Repeatedly over the last decade, there have been attacks in which one or a few people take weapons into a public places and kill as many other people as possible, often dying themselves in the process. This has happened throughout the world, but periodically it has been happening in Europe, circumstances under which the British media spends more time bringing it to the attention of people I know.
When this happens, it is sad and distressing, and the closer to home it seems, the more frightening it is. When it happens, there’s often a lot of talk about it – sometimes running in advance of the evidence, or at least of the release of real evidence to the public. When it happens, I often hear people say, including in spoken ministry during Meeting for Worship, that these attacks are mindless or random and that they cannot be understood.
I cannot believe that. The more I read about such attacks, the more I pray about such attacks, the more I come to believe that everyone involved has motives for their actions. What they do is not mindless, or random, or careless, and so – however difficult I might find it to understand their reasons – I have to accept that they do have reasons. Based on what they know and their experiences, they think they are acting for good. To me, this is part of accepting that everyone, however much I disagree with them and am disturbed by their actions, is a full person and has that of God within them.
This isn’t to say that such violence is always rational. Both violence and nonviolence are often, in the moment, irrational. If, under the same circumstances, you would punch someone and I wouldn’t, that isn’t necessarily because we have laid out logical arguments for our different positions. It’s as likely to be about our personalities, habits, training, and emotions – or to put it another way, the kinds of virtues we cultivate in our whole lives, not just our thoughts.
Accepting that the people who choose to carry out terrorist attacks have reasons for their actions does not mean agreeing with or condoning them – but my government also carries out many actions with which I do not agree, and I don’t have to call them mindless or random. (People I know do sometimes call them stupid, which falls into much the same trap.) It does commit me to a different model of responding to this sort of violence: rejecting ‘we must fight fire with fire’ and ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’ in favour of seeking to understand the circumstances which give people reasons to act in this way.
I have been thinking about this today, November 11th, because this view also alters my approach to remembrance. When I was at school we were taught about the First World War, and what I remember learning (rather than what they thought they were teaching!) was that it had something to do with an assassination, and that we had to memorise the diagram of how to build a trench. Similarly, I learned the outlines of the Second World War without feeling that I really knew why, at the time, people had acted in the ways they did. In my late teens, I first heard the idea that Germany’s actions, especially Hitler’s rise to power, could be explained by economics – today, I think that’s too simplistic, but I also think it’s a valuable insight to see that many evil situations aside from systems, not individuals.
Sometimes people challenge pacifists and those of us who say that there is that of God in everyone by naming people they think are evil: Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden have featured heavily in those conversations in my experience. For me, a stepping stone between ‘yes, people do truly evil things’ and ‘yes, everyone still has that of God in them’ is this: everyone has reasons for their actions, and they do what they think is best with the tools they see they have. I can disagree about what’s best. I can try and point out other tools, other ways of solving the problems. But I have to start by acknowledging that they are people, who have feelings and needs and motives. I might not know what those motives are in any particular case, but I’m committed to holding open a space, a question mark, which assumes that they exist.
If you are interested in exploring the roots of today’s terrorism, I recommend Riaz Hassan’s short book ‘Suicide Bombings‘ as a clear and approachable introduction to recent research on the topic.