The best of Fred Hutchison
Understanding the enemy
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
June 21, 2012

Originally published September 22, 2004

Lee Harris, author of Civilization and its Enemies, believes that neither liberals nor conservatives understand radical Muslim terrorists. We will have difficulty winning a war against an enemy we do not understand. Both liberals and conservatives have misconceptions about Muslim terrorism. Once we erase a blackboard full of fallacies and misconceptions about terrorism, we shall be able to consider Harris' startling and indispensable insights about the nature of terrorism.

Liberal misconceptions

The liberal modernists believe that terrorism is caused by sociological "root causes." When we realize that most terrorism is spawned among the educated and economic elite of Muslim society, we can dismiss the "root causes" explanation out of hand. We must also condemn a "root causes" deterministic view of man that relieves the terrorist of moral responsibility for his actions. Man is not a soulless automaton driven by socioeconomic programming. He is a moral being. Terrorist killing is evil and must be judged on moral terms.

The postmodern liberals blame the West in general and America in particular for the rage on the Muslim street. Such simplistic thinking reduces terrorism to a collective temper tantrum. This is absurd, of course. Terrorists behave in an extraordinarily calculated way, not in a hysterical way. Like the misbegotten "root causes" thesis, the "blame America" and "collective temper tantrum" thesis whitewashes the evil of the random murder of civilians and invokes sympathy for the terrorists. American liberals do great harm by providing a fig leaf to cover the naked and pornographic vileness of terrorism. During the Alan Keyes talk show on MSNBC, Keyes would not allow any apologist for terror to go unrebuked. Let every mouth throughout the land which opens to defend terrorism be rebuked.

A common error of moderate liberals is to equate terrorism with crime and the fight against terrorism as a police action. As we shall see, terrorism has its parallels to an exotic and rare kind of crime, but is very different from most of the crime the police have to deal with. Therefore, the metaphor of crime for terrorism is misleading. It puts in our minds the wrong associations and puts into play the wrong methodologies for detection, capture, interrogation, and adjudication.

Moderate and conservative misconceptions

I used to think the terrorists would give up if we could convince them they cannot win. But after reading Harris, I realized that even if they thought they could not win, they would keep it up for reasons of fantasy ideology, which are beyond winning and losing.

Harris refutes a common view held by some moderates and conservatives. Carl Von Clausewitz (1780–1831), the famous theoretician on war said, "War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means." Nations fight wars rationally by pursuing their own national interests. This seems to be true of many of the European wars fought after 1660 AD. This was the end of the wars of religion and the beginning of a time of exceptional rationalism in foreign and military policy. The Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815), however, ushered in wars of romantic patriotism. The rational world of Clausewitz was on its way out during his own lifetime! Some of the aggressors in the wars of the last two centuries have been driven by grandiose romantic obsessions. Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, and Saddam Hussein are perfect examples of irrational aggressors driven to war by delusions of grandeur and to defeat by the same delusions.

The Clausewitz paradigm is particularly unhelpful in understanding the Muslim Middle East, a culture very different from the rationalist/romantic West. Harris compares our Clausewitzian misconstruction of the Muslim Middle East to the radical misunderstanding by Montezuma, the Aztec king, of Cortez, the Spanish conquistador. A boatload or two of swashbuckling adventurers defeated one of the world's mightiest empires because Montezuma completely misunderstood his enemy.

Political calculation versus fantasy ideology

Harris discovered that some protestors against the Vietnam War were driven by political calculation and some were driven by a fantasy ideology. He separated the two by asking individuals whether they would march in demonstrations even if they knew it to be futile or counterproductive. The political calculators said they would desist if they believed the protests were not helpful to their political cause. Those intoxicated by fantasy ideology said they would continue to protest even if they knew it was counterproductive. One such fantasy ideologue said he protested because "it is good for my soul." This is the ideology of a narcissist. The world is his stage set on which he can act out his ideological fantasies.

Some contemporary liberals have an instrumental ideology. Their tactics are designed to advance the political ends they seek. Other liberals are self-indulgent in their ideology in a way that is self-destructive and loses elections. The 2004 Kerry campaign has included a mix of instrumentalists who've tended toward a moderate law-enforcement approach to fighting terrorism and a group of fantasy ideologues of the far left. Kerry has swung between these two poles.

The fantasy ideologues in Kerry's camp were the followers of Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries. A reporter who traveled in the Dean campaign bus said the Dean movement was very exciting. The groupies were so enthusiastic that at times they resembled a manic religious cult. As time passed, they got increasingly arrogant, presumptuous, and out of touch with reality and with the voters. A narcissistic Deaniac might well have been there "for the good of my soul," like some of the Vietnam protestors. The campaign became like a movie set on which the Deaniacs could strut their stuff like actors playing to the cameras and be surrounded by a cast of thousands sent by Central Casting. Remember, this was no longer politics. It was fantasy. In their hermetically sealed fantasy bubble, the Deaniacs got drunk on their own juices. In a bizarre fit of screaming hysteria, Dean threw away his chances to be nominated. No mad men need apply.

Dean's legacy to the Kerry campaign was the bitter demonization of a well-liked president. The ideologues reduced the president to an almost unrecognizable caricature. They unveiled the caricature and then attacked it. This was the classic debate fallacy of the straw man. Create an imaginary straw man effigy of the opponent and polemically strike down the straw man. But if one actually believes the myth of the straw man, he is well on his way toward falling into a fantasy ideology.

Fantasy ideology terrorists

According to Harris, Muslim terrorists follow a fantasy ideology. They regard their victims as props in a grand drama, with America and Israel as the scapegoat, Republicans as the straw man, and themselves as glorious martyrs. This explains why Palestinian terrorists persist in violence even when a rational man would see that a point has long since been reached when terrorism is counterproductive to their cause. It also explains the stark indifference of the terrorists to their victims. The victims are mere props in the narcissistic terrorist's fantasies of glory.

The terrorists of 9/11 concentrated on symbolic targets, not strategic targets. They had no plan to tactically exploit the destruction of the Towers. In a conventional war, the main objective of a battle is to win so as to gain the advantages of exploiting the victory. Unexploited victories are often useless. Every good Clausewitzian knows that. But it is not so in terrorism or Italian opera. The histrionic glory and grandiloquent pathos of a scene is an end in itself.

A detective searches for the motive for a crime. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot cannot figure out who among the cast of characters committed the crime until he understands the motive, such as greed, vanity, ambition, revenge, or disprized love. He was stumped in Murder on the Oriental Express because everyone on the train had both motive and opportunity for the murder.

A serial killer does not have a conventional motive. He performs a ritual killing to act out a fantasy. A conventional detective is ineffective against a serial killer. A specialized profiler is needed to reconstruct the fantasy-based behavior patterns of the serial killer. A profiler sometimes learns to live inside of the head of the killer so he can anticipate the killer's movements and methods.

Terrorists and serial killers have some similarities and some differences. They both are acting out a narcissistic fantasy. They both lack guilt for their atrocities because they reduce their victims to props on a scripted stage. It is like being an actor on the stage who pretends to kill someone as part of the script. The important thing is to impress the audience with the drama of the scene. Actors, terrorists, and serial killers love the limelight. Osama bin Laden and Yasser Arafat (and Vietnam antiwar protestors) have loved to posture for the cameras. Serial killers love headlines and love to play games with the police. Both terrorists and serial killers commit atrocities in the grand manner to make a public statement.

However, Muslim terrorism is an ideological and a religious fantasy nurtured by group- think in underground cults. In contrast, serial killers are individualistic and act out unique personal fantasies of perversions and gore. Terrorists work in teams to further a shared vision of demented glory. Terrorists are not bandits or thugs. They are deluded narcissists who see themselves as messianic figures.

A realistic war on terrorism

As Harris points out, when terrorists make a nation the object of their depredations, that nation is obliged to be at war with them whether they like it or not. This assumes that nation chooses to look at the danger realistically and chooses to survive. The mode of warfare is dictated by the nature of the enemy. The intelligence services need a rough equivalent of the FBI profilers to get into the minds of the terrorists. They must learn their narcissistic fantasy ideology in a group-think context. This will require intense commitment by people of great talent. A rational individualist, free-wheeling American is about as far from the Muslim terrorist mind as a man can be. Just as the interrogation of serial killers is for highly trained profilers, the interrogation of al Qaida prisoners ought to be performed by a similar kind of specialized professional.

We need infiltrators in the al Qaida cells to provide active intelligence. Just as importantly, we need them in the cells to learn all the twists and turns of the fantasy-ideology mind set and how it develops. Only then will we find workable antidotes to cultures that breed terrorism.

In the end, it will be mainly the job of the Muslim nations to find a way to stop the breeding of terrorists. This process is already underway in a few Muslim nations. Unfortunately, for those individuals who are already submerged in the dark waters of narcissistic fantasy ideology, there might not be a cure apart from a miracle. We are as likely to rehabilitate terrorists as we are to rehabilitate serial killers. America's task is not to rehabilitate terrorists, but to go where the terrorists are and kill them.

Although during his reign Saddam Hussein differed from a terrorist in vital respects, he was as deeply immersed in fantasy ideology as the terrorists. He was as complete a narcissist as a man can be. His whole state was remade to be a prop for the games and shows of the grandiose leader. He killed with the nonchalance of an actor knocking over a prop on a stage set. He was not someone we could reason with or live with in peace. He had to be blown out of power by superior force.

President Bush came closer than most of the commentators when he said the terrorists and certain dictators like Saddam were simply "evil." Violent fantasy ideologues who commit random acts of terror against civilians are evil in the most depraved manner imaginable. They may be the equals of serial killers in evil, if indeed evil can be measured on a scale. They are animated by satanic energy and thus have access to paranormal powers. We are obliged to pursue these vile evildoers and forcefully put a stop to their spree of terror until we rid the earth of their shadow. Seeing them for what they really are is the key to convincing Americans to stick with the task.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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