What Would a Stoic Do? On terrorism

Paris attacksLast Friday I was in Pittsburgh, PA, to deliver a talk on science and pseudoscience for the local annual “Sagan Fest,” named after the astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan, one of my intellectual role models. It was an engaging, constructive moment of critical reflection, and even fun over drinks and dinners with the students and faculty of Carnegie Mellon University that organized the event.

Then, when I got back to my hotel room, I was greeted by a text message from my companion, which simply said “Did you see what happened in Paris?” I hadn’t, but I knew instantly that whatever it was, it wasn’t good news. I also knew that it had to do with a terrorist attack.

I loaded the front page of the New York Times on my browser, and I was greeted to the images and descriptions of events that we are all familiar with. At current count, the ISIS orchestrated attack has resulted in 129 dead and 352 hospitalized, many in critical condition. I’m sure the death toll will eventually be higher.

I have not read much in the way of commentaries and analyses as of yet. First, because I don’t believe they will tell me much that is going to be new or insightful about the event or their context — these things are becoming part of “normal” life, unfortunately. Second, because I wanted to think things over on my own, and see if my recently adopted Stoic perspective would be at all useful under this sort of circumstances.

Perhaps the most obvious difficulty for a Stoic when faced with horrors such as the Paris attacks (and let’s not forget the ones in Beirut, or Kenya), is the idea that people don’t do evil on purpose, but out of ignorance. Here is how Marcus famously puts it:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations, II.1)

Right, go tell the friends and relatives of the victims that they should not hate the perpetrators, or not be angry at what happened.

Of course, Stoicism is not alone in this. Both Christianity and Buddhism have similar sentiments, and so do a number of other religious and philosophical traditions. But maybe they are just all mistaken.

Then again, perhaps it is precisely the occurrence of events like the Paris attacks that can be used to seriously probe our most fundamental assumptions and test our most cherished beliefs. So let’s consider for a moment what it would mean, from a Stoic perspective, to try not to get angry or hateful, and to really entertain the thought that ISIS fighters do what they do out of ignorance. What would that mean in terms of our response to acts of terror and their perpetrators?

Shock, anger and even hate are natural human responses to tragedies like this one. We cannot avoid them, they originate from the depths of human psychology and nature. But shock is paralyzing, and anger and hate are negative, destructive emotions. If we simply yield to them, as Seneca remarked, they will lead us to act under the spell of a temporary insanity. What a Stoic should do, then, is to turn the initial destructive emotion into a constructive one, which will take the deployment of at the least three of the four cardinal virtues.

To begin with, we need to summon courage, specifically the moral courage to stand up and be counted among those who oppose all that ISIS stands for. I don’t mean just adding yet another hashtag to your social media stream, or temporarily changing your Facebook profile photo. I mean something a bit more substantial, like standing with the majority of Muslim in your country who themselves reject ISIS, or opposing politicians who are already using the attacks for cynical purposes, like blocking asylum for refugees of the conflicts in Syria and surrounding areas — apparently oblivious to the fact that those refugees are abandoning their homes and countries precisely because they don’t want to live under ISIS or other oppressive regimes.

Next, we should channel our anger and outrage into a renewed exercise of the virtue of justice, demanding of our elected representatives that they truly do whatever is in their power to help react in the proper way to the threat of Islamist terrorism, to keep in mind that the goal is to bring about a safe and flourishing human community, not to use external threats for political gain, or to push agendas that result in the demonization of minorities and immigrants and in the restriction at home of those very liberties that we are allegedly trying to protect from the assault of ISIS.

Which brings me to the most difficult of all virtues to practice and deploy: wisdom, particularly the practical wisdom of knowing what the best thing to do is under difficult and complex circumstances. This requires critical reflection as well as what I would call principled pragmatism — seeking what works in practice, even if not ideal, while at the same time keeping in mind the fundamental principles we cherish and wish to defend. What the exercise of wisdom certainly does not mean is what we we will surely see plenty of in the next days and weeks: demagoguery, fear mongering, and simplistic slogans that fit on a bumper sticker but do not advance serious discourse. We ought to resist all of this, and that is possible only if we work to overcome our natural anger at what happened and hatred of those who made it happen.

Finally, let me go back to this entirely counterintuitive, superficially even outrageous idea that people — even terrorists — don’t do what they do out of evil, but because of ignorance. Setting aside the philosophical point that to talk of “evil” as a metaphysical category is highly problematic in itself, I think this attitude — with practice, since it certainly doesn’t come spontaneously — will allow us to see more clearly what is going on and what to do about it.

If we simply label something or someone as evil we give ourselves an automatic pass for not thinking about complexities, root causes, and responsibilities. ISIS exists for a number of reasons, some of which have to do with still widespread perniciously regressive cultures of fundamentalism in the Middle East, but others that have to do with both recent and not so recent Western intervention in that area of the world, often for anything but altruistic reasons.

This does nothing to justify the Paris attacks, but it does a lot for us to understand why they happened and, ideally, what to do to prevent future ones. I am reminded of a controversial  editorial written for the Italian magazine L’Espresso by Umberto Eco in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers. The title of the piece was “Understanding Bin Laden.” Eco’s point was precisely the one I’m making here: understanding is an altogether different thing from excusing. There is no condoning either 9/11 or Paris, nor an increasingly large number of similar episodes. But if we do not make a genuine attempt at understanding why so many people think that they are doing the right thing by massacring others in what they see as a necessary defense of their own lands and way of life then we will keep acting unthinkingly, giving in to a simplistic us-vs-them mentality, and simply perpetuate the cycle of violence. As Stoics, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and indeed as members of the man cosmopolis, we ought to have the moral courage and the wisdom to do better.

37 thoughts on “What Would a Stoic Do? On terrorism

  1. Roberto Figliè (@RFiglie)

    Thank you Massimo for this thoughts. They summarize what I was also thinking recently. I live in Rome and here many are feeling a mixture of fear and anger, and I am trying to do my best dealing with this emotions. Sadly, I find that many are giving in to a “simplistic us-vs-them mentality” , as you well said, and more sadly, this is even more a commonplace among some politicians (not so many fortunately).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris Everett

    I would also add that stoicism directs us to focus on what is in our control vs. what is not in our control. Inasmuch as the US’s violently dysfunctional long-term foreign policy towards the middle east is a major causal factor of the current chaos, and that we ostensibly control this policy through the democratic process, we should do our best to vote the neocons, imperialists, and general warmongers out of office and replace them with people interested in humanitarianism and the building of global democratic institutions.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. lreadl

    Of course, let’s all give them hugs. They’re not bad or evil, they just have had their feels hurt real bad. Once they see that we love them and only want to wrap our arms around them and take away the pain they will be happy; and happy people don’t do bad things. They don’t really believe that infidels should be harmed in any way and their holy texts and holy men don’t believe or teach that either. Stupid, stupid people. Islam is THE religion of peace.


  4. viennahavana

    Massimo, thank you for your thoughts. I admit that my struggle with “good vs. evil” is culturally and historically situated. Remembering that Stoicism emerged as a practice at a time in human understanding before Judeo-Islamic-Christianity had invented the concept of “sin” gives me a standard against which to measure these horrible inhuman acts of violence.

    However, I also believe that a modern Stoicism must acknowledge mental illness as part of the “ignorance” concept, as well as recognize that mental health is not a preferred indifferent but a requirement for the basis of practical wisdom and virtuous actions. Calling it “ignorance” simply does not acknowledge the depth of illness inherent in such acts of violence. (I think this is why concepts of evil persist even among non-believers.) Regardless of any political or ideological motivation, these types of actions are trivialized when they are called “ignorance” and not “illness.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sisyphus (@abernathy419)

    I think we need to have the courage to approach countries we support, like Saudi Arabia, and put pressure on them to take more responsibility and a more active role in stopping ISIS – even if it affects our oil supplies. A statement by the Council of Senior Scholars of Saudi Arabia is clearly an inadequate response.

    We also have to have the courage to place at least some of the burden on the Muslim community to be more aggressive in fighting ISIS instead of just saying, “it’s not me, I’m a moderate”. ISIS is not made up of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. Islam & the Koran are the bedrock of radical jihadism.

    However, none of this is to deny the abject failure of US foreign policy in the Middle East and its direct and indirect causing of instability in the region for our own benefit (i.e. petroleum). Justice and wisdom need to prevail in this particular arena.


  6. Patrice Ayme

    The worst cases of malevolence are destroyed only by stronger malevolence.

    Saying otherwise is being a friend of malevolence. Indeed, malevolence cannot be destroyed otherwise: try to offer flowers to the SS at Auschwitz. Most Jews did: they walked to the gas chambers with dignity, and that was a courtesy to their assassins. If all Jews had tried to be as disagreeable and lethal to the Nazis as they could be, the task of the Nais would have been so much harder, that the Holocaust would have come short.

    Hannah Arendt said something like that, and was ostracized for it. But she was right: the Judenraten collaborated with the Nazis like the rats they were. If you will forgive my deliberately, disastrous play on words: but when people get guided by the psychology of rats, instead of baboons, it should be condemned.

    The attacks in Paris were a war crime: ISIS claims to be a state, and the Geneva Convention clearly state that deliberate attacks on civilians are war crimes.

    Other point: ISIS is an Islamist State. It scrupulously respect the sacred texts of Islam, starting with the Qur’an. The Qur’an specifically states, repeatedly (out of only 80,000 words) that those who kill “Non-Believers”, or “Pagans”) will go to Paradise directly (after a waiting period).

    The four sacred months expired at 12pm, Mecca time, on Friday, November 13. Refer to Sura 5, verse 9: …”when the forbidden months are past, then fight and SLAY the Pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every ambush.”

    9pm in Paris, 12 pm in Mecca, on November 13, 2015, was now time for “every ambush” on the “Pagans”.

    Here is how Marcus famously puts it:

    “Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations, II.1)

    Right, Marcus. And your failure at getting angry against who deserved anger, and first of all your unworthy son, made you perhaps the most disastrous Roman emperor (considering Marcus Aurelius got an empire at its best, and gave it to the hands of a son who made Caligula and Nero, let alone Domitian, like geniuses full of goodness for civilization).

    By refusing to run the human emotional machine on all cylinders, Marcus Aurelius refused to use his brains on all cylinders, and making his son a Consul at 13, and an emperor at 16, is part of this debacle.

    France has been at war for 17 centuries, and that is why she is still around.. It is high time to bite the bullet and make a malevolent religion just as unlawful as Nazism is (a Jew hater was just condemned to death in the USA: his hatred was a factor in the sentence, under the law).

    The Romans outlawed all religions which required human sacrifices, including those of Carthage and the Celtic one. The Qur’an, read literally, requires human sacrifices on a massive, titanic scale, and even encourage deadly combat to kill most of humanity. Hence the success of ISIS.

    Time to look at the truth.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. astrodreamer

    Sorry Massimo, you can save it. These are nothing but the sententious banalities heard everywhere, and crediting them to stoicism is narrow, if not comedic. And like so many others you have been unable to resist turning this act of terrorism into self-serving promotion of your own agenda, while the bodies are still warm. Yes, how unpleasant it is to experience negative emotions. One can only laugh in this context at the idea that one cannot be injured by the ignorant.


  8. Massimo Post author


    “Of course, let’s all give them hugs. They’re not bad or evil, they just have had their feels hurt real bad”

    Since that has nothing whatsoever to do with what I wrote, I guess there is no point for me to respond.


    I don’t think it helps to label tens of thousands of people “mentally ill.” Especially when these people are perfectly functioning otherwise. Of course we need to recognize mental illness not just as a preferred indifferent — I think the Stoic approach, like any philosophy, assumes one has a somewhat sound mind, or there is no philosophizing to be done.

    So the occasional lone gunner who is in fact certifiably ill needs to be treated as such. But not when we are talking of a large group of people who fuel a powerful organization. That would be akin to say that every Nazi was mentally ill. Hitler, maybe, but not everyone who supported him.

    And even if you disagree with the above, I still don’t see what is gained by labeling an attitude as “evil,” other than demonizing one’s opponent, thus precluding any understanding (which, as I said in my essay, is not at all the same as a justification!), thereby likely engaging in an ineffective, or even counterproductive, course of action.


    “The worst cases of malevolence are destroyed only by stronger malevolence”

    We’ve tried that before, many times. I don’t think malevolence is a wise response to anything. That said, nothing in my post either excused ISIS or even precluded violence as part of the response. But a wise type of violence, the result of reasoned understanding on what is going on and why.

    As a bit of personal advice: I think your comments would benefit from not engaging every time in a lesson in cultural history. We can look it up on our own (and most of us are perfectly aware of the facts you described anyway.)

    “By refusing to run the human emotional machine on all cylinders, Marcus Aurelius refused to use his brains on all cylinders”

    That seems to be both historically inaccurate and a non sequitur.

    “France has been at war for 17 centuries, and that is why she is still around”

    France didn’t exist 17 centuries ago.


    “These are nothing but the sententious banalities heard everywhere, and crediting them to stoicism is narrow, if not comedic. And like so many others you have been unable to resist turning this act of terrorism into self-serving promotion of your own agenda, while the bodies are still warm”

    Harsh words, which I don’t think I deserve. But you have a right to express that sort of opinion, even on my own blog.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Massimo Post author

    Incidentally, it strikes me as ironic that people have such a vehement reaction to the idea that ISIS supporters are doing what they are doing out of ignorance (albeit understood in the Stoic sense of the concept) given that we know that the only thing that counters fundamentalism in the long run is education. Specifically, women’s education and the education of the next generation, done as early as possible.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Anthony Goldsmith

    A really fine essay. When I heard about this nightmare, I immediately thought “WWMD” (what would Marcus do). The author states that one of the hardest reaction issue for a Stoic would be to understand that people intentionally do awful and evil things …sometimes out of ignorance. That wasn’t difficult for me at all. I have long understood that most religious terrorists actually believe they are good people doing good and valuable things. Accepting that is unpleasant, but necessary. My own reaction was easy to manage (then again it didn’t happen to me).

    The harder question is what should I urge as a citizen. As fate would have it, I am a citizen of a country struggling to become a democracy rather than a plutocracy that controls a corrupt Senate: by which I mean I’m an American. So my ability to “do something” is limited. However, we still retain the right to have opinions and express them. This is where wisdom comes in. And since my personal attempt to exercise the virtue of wisdom isn’t going to decide what happens, I am left with spending only a reasonable amount of time making my opinions known. However, as a Stoic and understanding that spending inordinate amounts of time on this matter is a distraction from my actual work and duty, my sum total of reaction time was spent on writing my Senators, House Rep. and the White House.

    To my mind the wise course of action would have to involve short term, mid term and long term solutions. In the short term, military force needs to be used to kill as many ISIS leaders, cadre, officers, bomb makers, trainers and recruiters as possible. Not jail them, not talk with them, just find them and kill them. I accept the fact that innocent people will die in this process. In the mid and long term, I believe that Western leaders and populations have to understand there are a limited number of things we can do when a significant percentage of a population does not believe in concepts like tolerance for dissent, the right to practice no faith or a different faith and equal civil and social the rights of 50% of a society (women). We can’t change those views by war. And we can’t change those views by modeling tolerance, let alone modernity. So some long term disengagement plan from Middle Eastern Islamic states needs to be advanced.

    I think the hardest thing European leaders have to do is decide how to deal with literally hundreds of thousands of Muslims in their midst who simply don’t believe in Western values and do believe their religion requires them to agitate for a non pluralistic society where they should live under western law that may conflict with Islamic law or custom. Granted this is a small portion of Europe’s Muslim citizens, but obviously more than large enough to force people to face the issue. An even larger population of Muslims in Europe believes in the rule of law and further believes that the rights of minorities should be protected – but interprets this as meaning that governments must suppress things offensive to Muslims. These positions are incompatible with a free society and even the later more “moderate” position will tend to lead those dissatisfied to a more radical position.

    Assuming the portion of European Muslim that would like to see an end to tolerance and the rule of secular law represents less than 20% or less of Europe’s Muslim population and maybe only 10,000 people believe that violent Jihad as a proper response. But 10,000 insurgents is a sizeable army in the midst of a free society.

    All this has to be understood against the background of the fact Westerners have a very bad history of religious intolerance. The Crusades, the 100 years war, the endless bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants, the Jewish expulsions and pogroms culminating in the Jewish and Roma portion of Holocaust (need I go on?) have made modern Europe queasy about doing anything that smacks of confronting or containing a faith. The European tendency to religious warfare just erupted but a few years ago in the Balkans.

    Unfortunately, a “hands off” approach to confronting minority faiths only works when the government or a majoritarian mob is the perpetrator of the intolerance and violence. So, untangling Western values about religious freedom and tolerance (which I, like most Westerners, fervently support) from the need to understand that Islamism and Islamic intolerance is going to need to be fought and weakened, is a task of unimaginable proportions. Finding a leader or leaders willing to explain that this is a “nuanced” issue to a populace in a state of fear is a task that truly would take a Marcus Aurelius. I admire president Obama, but he isn’t Marcus. President Hollande? Non. David Cameron? Sorry, old chap. Let’s not even discuss the GOP front runners. How do we tell Muslims that though they will always have the absolute right to practice their faith they must adapt their faith so that it doesn’t create dual legal systems or result in violence or oppression of others, including Muslim women? How do we tell the majority of Europeans that anti Islamic religious intolerance is unacceptable while still getting the message out that they aren’t going to be overtaken by a foreign culture able to cow societies into submission by threats of mass murder? I don’t have an answer.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. cmplxadsys

    I was surprised not seeing “not being terrorized” and “not giving into fear or assenting to fear-based reasoning” listed in this essay. Definitely the main thing I would expect a Stoic to do in response to a terror attack.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Patrice Ayme

    Dear Massimo:

    Thank you for the feedback. I looked carefully at what you said. I view this sort of exchange as an occasion to deepen wisdom.

    For example I deliberately inserted the “17 centuries” about the age of France, hoping somebody would bite. Because it’s true, highly significant, but not well known. Constantine, following his dad, fought the Franks who had terrorized the Roman empire since 250 CE.However, by 310 CE, Constantine made a “peace of the braves” with the Franks, and proceeded to conquer the entire Roman empire with them. The result is that the Paris and north of France area became, de facto, independent. The name of Paris was then selected as the new name of Lutetia, honoring the Gallic tribe of Isle of France. In 358 CE, Paris elected the Caesar Julian “Augustus”, forcing a showdown with the one and only Augustus prior, the Catholic fanatic Constantius II.

    What you call “wise violence”, I dare to qualify as “stronger malevolence”. I agree “wise violence” is a must. But sometimes, it has to turn to outright ill will (from Latin malevolens). When the USA bombed Japan into submission in 1945, it did mean harm. Japan had killed more than 30 million already, but was to lose barely more than two millions (most of them soldiers who died of ill treatment… at the hands of their own superiors, mostly from starvation!)

    You say: ““By refusing to run the human emotional machine on all cylinders, Marcus Aurelius refused to use his brains on all cylinders”

    That seems to be both historically inaccurate and a non sequitur.”

    Appearances can be deceiving.

    Let us reflect on this, Massimo. Marcus Aurelius was not a philosopher in a cave somewhere. He was in charge of CIVILIZATION, no less. Marcus Aurelius could have resigned, because he did not do his job well: the plutocrats took control of Rome, to the point there was not enough money for defense. But Marcus did nothing about that: stoicism again (Trajan and others had cracked down on the hyper rich, not Marcus). But Marcus did not resign. Instead, meekly, he sold whatever he could around the imperial palace to feed the legions.

    Under the Antonine emperors, and starting with the selection of Trajan as emperor-to-be, the best candidates were chosen as future emperor by a consensus of the elite.

    The fact Marcus Aurelius showered his own son with honors and authority as soon as he was born, making him Consul at 13, emperor at 16, was a total violation of the principle of selecting the best as emperor. That principle had ruled after the very malevolent Domitian was put down in an extensive plot (a vast plot involving a sister, similar, even in the details to the one that led to the execution of Commodus, Aurelius’ son).

    Marcus Aurelius was the leader of the Roman empire for twenty.years. His greatest achievement was to be the first emperor to be succeeded by a biological son. EVER. Hi son Commodus immediately surrendered to the barbarians the immense provinces which his father had fought to keep, as their loss threatened directly Italy.

    When a man is arrogant enough to lead a quarter of humanity, he should do his job honorably. By opting to be succeeded by a monster, Marcus Aurelius did not do his job well. He actually did it terrible. And I track this down to his noble, but supine philosophy. Marcus Aurelius himself was a very courageous man, and a hard worker. But his lack of anger, and hi tendency to suffer fools gladly, obviously blinded him to his son’s faults. Within two years of Marcus Aurelius’ death, possibly assassinated by his own co-emperor of a son, Commodus had his sister Lucilla killed (after exiling her). That was just a warm-up.

    Dio Cassius, historian and contemporary of the period, said Commodus’ ACCESSION marked the descent “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”. I rest my case against Marcus Aurelius.


  13. Patrice Ayme

    That people act evil out of ignorance does not apply to ISIS (nor the Nazis, nor the Inquisition, nor Stalin, nor…). Reading the following is a must (although it says much less than what I have said over the years, it’s a good abstract of some aspects related to Islam):

    In general methinks that searching for, and then telling the truth is more human that just the ability to suffer whatever comes our way:


  14. Massimo Post author


    “I was surprised not seeing “not being terrorized” and “not giving into fear or assenting to fear-based reasoning” listed in this essay. Definitely the main thing I would expect a Stoic to do in response to a terror attack”

    I’m not sure whether you mean this seriously or sarcastic, so I’ll take it seriously. It is not possible not to feel terror or fear, it is a natural reaction to a threat. But it is possible to reason about it and ask ourselves what is the best reaction we can muster to the perceived threat. That’s what a Stoic would do.


    again, I’m aware of Roman history, the fact remains that “France” didn’t exist 17 centuries ago. Just like Italy. Or Spain. The modern nation state is a much, much more recent concept.

    “What you call “wise violence”, I dare to qualify as “stronger malevolence”.”

    The two are completely different, and irreconcilable, things.

    “When the USA bombed Japan into submission in 1945, it did mean harm”

    Who said anything about not meaning harm? But malevolence implies being bent on revenge, on going beyond what is strictly necessary. Like the allied bombing of Dresden, if we want to talk history.

    “Marcus Aurelius could have resigned, because he did not do his job well”

    You appear to be much less familiar than you think with that part of the history of Rome. Yes, Marcus handed his successor a smaller empire. It was probably inevitable. But he did successfully defend it against a potentially catastrophic invasion by the Marcomanni. It isn’t by chance that he is considered one of the five “good” emperors.

    Your comments about his arrogance seem ill founded and presumptuous. If you read his recent biography he comes across as anything but arrogant.

    “That people act evil out of ignorance does not apply to ISIS (nor the Nazis, nor the Inquisition, nor Stalin, nor…).”

    You keep using the word “ignorance” in a very different sense from what I very clearly spelled out above: for the Stoic ignorance meant specifically a lack of understanding of what is truly good, which is quite obviously the kind of ignorance ISIS suffers from.

    “In general methinks that searching for, and then telling the truth is more human that just the ability to suffer whatever comes our way”

    Which is yet another mischaracterization of Stoicism…


  15. 3dbloke

    An excellent and thoughtful piece.

    One thing in the wording “…the threat of Islamic terrorism…”. I don’t know how this is in the U.S., but here in the U.K. this would be referred to as “Islamist”, a fanatical and often violently expressed viewpoint that Islam and Sharia Law must be imposed on the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Massimo Post author


    apologies accepted. We all have a tendency to react strongly to issues that are emotionally charged. But I take criticism seriously, so thanks for the shock!


  17. nannus

    Thank you. These people DO what they are doing out of ignorance. They are brainwashed. Ideology may be viewed as infectious brain washing, so not just reacting to them with hatred is exactly the right thing to do. That in itself does not tell us what to do but it broadens the available options and helps to fight destructive trends inside our own society that are triggered or amplified by such acts.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Daniel Kaufman

    Just a few thoughts:

    1. I don’t think it really matters why ISIL and their ilk — Al Qaeda, Taliban, etc. — do what they do. It is quite clear that they are not going to stop on their own, by way of either persuasion or withdrawal on our part. Someone above wrote that all of this is “caused” by American foreign policy, to which I reply “rubbish.” These characters have attacked countries and people who have nothing to do with American foreign policy or anything like it.

    2. It seems to me worth noting that to a great extent, these events occur because we allow them to. Put another way, actors like these are able to launch the attacks that they do, because of our own restraint. Just as we could defeat North Korean with a single submarine and just as the Israelis could defeat Hamas in a weekend, so could we erase ISIL and their ilk off of the face of the earth. We simply choose not to, out of decency. And yes, that *is* the reason. Empires less decent than us, with a similar degree of military strength, would have been done with these types long ago.

    3. I am actually of the view that *either* we are going to remind the relatively civilized people that we are — in which case, as Massimo indicated, these sorts of attacks are going to become part of ordinary life, like a more lethal version of street crime — or we are going to put a stop to it, but no longer remain the relatively civilized people that we currently are. And yes, I think this is a genuine dilemma. I don’t see another option. (Or at least, not any that strike me as remotely plausible.)

    4. It seems to me uncharitable — and untrue — to suggest that only cynicism could explain why people would be moved by events like these to refuse to permit refugees from Syria. In fact, given how groups like Al Qaeda and others get agents into foreign countries, it strikes me as incredibly stupid to let hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria into Europe, right now. The situation is a tragedy, but the chief and special responsibility of a president or prime minister is to his own citizens, not the citizens of another nation. To think that ISIL and other militants in Syria won’t smuggle their own people among the refugees is to be dangerously naive.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Patrice Ayme

    Massimo; I am surprised you claimed “Italia” did not exist before the modern era. When is that? 1945? The words “Francia”, Imperium Francorum, were used by 600 CE. Europa was used by 732 CE, Renovatio, Imperium Romanum was used loud and clear by 800 CE.

    The word and concept of “Italia” existed fully 2,000 years ago. One does not have to wait for the Piedmontese house of Savoy, and the French army to defeat the Austrian army in a battle of 300,000 soldiers at Solferino.

    The most important act of Roman emperors was the act of succession. Marcus Aurelius failed horribly at that. It seemed that he could not care less.

    Mentalities are dominated by the perpetuation of mood. When Paris elected Julian emperor, that was a highly rebellious act. Generally the Franks, especially those around Paris refused to convert to Catholicism (just invented by their accomplice Constantine).

    The spirit, the mood of rebellion is what Marcus Aurelius did not have enough of, to direct it towards himself and restrain from making his terrible teenage son emperor.

    The spirit of rebellion, the will to harness malevolence for the better, is antinomic to stoicism. But as Camus tried to point out, in “L’Homme Revolte'”, it’s the essence of humanity.

    Islam means “submission”. A sort of ultimate stoicism, in at least one sense. Islam is related to both aslama (he surrendered) and Salam (peace).

    If our ancestors had surrendered, they would have stayed in the trees. But they did not. Instead they ventured curiously, and fought for more complex thoughts and the way of life which enabled them.

    The truth PC people do not want to face about ISIS: it is pure Islam, as defined by a literal reading of Qur’an and Hadith. See the following for a few more details:

    For some malevolence in the Qur’an:



  20. Roberto Figliè (@RFiglie)

    “To think that ISIL and other militants in Syria won’t smuggle their own people among the refugees is to be dangerously naive.”
    The terrorists certainly can hide among the refugees but many of them often don’t have to because they are french, italian, german and so on, already. “Their” own people are too often “our” own people.
    I tend to think that when someone this young (close to my age) that not so many years ago could be my classmate and grew up in europe, become a terrorist and do things like that, something has gone wrong in his/her education. Although I think that right now we have to intervene, trying to understand (and not excuse), in the long term, will be a better starting point to prevent these education failures in the future.
    I think that in this essay Massimo was trying to highlight what would a Stoic do, in the sense of how an individual should react to events like this, and in some comments here I read more negative emotions driven thoughts than constructive and practical ones.


  21. Baron Nomis


    I would even be so bold and argue, that while most of ISIL does its thing out of ignorance, the military response of west is well calculated and evil – not only sometimes striking civilians and hospitals, but most importantly – generating more “terrorists” in target countries.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Massimo Post author


    “Someone above wrote that all of this is “caused” by American foreign policy, to which I reply “rubbish.””

    I’m pretty sure lots of political scientists and historians would deeply disagree with that assessment. While I might agree that ISIS isn’t going to stop if not violently (though how exactly to do that is a huge discussion), I think it’s time for the West to stop playing innocent victim for situations that it largely help create, from the time of colonialism to the second Iraq war.

    “We simply choose not to, out of decency”

    I find very little decency in much American foreign policy after WWII, but I do see a lot of incompetence. You seem to think that a military victory is not in doubt. You are right. But as Iraq and Afghanistan ought to have clearly showed even to the blind, that’s the easy part. The same goes for Israel, by the way: sure, militarily they could wipe out any Palestinian entity in days. And then what? No, my friend, it has nothing to do with decency.

    “It seems to me uncharitable — and untrue — to suggest that only cynicism could explain why people would be moved by events like these to refuse to permit refugees from Syria”

    Another point were we disagree. Yes, there is always the chance that terrorists may come in disguised as refugees. But the facts tell another story: terrorists don’t seem to have much of a hard time “coming in,” and a number of those responsible for the Paris attacks were French citizens, not refugees.


    “I am surprised you claimed “Italia” did not exist before the modern era. When is that? 1945? The words “Francia”, Imperium Francorum, were used by 600 CE. Europa was used by 732 CE, Renovatio, Imperium Romanum was used loud and clear by 800 CE.”

    All of which is irrelevant. Italy as a nation state did not exist until 1860. France, Spain and Germany a bit earlier, but the fact that the term “Italia” predates the Romans tells you nothing about the existence of a coherent political and cultural unit, which is what I thought we were discussing.

    “Islam means “submission”. A sort of ultimate stoicism, in at least one sense”

    I have no idea of what that means.

    “If our ancestors had surrendered, they would have stayed in the trees. But they did not.”

    Wow, are we going Pleistocene now?

    And you don’t seem to be taking at heart my advice not to regale us with a long history lesson every time you write a comment. Again, shorter and to the point makes it more likely that people (including me) will read and comment…

    Liked by 3 people

  23. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo, this is the sort of thing people can argue about forever, which I certainly am not going to do. Just a handful of points in response.

    –By ‘decency’ I am talking in the context of realipolitik geopolitics, which I think is the only relevant context in which to discuss such matters. And in that sense, the relatively measured and targeted responses by which the Israelis and the other liberal democracies respond to those who directly and deliberately attack their civilian populations, counts as “decent.” We all know what non-liberal democracies would do in response to these sorts of attacks, and it ain’t targeted drone strikes and smart bombs and special forces operations.

    –The West’s complicity in the mess that is the contemporary Middle East is well known and goes back to the post WWI nation building that created the fictional Arab nation-states that we now have today. It is a long distance, however, between acknowledging that and addressing the contemporary street-knifings, kidnappings, beheadings of civilians, bombings of public places like pizza parlors and discos and the like. Indeed, the former has very little relevance to the latter.


  24. EugenR

    Psychology of suicide attacker

    It is time to ask the question, what motivates young human beings in their twenties, that were brought up in France or Belgium to commit such a ultimate act as suicide, while they did have the choice to live a meaningful life as normal citizens in their country. The popular story that they the reward of 77 virgins is their major motif, sounds very naive and improbable. After all we are not speaking about teenager, whose unfulfilled sexual desires can drive them crazy. Often the suicide attacker is a married man with children and even sometime woman, who for sure will not be mystified by virginity.

    More serious claims about their motives than the virgin story are the economic and social motives. Many of the Muslim Youth may feel frustrated by the surrounding society and their position towards them. If this would be the reason why they commit these extreme acts, and obviously they have no fear of the consequences their acts will cause to them, i would expect them to become ordinary criminals, who bridge with no problem the law and costumes of their housing countries, that they doesn’t identify with. This would be a perfectly rational act, to achieve the goal of improving their social status and economic achievements within their communities. And in fact many of them do turn to this solution, as the high criminality in the immigrant districts shows us.

    But here we have a completely different phenomenon. A young man or woman, sometime even well educated, decides to end his life, as to his view fighting certain evil or injustice, that can’t be even by him defined as an absolute injustice, that endangers his and/or his family’s life or his tribe’s existence. If to compare their situation to that of Jews under the Nazis, whose aim was physical annihilation of all the Jews, i could understand a Jewish suicide bomber who would kill a German Nazi to protect his family or tribe (what unfortunately very rarely happened), but the situation of the Young Muslim in Europe is entirely different. Today no one in European political establishment ever implemented or declared a political view of annihilation  or extermination of Muslims because of them being Muslims. So the suicidal attackers can’t claim, they act out of self-defense, as it could have been against the German Nazis. It is obvious according to the claims published through the web, the intention of the Muslim extremists are aggressive and not defensive. To try to establish a caliphate in Europe, which is a primitive form of imperialism is an obvious aggressive act. If looking to the level of evil that the Muslim “resistance” to the West brings, any apologetic explanation to the Muslim extremism, looking for some injustice caused by the Europeans to the Muslims in the past, like the Crusaders, Colonialism, American Imperialism or Zionism doesn’t makes any sense .

    So if the suicide acts of the Muslim extremists are not acts of self-defense, not childish desire to be rewarded by 77 virgins, and are not caused by economic-social frustration, what can be the driving force behind it?

    What we can hear from those extremists, when asked what motivates them, they come up with a story,  partly derived from the Quran text and other Islamic texts. So can be the identification with the massage of these text or their interpretation be the real reason behind the acts of the Muslim extremists? This explanation stands also on shaky ground. How could be with such an explanation explained the suicidal acts of the Jihadists in the Muslim countries, many times against the same sect they claim to represent.

    To try to come with some explanation, i would like to bring some thought about the subject. There are two different kinds of suicide attackers. The first are the recruited ones. A recruited Muslim suicidal extremists goes through several stages of recruitment. The first stage is the act of recruitment of the potential suicide attacker into ordinary military ranks. This is the stage, where the recruiter comes in the first contact with the future suicide attacker. Then it my be, that the recruiter will have strong inclination acting violently due to his past life experience, or due to his innate aggressive character, which can fulfill him with feeling of heroism, commitment to mission, or probably combination of all these. When the first stage of recruitment was done, the act of suicide becomes a military act, not very often but still used in the past not only by the Muslims. The most famous example is the Japanese kamikaze, but there were many others, like the Tamil suicide bombers for example, who were probably the first since WWII to introduce this tactics.

    But even more interesting and less explainable is the self recruiting suicide attacker, and there are examples of this kind of suicide attackers. It is hard to imagine what kind of psychological process brings a perfectly normal human being to go through a process that at the end of the line will bring him to commit suicide, hoping that with his death will be killed as many other fellow human beings as just it is possible. What kind of blind hatred has to feel the suicidal attacker toward other people to be able to act like that, without any social or psychological support. Hardly it can be explained by simple reasoning, like religious faith, faith in Islamic texts and Quran and the specific text out of it, that instructs every Muslim to be intolerant to any other human being except of the fellow Muslim. To try to find all the explanation to the Muslim suicide attackers just on the level of religious faith and its murderous ideology will leave many holes in the understanding of the phenomenon.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. EugenR

    My response to you would be;

    The question is what next. Western world but mainly Europe has reached a crossroad where it has to decide between two choices. The first and easy choice is to continue as if nothing happened, until the next time.

    But it has to be remembered the conflict between the fundamental Islam and the western values is deepening and the Muslim activists have chosen the road of escalating the conflict. If the September 11, by itself a very sophisticated attack was orchestrated by activists known to the western governments. President Clinton had authorized the CIA to bring bin Laden to the United States after the 1998 United States embassy bombings in Africa, it is not so anymore. Those who organized the attack in Paris are practically unknown.

    The phenomena of suicide attackers brought to the conflict a variable of completely different dimension. Not because it is much more effective than the usual approach of commando attacks of hit and run, but because of its psychological dimension. It is hard to understand the ideological and practical motives of these mass murderers, and that’s what these Islamic suicide attackers are, since they have to be indifferent to what kind of world will remain after their attack. What’s obvious, they have no limits as to the level of destruction and number of casualties they aim to inflict by their acts. In contrary if given to them a chance, they would blow up a whole city and better a big city like Paris or New York, to make a big show out of their “heroism”. It can be said, that it was a fortune they didn’t succeed to penetrate to the football stadium with tenth of thousands of spectators. You may remember the incident at 1985, when some Liverpool  fans attacked the Juventus fans with beer cans and resulted death of 39 spectators.  It is hard to imagine what would happen, if the attackers were successful. Probably  the number of  casualties would be counted by thousands. And exactly this was the aim of the Attackers.

    To those who believe in humanistic approaches i would like to say, this conflict between the western, post WWII, modern way of life and the fundamental Islam is not going to disappear by itself. It seems according to the results of free elections in the Arab countries like Egypt (not the last elections), Libya and Tunis, the fundamental Islam is deeply rooted in the hearts of majority of the Arab world population. The idea of “whole world”, Muslim Caliphate has probably many supporters in these countries.

    If you wonder what kind of life are we offered under the regime of Muslim Caliphate, all is needed is to look at the life in Saudi Arabia, but without the riches of oil there. This is the situation in most of the Arab countries, with no democracy, no civil rights, no freedom of expression, no social communities without the interference of the religious or regime authorities, no modern economy, no government run social institutions helping the old, sick, invalids, etc. Add to it the inter-gender moral codes of the Islam, the limitation it imposes on artistic expressions. I highly recommend to watch the prayers and religious interpretations TV shows in Saudi television and you can see, what a gloomy, miserable life without colors and diversity the Islam caliphate supporters have in mind. (Music and satire is forbidden).

    The other way the Western intellectuals have is to check the Muslim faith with intellectual honesty and with openness to any conclusion. There is definitely a direct connection between religious fanaticism and their deeds.

    To explain that every religion has in itself positive massage and commands enforcing humanistic approaches is self delusive. The basic principle of every monotheistic faith, if sincerely followed, is accepting authority of ancient scripts, and the authority of  those who claim to represent the divinity, or claim knowledge  about the divine and interpret these scripts. Only this principle makes the follower of religious faith a person who limits the spectrum of his own thinking within a religious code framework. What’s worse, such a believer automatically wants to limit the spectrum of thinking of all the others. This self imposed limitation on the thought, and the will to force upon ALL the others this limited framework of thinking, is the basis of the ideological conflict between the modern world and the religious, mainly Islamic world (due to its relative success to sustain its ideological influence as contrary to Christianity).

    It is understandable that the basic tool for scientific method is openness to any kind of critique. Without it the modern science could not develop science and technologies, that enable and give chance to a sustainable life to 7 billion people on the earth. The alternative way of abounding this way of thinking, as demanded by the Islam and other monotheistic religions is not an alternative, unless the human population would reduce itself to numbers that existed in the pre modern times. This process is happening already in the failed Arab and African countries, from where the people are “exported” to the functioning European countries. But the act of emigration and abandonment of homeland is not accompanied by change of mind of the emigrants. Only few of them understand that their personal tragedies were self inflicted upon them. Most of them would rather continue their previous way of life and religious faith, believing that this time it will work. But as explained above, it can’t work. From the emigrants, who stick to their traditional values, will come the next generation of youth, who will feel natural in their new homeland, and believe that their family’s moral code and belief system is the right and valid one. Out of them will be some individual forerunners, who will become the Muslim activists, ready to sacrifice everything to bring back to the world the life, their parents abounded in desperation a generation before.

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