Three years ago Hans Magnus Enzensberger published a lengthy and eloquent essay in Sign and Sight which attempts to elucidate the workings of the heart of a terrorist or, in his words, the radical loser. In the process he attempts to deliver an embracing vision into the gut of Islamism and the Arab world. These efforts are successful, but there is more. Reading Enzensberger’s essay is like listening to a symphony. Once you have begun to listen you cannot stop and when it is finished you know more about everything.
Here are a few paragraphs to get you started. Click the headline for the full piece.
It is difficult to talk about the loser, and it is stupid not to. Stupid because there can be no definitive winner and because each of us, from the megalomaniac Bonaparte to the last beggar on the streets of Calcutta, will meet the same fate. Difficult because to content oneself with this metaphysical banality is to take an easy way out, as it ignores the truly explosive dimension of the problem, the political dimension.
Instead of actually looking into the thousand faces of the loser, sociologists keep to their statistics: median value, standard deviation, normal distribution. It rarely occurs to them that they themselves might be among the losers. Their definitions are like scratching a wound: as Samuel Butler says, the itching and the pain only get worse. One thing is certain: the way humanity has organized itself – “capitalism”, “competition”, “empire”, “globalization” – not only does the number of losers increase every day, but as in any large group, fragmentation soon sets in. In a chaotic, unfathomable process, the cohorts of the inferior, the defeated, the victims separate out. The loser may accept his fate and resign himself; the victim may demand satisfaction; the defeated may begin preparing for the next round. But the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion, saves his energy, and waits for his hour to come.
Those who content themselves with the objective, material criteria, the indices of the economists and the devastating findings of the empiricists, will understand nothing of the true drama of the radical loser. What others think of him – be they rivals or brothers, experts or neighbours, schoolmates, bosses, friends or foes – is not sufficient motivation. The radical loser himself must take an active part, he must tell himself: I am a loser and nothing but a loser. As long as he is not convinced of this, life may treat him badly, he may be poor and powerless, he may know misery and defeat, but he will not become a radical loser until he adopts the judgement of those who consider themselves winners as his own.
Since before the attack on the World Trade Center, political scientists, sociologists and psychologists have been searching in vain for a reliable pattern. Neither poverty nor the experience of political repression alone seem to provide a satisfactory explanation for why young people actively seek out death in a grand bloody finale and aim to take as many people with them as possible. Is there a phenotype that displays the same characteristics down the ages and across all classes and cultures? No one pays any mind to the radical loser if they do not have to. And the feeling is mutual. As long as he is alone – and he is very much alone – he does not strike out. He appears unobtrusive, silent: a sleeper. But when he does draw attention to himself and enter the statistics, then he sparks consternation bordering on shock. For his very existence reminds the others of how little it would take to put them in his position. One might even assist the loser if only he would just give up. But he has no intention of doing so, and it does not look as if he would be partial to any assistance.
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