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What Is The Source of Terrorism?

Jun 19, 2009
"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

-- Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken" (1916) --

September 13, 2007. So near and yet so far from 9/11. And many other things as well ...

I just opened that morning's newspaper, and saw this headline: "Germans left puzzled by local terror suspects."

"What fascinates and deeply disturbs Germans," the article reports, "is that two of the three suspects detained in the alleged plot to bomb U.S. installations are pretty much like them -- ordinary Germans, not immigrants from another continent or people of foreign heritage." The proverbial punch line: "Terrorists can also be called Fritz; we know that now."*

I share the Germans' bewilderment and fascination. I experienced the same constellation of emotions for the first time 50 years ago.

1957 was a keystone year in itself -- all the more so in the life of a 13-year-old kid in seventh grade. President Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock to integrate the schools; Russia sent Sputnik into outer space to astound the world. "Leave It To Beaver" premiered on TV; "West Side Story" debuted on Broadway. Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature; Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" was published. Arturo Toscanini and Humphrey Bogart died. The New York Times' Herbert Matthews discovered Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra Mountains: "It was easy to see that his men adored him...Here was an educated, dedicated fanatic, a man of ideals, of courage and of remarkable qualities of leadership..." At the movies, "Peyton Place" cohabitated with "Twelve Angry Men." On the hit parade, Jimmy Dorsey's "So Rare" said a last hurrah for the swing era to Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."

It was a keystone year in a charmed place, Sarasota, Florida, with balmy sea breezes and sugar-sand beaches; coconut trees crawling with chameleons; a place where you did not lock your car or house, except when the circus was in town -- a walking, breathing, Florida-postcard so near and yet so far from what was taking place 90 miles from home.

It was like watching a movie, the Cuban Revolution, the way Fidel Castro and his tiny band of guerrillas escaped thousands of soldiers hunting them, then began their march across the countryside against the corrupt and murderous dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The world's hopes and prayers were with Castro as much as the odds were against him. For once, the odds were wrong. On New Year's Day 1959, Batista packed up and took off. I saved the Sarasota Herald Tribune announcing his desperate, midnight flight, and still have the newspaper -- brittle, sepia-toned pages with ads for Sealtest ice cream and Wonder Bread -- downstairs in the army surplus trunk I took to college in 1962.

The American idolatry of Castro faded faster than the newspaper, but for now let us recall the spellbinding promise of the period before he took power, and the unimpeachable fact that thousands of men and women were willing to risk their lives for what they believed in.** There was definitely something primordial involved because they made it so: something about destiny, something about history, about something other than 8-to-5 jobs and retirement planning, about who we really are and who we can be, about ideals, about the meaning of life. It was all there, encapsulated in that tiny island. It was evident -- to me, at any rate -- that if you knew everything about Cuba, you would know everything about everything. And I learned everything about it I could, majoring in political science in undergraduate and graduate school to study Cuba fulltime.

Early on, something jumped out of all those books, TV documentaries, lectures, magazine and newspaper articles: a large number of Cuban revolutionaries came from middle class families. I was pretty much like them, e.g., Che Guevara was a doctor's son, like me. The phenomenon was not limited nationally or culturally: revolutionaries everywhere were conspicuously from middle class backgrounds.

Hence, The Question: is there something in the middle class milieu -- my milieu of doctors and lawyers, teachers and accountants -- that creates people willing to kill and be killed?

To this day, The Question is always met with suspicion, usually anger, sometimes hatred. How could it not be deeply disturbing, when the middle class has been considered since ancient Greece to be the fountainhead of reason and compromise, of moderation and balance? I think it was the fervor of the hostility that clued me into the fact that the question evoked something acknowledged, nothing more, something that was known but not consciously recognised -- something unexplored, deadly, touching the essence of Western civilization, if not humanity itself.

I would like to think that the existentialists were right in placing a supreme value on individual choice -- but gravity is not a choice. We look at a lake and want to know how deep it is; at a star and wonder how old is its light. Why? Something beyond choice or even desire drove me to find out and recount -- to witness -- what that something deadly was about the middle class. That need made any institutional affiliation impossible because, given the almost universal enmity to The Question, no university, government, or other institution would have supported the truly objective and independent inquiry The Question demanded -- in fact, exacted.

"Pretty much like them." Why do so many people who are willing to kill and be killed -- terrorists, revolutionaries, freedom fighters, resistance members, patriots, extremists, anarchists, nihilists, call them whatever you like (for now) -- come from the middle class? Over the years I discovered that The Question cannot be answered meaningfully without placing it in the greater context so concisely expressed by Paul Gauguin in the title of his signature painting: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" For it is that context that makes The Question significant, that is to say, worth asking in the first place.

After more than 40 years of investigation, I came up with an answer. It will be presented in forthcoming articles touching on such subjects as how a terrorist differs not only from a common criminal but also from a freedom fighter. So near and yet so far, for as are all answers to questions involving human beings, it is definitely only partial, hopefully only provisional. Hopefully, because if it does not enable you, the reader, to surpass what I did, then I have not done my job. Maybe I could do better, write yet more drafts and examine more cases and so forth, but I am 65 years old; the bottom of the top of the hourglass is now in full view. Some questions are too urgent for human survival to be tabled, even without prejudice.

Depending on where you are and which clock you are using, one minute can hold many years. Here, at this desk, 50 of them raced by in under 10 seconds. And when that last second shows up and not even time remains, what -- if anything -- is left? Maybe, this: Do it anyway. After reading this book, you may feel a need to follow a road less traveled. You will either feel the need or you will not, and if you feel it, you will know it. It takes the form of a fascination summoned from a faraway place that different people and different epochs have discovered in different ways. The Enlightenment, to mention only one, found it in the "Plus Ultra" beyond "Nec Plus Ultra."*** The road less traveled is a question -- your question. It begins with a child's "I wonder what would happen if?" Later, the question defines itself, and you see it as a gap between two, widely-recognized points. You ask, "Why hasn't somebody...?"

Once begun, you will quickly find your road unheralded and misunderstood, if not reviled and obscure. You will also find it significant and exciting, sometimes terrifying. For what is at stake is less a matter of what you do than of who you are. If you are lucky, you will put the two together.

What are you waiting for?


*Katrin Bennhold, "Letter from Europe," International Herald Tribune, published by The New York Times, Neuilly, France, September 13, 2007.
**One incident among thousands: on March 13, 1957, Jose Antonio Echevarria, a 24-year-old Havana university student and leader of the Directorio Revolutionario, led some 80 men in a daring assault on the presidential palace. They managed to enter Batista's dining room and presidential offices; Batista, who was on the floor above them, escaped. 35 rebels, including Echevarria, were killed that day; afterwards, an unknown number of attackers and other opposition members were hunted down, tortured, murdered.

If the final history of books on Cuban history is ever written, one of the five foremost works will be "Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom" by Hugh Thomas. He observed that "the general attitude of the Directorio was anti-Communist, democratic, middle class, and basically Catholic..." Echevarria's testament declared, "We trust that the purity of our aims will attract the favour of God, to allow us to establish the rule of justice in our country." Hugh Thomas, "Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom," Harper & Row, New York, 1971, pp. 927, 930, 1,377.
***From time immemorial, Europeans believed that if you sailed west beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, you would fall off the edge of the world. The saying "Nec Plus Ultra" -- "There Is Nothing Beyond" -- expressed that belief. But in 1492, Columbus discovered America; the facts spoke for themselves, and "Plus Ultra" -- "There Is More Beyond" -- became the saying of the Enlightenment.
About the Author
Thomas Belvedere is the pseudonym of a top consultant to senators, representatives, governors, and the media. An accredited expert witness in federal court, he has a Ph.D. in political science. He authored "The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion" available at http://www.booklocker.com/.
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