[AnnaPurna Consulting is currently away; Research Director, Steve Thomsan, is the author of this blog]
I have recently finished reading Baader-Meinhof, Stefan Aust’s fascinating account of the lives, ideas and violence of the Red Army Faction (RAF). For younger readers, the RAF was a West German terrorist group responsible for a spate of murders, kidnappings and plane hijackings in the 1970s and 80s, espousing a nihilistic ideological cocktail of Marxism, libertarianism and fanatical adherence to the Palestinian cause.
Notwithstanding their atrocities, the RAF exuded an ineluctable glamour for many young Germans and triggered a profound crisis of confidence in the West German state which, for a long time, failed to get to grips with the threat the group posed. The RAF leadership were masters of the media of their time, punching out short, but ultimately nonsensical, manifestos disseminated in different forms. Anticipating their contemporary counterparts, they even attended a terrorist training complex in the Middle East for a time before being unceremoniously kicked out. The predilection of their female members for nude sunbathing in the camp was apparently just a little too much for senior PLO commanders. Interestingly, RAF members were drawn almost exclusively from comfortable middle-class backgrounds and many were academic high-flyers. Final proof, were it ever needed, that politics students should never be let near a gun.
Aside from the particularities of Northern Ireland and the Basque region, the recent tragedy in Norway was one of the few major incidences of non-jihadi terrorism in Western Europe since the days of the RAF. Reading the book shortly beforehand made me wonder about the connections between these events, a generation apart. Anders Behring Breivik, like many terrorists of all persuasions, was also impeccably middle-class. He was evidently not at the sharp end of life’s iniquities and not, in the conventional sense at least, insane. Yet he was clearly consumed by imaginary injustices. Sociologists use the term anomie to describe a profound sense of cultural alienation that can create immunity to the suffering of others. Interacting intensely (either in person or online) almost exclusively within a small group of like-minded individuals reinforces belief systems that may appear warped to wider society.
Although at opposite ends of the political spectrum, both Breivik and the RAF appeared to have psychologically “dropped out”, although not in as extreme form as Theodore Kaczynski, the Harvard and Berkeley mathematician who retired at the age of 29 to a remote Montana log cabin where, as the Unabomber, he mounted an extraordinary 17 year one-man bombing campaign aimed at curtailing the excesses of modern consumer society, supplemented by his dense 35,000 word manifesto.
In all these cases, the perpetrators appear to have felt powerless and dislocated, driving themselves and/or fellow group members deeper into increasingly rigid mindsets. Although privileged and clever, they lacked the bracing, gentle and moderating influence of every day contact with people of other faiths and perspectives that can contextualise and smooth out life’s vicissitudes. While I cannot help but believe that our changing use of technology and patterns of living will beget more such incidents in the future, the antidote may be deceptively simple: they, and perhaps we, should get out more.