As I was rushing from one meeting to another this past Wednesday, my distressed office neighbor and good friend, Robin Wagner Pacifici, told me about the latest senseless mass murder in the U.S., the San Bernardino massacre. I responded with a tasteless joke, asking whether the terrorist again was a white male Christian “terrorist,” the usual profile of this all too usual type of event in America. The joke fell flat, and it turns out that this latest development was more eventful than I expected. To be honest, it was more eventful than I had hoped. This time, The New York Times reports today, it was “Do It Yourself Terrorism,” a long feared development of Homeland Security professionals.

A restless event is in the making, as Robin would put it. Not just your usual mass murder, but a new development of historic importance, a real case of self radicalized, homegrown Islamic terror. Mass shootings by racists and anti abortion fundamentalists are calmly accepted as inevitable. Extending a conservative tradition, it is assumed that not only the poor, but also the deranged will always be with us. But radical Islam is something else. Its them or us, a black and white issue if there ever was one. A clear line in the sand must be drawn. A clear and sustained counter terrorism must be developed. Thus right wing pundits, along with Republican candidates for President, are demanding resolute action, and Democrats are responding, as are the media and government agencies. The President of the United States will address the nation from the Oval Office tonight.

If we pay attention to what the arch-terrorist, Osama Bin Laden said, and what ISIS publishes, it is pretty clear that this is exactly wrong.

“The Grey Zone, a 10-page editorial in ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq in early 2015, describes the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil, the caliphate and the infidel, which the “blessed operations of September 11” brought into relief. Quoting Bin Laden it said: “The world today is divided. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’, with the actual ‘terrorist’ being the western crusaders.” Now, it said, “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone”.

This, from an article in The Guardian arguing that the truth about ISIS has ominous meaning, going way beyond “mindless terrorism.” Iddo Tavory, my co-author on the topic of the social condition brought my attention to the piece. It highlights the relationship between our joint project and the relevance of the gray in the aftermath of the global escalation of the Islamic State’s terrorism.

There are tensions knitted into social life, posing dilemmas for social action. Asserting that these have clear and easy, black or white answers, whether they are leftist or rightist, based on a glorified account of tradition or revolution, Zionist or anti-Zionist, or terrorist or anti-terrorist, is dangerous. This is both the basis of my appreciation of the gray and Bin Laden’s and the ISIS war against it.

At Public Seminar, I once asserted, to the dismay of some of my colleagues that Hamas and Netanyahu were collaborators. Bin Laden confirms my assertion; his quote reveals his awareness that he and George W. Bush had a similar relationship. And crucially, he understood that the gray was his most direct enemy, not the bellicose anti-terrorists, from Bush, to Trump et al.

It is tempting to despair. I have to fight against this. I desperately seek a ray of hope, and I see it in those who appreciate the beauty of the gray, against Bin Laden and ISIS, as the gray represents for me hybridity, plurality, the complications of living a decent life in a world of heterogeneity. The world beyond true belief and ideological certainty, whether it comes from religious faith (dominant these days) or ideological scientism (the problem of the 20th Century and still a problem in the academic left), is gray. Appreciating its beauty, and fighting for it, is not as easy or as pedestrian as it seems, revealed by the “events” of this week.

One thought on “D.I.Y. Terrorism, and ISIS and Osama Bin Laden on the Gray Zone

  1. Thank you for this. It puts things perfectly and explains, very clearly, what your “gray” is all about.

    “Destroy the grey zone” — when I read this, I kept thinking about Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, which was a formative book for me, although not in the way it was for most, I suppose. The main lesson of that book, in my view, is to never, never underestimate the evils brought about by “ordinary” people who refuse to think, to reflect, to consider they might be wrong and there might be other options. I would not classify BinLaden (or, to keep things “fair and balanced”, Dick Cheney) as such a person: they are, to use Arendt’s rhetoric, modern-day Iagos and Richard IIIs who are indeed “determined to prove a villain.” It’s the reaction of their followers, Americans and Middle Easterners in their average everydayness, that bother me so much. When you view a video of Americans telling Muslims who are themselves expressing outrage over acts of murder that “ALL Muslims are the problem, so shut up!”, you get an idea of what I mean.

    What bothers me further is that the sort of epidemic thoughtlessness does not merely tempt us into injustice and viciousness, but that it, because it is so wilfully stupid, almost always brings about the same disastrous results again and again, and not as Marx had it as “farce”, but tragedy after tragedy. You hear things like “bomb the shit out of them” as if this was, well, some kind of strategy. Killing people is not a strategy. If anything counts as the strategic lesson of Vietnam, it is that. Karl Von Clausewitz — perhaps the greatest military strategist who ever lived and nobody’s idea of a liberal or a leftist — was quite clear that for war to be not only justified but successful it must be politically intelligible. “War is politics carried on my other means” actually means the opposite of what most take it to mean: that is, it is strictly limited by political goals, and ones means need to be constrained by those goals, and if other less extravagant means than war are available by all means take them. Because war is horror itself. Talk about an endless, unlimited, unconstrained war against “radical Islam” — as nebulous an entity as anything imaginable — is, from Clausewitz’s standpoint, sheer lunacy.

    It also betrays an unwillingness to see violence for what it is — a horror, maybe necessary on the margins, but a horror nonetheless. Americans positively tend to delight in seeing “bad guys” meet a grisly fate. Such fates may be merited, but the delight is not. When it was announced that Bin Laden was killed in the Navy Seal raid, the mainstream broadcast media — and would that they rot in hell were it to exist — showed crowds in sports stadia cheering and chanting “USA! USA!” Solemn silence would have been the proper response, I would think. Americans are not devils, as the ISIS and Al Qaeda ideologues tend to think. But thoughtlessness — and an unhealthy dose of self-importance — runs rampant, and they are leading us down the very path of “no gray zone” that Bin Laden took to be the sign of his victory.

    What I hope does NOT happen is a loss of focus on the part of the Left. We need a healthy dose of “neither/nor” thinking, as opposed to “both/and” or “either/or”. Neither blindness about the apocalyptic leanings of ISIL/Daesh and the like nor a placid acceptance of the “national security state”, and the inverted totalitarianism that goes along with it. Neither a dismissal of religious belief as inherently evil (e.g., Sam Harris, Bill Maher) nor a bland acceptance of it as inherently benign and peaceful. And above all, not to let fear tempt those who live in the United States to ignore its OWN problems — an insanely cartoonish attitude toward violence and guns, a grotesquely dysfunctional political system, an appalling drift toward plutocracy, “inverted totalitarianism”, and civil war. Bernie Sanders, at least, has recognized this and made it clear that THIS will continue to be the center of his campaign. And good for him…..

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