In today’s New York Times (February 15, 2015) Susan Jacoby presents an enlightening essay, “The First Victims of the First Crusades”. She reminds us that Catholic Crusaders, in 1096, entering on their journey to free Jerusalem from Muslims singled out Jews for their first extremist target. Jews must convert or die. Her essay, along with President Obama’s recent speech point to similarities between the ISIS type of extremism and the extremism of the Crusades. To be sure not all Muslims share in the ISIS murderous extremism, in fact they are appalled by it, just as not all Catholics shared in the murderous extremism of the Crusades, and were appalled by it. And yet, these actions deserve serious analysis – not merely labeling the participants as crazy terrorists, or violent lunatics (as Susan Jacoby does). Just what is going on? What is the appeal of such supposedly “medieval behavior” that’s happening in our time, highlighted by the actions of ISIS members?
For some time I have been studying how we humans cope with the fact that we live in Social Space. (*) Within that space we often find ways to “transcend” our immediate circumstances. I began this work by interpreting Viktor Frankl’s famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it he describes how, in the Auschwitz concentration camp, a young, dying women was able to transcend the horror of her present situation, convinced that she had gained access to a HIGHER POWER, some sort of Ultimate Reality, and thereby achieve sublime insights that made her declare that she was now happier than she had ever been! She was convinced that she had brought that HIGHER POWER, that Ultimate Reality, INTO HER HERE AND NOW! It gave her the tools to deal with the horror in her present situation.
I am convinced that this is not as unique as it may sound. We humans practice Transcendence quite often — in mundane ways when we pray, when we “declare allegiance to the flag”, when we are enraptured by a guru and, even, when decent Germans followed a charismatic Hitler. In each case we are convinced that not only do we have a glimpse of some sort of Higher Power, an Ultimate Reality. We may believe we have access to it, and even more importantly, that this Higher Power, this Ultimate Reality, comes into our life, here and now. That LURE OF THE ULTIMATE is surely at work in the actions of ISIS extremists – just as it was for Crusaders in 1096. They feel empowered by the conviction that the ULTIMATE is with them. They are its agents. They must implement its vision. It is their highest calling. Their greatest reward.
The basic issue is that the ISIS extremist actors are using the human capacity to connect to a supposed Ultimate Reality and bring it into one’s personal life, here and now. Their actions are appalling. But they make use of an ordinary, commonly used human attribute. This is what we must look at if we want to fight their evil actions.
(*) In my book, “Our Quest for Effective Living: A window to a New Science / How we Cope in Social Space.”