to give up a little more of their liberty every time their is any kind of perception of terrorism. In the end,Americans will be completely stripped of their rights and be left with nothing but the status of a serf. It is the same tactic used for centuries by tyrants to keep their populations under their thumbs. It is happening today in America.

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