The Age of the Ill

One of the questions we have probably been facing for the last couple of days, and will carry on facing in the future, is: what are the motivations behind terrorists’ attacks? What drives these people, what makes them blow themselves up and kill dozens of innocent people at the same time? Of course, the phenomenom of terrorism is extremely complex, so complex that it can never be explained by only a few psychosociological theories or a few pages of combined arguments. But, among many other reasons and influences, there is certainly one thing that can explain why people in our current world are facing such dramatic, tragic needs – and that is a global crisis.

It is a global crisis, because we can not limit terrorism to a certain area or region, such as the Middle East. Terrorism comes from all over the world, because terrorists do not belong to a single ethnic or religious group. If it was a regional, local phenomenom, situated for instance in the Middle East, maybe then we could say that it was connected to a crisis of Islam, but when there are Westerners from all over Europe and even outside Europe (USA, for example) that join the ranks of terrorist groups, then we can no longer speak of a localized crisis – we must speak of a global crisis. Now, you can ask yourselves: but what kind of crisis is this? Where has it originated?

The answer is: this is a sickness, a disease that has long been stewing in the stewpan of our world and of our global society. It is none other than a crisis of values. What do people have to guide their lives these days? What kind of future prospects do they own? Throughout History, there have always been values and ideals to wield proudly and faithfully, to build one’s principles and moral code with. Yes, there have been waves of ascent and descent in the defending of these values, but it has been a common, recurrent reality. Look at the Japanese. Their ancient culture of honor and wisdom and integrity, passed on from generation to generation, has resulted in a people that still holds, in many cases, some basic, distinguishing values. Everybody knows how corteous and respectful the Japanese mostly are, how they value good manners and solemnity. I remember, for example, watching the Japanese playing in the World Cup and noticing how they did not commit any act of misconduct, or how the Japanese football fans cleaned the benches before leaving the stadium. Another good example is how, in Japanese schools, there are usually no janitors; students themselves clean their classrooms and the school buildings before going home – this is a lesson of sharing and respect. Of course, one could argue that the Japanese are not an entirely peaceful people – they have participated in WWII, for instance, with their famous Kamikaze and they have committed some brutal actions. And, indeed, the same teachings that resulted from a mix between Bushido, Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, were the basis of the Samurai way of life, and Samurais were warriors – people who lived for war, who lived to kill and to die. But, still, it is undeniable that the Japanese are, in many ways, a people that highly values principles such as honor, respect, integrity…

In the West, the masses live in a repetitive routine that gives them no great joy to look forward to. As youngsters, individuals look at their future and read their guidelines: you will go to school to study and to learn; after school, you will get a house and you will get a job to pay your rent; you will get a car and you will have to work harder to pay for gas, alongside your rent; you will buy something else and have to work harder to pay for even more possessions. And so it goes, in an endless cycle that drives so many of us to stress-related illnesses. In fact, it is a known fact than more than 90% of current diseases – either psychological or physical, or sometimes both – are derived from stress and from a stressful way of life. So, in the end, what do we live for? We live to earn more, to buy more, to consume more, and in this process we become materialistic and individualists. Individualists because the capitalist system we live in is a competitive system. The masses are constantly competing amidst themselves to have more, to own more, to buy more. All this competition is comparing us with each other, establishing patterns that distinguish us, pushing us away from each other…

Eventually, we find ourselves living in a world where the keywords are consumerism, consumption, materialism, competition, individualism, stress… And if we know that this is what we should expect of the future, why should we even look forward to it? Take children and teenagers who love to play videogames and computer games and reading fantasy fiction, for example. What is is that keeps drawing them to these distractions? Is it not precisely because they are distractions? Because they allow them to escape to a world where they feel inspired to fight for a cause, where they feel inspired to live an adventurous life, where they feel inspired to stand against the evil villains by holding strongly to their values of honor and truth and glory? Then, they go back to the real world and realise that it is a lot more boring than these fantastic, epic lives they are so fascinated with: in the real world, you will must likely work until you die, and you will most likely work in something you do not particularly love. Even if you do earn enough money to buy everything you may want, it is still very likely that you will get to the end of your life and realise that you have somehow not fulfilled yourself… Simply because human beings cannot be fulfilled by materialistic possessions.

There is a spiritual dimension in each of us that requires us to live in a way that fulfills our dreams, our expectations, our desires. There is a part of us, a crucial part of us, that needs to be inspired to live a greater, a better life – that needs to find a purpose in life. If we drift through life without a purpose, what will we ever hang on to? There will always be something missing – the meaning of life, the reason why we are alive, why we were born. And to find a purpose in life is, essentially, to find a cause worth fighting for, a cause worth dedicating yourself to. But what causes do the masses have, today, in our world, in our societies, to truly and wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to?

In a world where people are not fulfilling themselves, individuals become deeply sick. This is a fact, proven by other facts such as the undeniable statistics on stress-related illnesses. It is true; people are living sick lives, developing neuroses, sometimes psychoses, or simply becoming entrapped in such a stressful, repetitive, boring life that they do not even realise how bad they feel with themselves. Everybody knows that a vulnerable, weak individual becomes easy prey to predators. This happens all the time in the animal kingdom: a sick animal, a crippled animal, will most likely be caught by predators. The same happens in our societies: these sick individuals that are so desperately fighting for a purpose in life, fighting for an escape from this prison we live in, become easy prey to the manipulation of some people who know exactly what it takes to persuade them. These are the religious fundamentalists (Islamic or not; look at any kind of cult or sect) who tell their recruits: “Come and join us; we are a group of equals, we are all brothers fighting for a sacred, common cause. We are defending what is right and we are willing to give our lives for this cause, because we know that we will be accepted in Paradise for fighting for this cause”. This kind of speech may seem mad and delusional to many of us, most of us I hope. But it is very alluring and persuasive to people who are feeling powerless, meaningless, without anything to live for. They are told there is a group of people (a terrorist group, in this case) where all are brothers and all dedicate themselves to a cause that is greater than any individual; a sacred, holy cause that gives them the opportunity to literally fight for something and that, in the end, will give them straight access into a joyous, free afterlife.

I heard of a Belgian teenage girl who, one or two years ago, escaped to Syria out of the blue. She ran away from her mother, she ran away from her home, her country, everything she’d ever known, probably convinced by unknown people who she met online. I heard of teenagers, young men and women from different European countries who also ran away from their homes and their families to join the terrorist ranks: boys who wanted to become soldiers, who wanted to wield guns and to fight in the “Holy War”; girls who wanted to become the wives of these brave soldiers. They are all deceing themselves, of course. When they get there, reality is very different. Girls are enslaved, raped and forced to marry older men. Boys are sent to war and die. But it doesn’t matter so much what happens to them when they get there (please do not confuse these words with disrespect and indifference toward their loved ones and themselves). The crucial issue here is asking and knowing why they left. And this is one of the explanations.

Naturally, when you take this into consideration, it becomes much clearer that the phenomenom of terrorism is far from being solved – and will be. If terrorism is only a symptom of a much greater crisis, a global crisis, a civilizational crisis, how do we solve it? How do we make things better? How do we cure the disease of an entire civilization? It seems obvious that the answer includes changing everything; every parameter or paradigm we have been guiding ourselves by for the last decades; every goal that we have been considering the most important to achieve in our lives; every value (or lack of it) that we have been defending (or not defending). Our world needs a deep, nuclear change if we are ever going to overcome this challenge. Terrorism is only a reflection of a much bigger problem, of a much deeper problem, something that has been evolving for the last decades, for the last few hundreds of years, and that is now starting to show its scariest, most vicious manifestations.