The Emptiness of Radicalism: Are we being responsible Spectators?
If the certainty of getting caught makes the shooting sprees by Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., and Farhad Jabar only more sinister, our continuing astonishment at shootings shows how little this certainty comforts the public mind.
In September, fifteen-year-old Australian Farhad Jabar shot a police accountant exiting a New South Wales police headquarters and it was only two months later that Robert Dear opened fire in a Colorado Springs abortion clinic.
Jabar’s Isis-inspired murder has fallen neatly into a surging Islamic terror narrative and Dear’s shooting spree has further fuelled the US’ ongoing political divide over abortion.
Both shooters have been labelled as radicals, suggesting that the label speaks to a deeper similarity where our reportage gives only details of difference.
Both certainly had a relationship with a specific set of beliefs, but unlike we spectators, this relationship turned their actions towards the same evil ends of domestic terror.
In this way, ‘radicalism’ asks how a fellow member of our community can turn into someone who acts in the face of our deepest ingrained morals.
In fact, reportage seems to only muddy the most pressing aspect of this question –What has radicalism done to that innate ability to tell right from wrong? Where was their conscience when they opened fire?
This was the ultimate question for influential political theorist Hannah Arendt.
As a spectator to the mindless void imposed by Nazism, she saw neither pathological pleasure nor moral revulsion could be fostered in brainwashed administrator Adolf Eichmann.
Arendt coined the phrase ‘banality of evil’ to describe this fatal breed of thoughtlessness.
And, perhaps, the jihadist schoolboy and the Army of God fanatic inspire our fear precisely because neither one understood their actions were wrong.
If we are indeed dealing with this kind of radicalism, then the facts of each killer read quite differently, but only in the aspects that least explain a twisted everyday mindlessness.
According to the ABC , Jabar was a schoolboy lured into known Australian jihadist network, the Appleby Group.
Skipping school to avoid his bullies, Jabar was recruited by Appleby Group members only a few years his senior. They had been increasingly preying upon young boys ‘unable to think for themselves and probably looking for some level of direction’.
But Jabar’s new friends were more than just troublemakers for the local mosque and board member Shahadat Chowdury told the ABC that “I finally realised that actually they don’t have a capacity to absolve that [disdain for authority] because of their very black-and-white way of thinking”.
This black-and-white thinking simplified Jabar’s world to the point of fatal ignorance.
By the time of the shooting, Australian Federal Police Counter Terrorism Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan says Jabar was ‘making decisions he’s not in a position to make.’
It took only weeks for Jabar to go from ‘a typical teenager tweeting about ‘The Voice’ and following Delta Goodrem’ to seeing Islamic State as the only solution to the feelings of alienation he harboured.
The shooting was obscenely reminiscent of playground antics when Jabar waived about his gun after shooting police accountant Curtis Cheng in the back of the head, taunting police until he was shot down.
To his unhinged adolescent mind, it appeared to almost be a game.
But radicalisation had turned Jabar’s play to the sinister business of pulling the trigger without conscience, and with no visible understanding of the consequences.
The New York Times profile on Robert Dear, Jr., reports a markedly different pathway to a no less extraordinary act of violence.
Dear was a highly temperamental man who racked up gambling debt, committed adultery and had a past of domestic abuse.
But these traits are only as disturbing as they are entirely common to our society.
At once, they tell us everything and nothing about Dear’s extraordinary actions.
To prove anything more than general mental instability would stray into claiming these past attributes directly caused his shooting spree- a wrong reasoning process forbidden at law.
Not only did his third wife, Pamela Ross, say that abortion was “never really a topic of discussion” but the Times also reported that his current partner, Stephanie Bragg, could not believe Dear was capable of the Planned Parenthood shooting.
But it is the most subtle fact in the Times profile that dispels any serious attempt to use a past of gambling, adultery and domestic abuse to explain Dear’s murderous act.
For the week leading up to his shooting spree, Dear had been worriedly visiting his partner in hospital where she was being treated for infection and pancreatitis.
Meaning that, right up to the shooting, Dear was as capable of acting with conscience as he was without.
Perhaps Robert Dear really did just snap and impulsively kill three people and injure nine others.
But this seems a weak answer to how Dear could, at once, maintain a stable weeklong conscience and yet hang it up to dispose of his victims.
Instead, the Times’ profile plays only a part in the far more convincing answer found in his radical Christian beliefs.
Dear was something more than devoutly Christian. His obsession with salvation had enslaved his Christianity to the higher ministry of his mind’s desires.
According to his wife, Barbara Micheau, he would use warped religious pretext to rationalize his gambling, domestic abuse and infidelity.
She wrote in a court document, pre-dating the shooting, that “he claims to be a Christian and is extremely evangelistic, but does not follow the Bible in his actions.”
The result was that Dear’s mind tied his behaviours with a very specific set of wrong beliefs about Christianity and salvation.
Moreover, he committed himself to these contradictions with such fervour that there can be no doubt he was rationalizing away any religious obstacles.
To Dear, the popular interpretation of Christianity was in the wrong, not his own.
By the time he was posting religious outbursts online, Robert Dear was radicalised.
Leading a life close to female company but always far from society, Dear’s online persona paints a clearer picture than the real world from which he had opted out.
Dear would yell in caps-lock on marijuana forums, posting in 2005,
“Turn to JESUS or burn in hell, WAKE UP SINNERS U CANT SAVE YOURSELF U WILL DIE AN WORMS SHALL EAT YOUR FLESH, NOW YOUR SOUL IS GOING SOMEWHERE.”
His one-way-street statements read more like propaganda than dialogue.
Far from posting to persuade forum members of his views, this was simply an empty mind echoing the same rhetoric about salvation.
The most pressing question becomes whether this mindset was empty enough to allow him his unconscionable behaviours without even thinking they were bad.
Micheau wrote in the same court document “He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases.”
And the actions Dear ‘pleased’ had not only become normal, they were righteous.
Amongst his pursuits, Dear idolized known anti-abortion extremists, the Army of God.
This was a worship that endorsed Army of God killings and bombings in a complete departure from any kind of conscience.
According to the Times, Dear generally praised attacks on anti-abortion clinics as “God’s work”.
Ms. Bragg’s close relative says “He believed he was doing God’s will, and I’m sure he probably wanted to die in the process of carrying out what I’m sure he thought was right.”
With little mental stability standing in the way of his worship, it is unlikely the lives of his victims even registered in Dear’s caps-locked mind.
Dear reportedly yelled in Court that “I am guilty there will be no trial. I am a warrior for the babies.”
Where Robert Dear was obsessively pre-occupied with his anti-abortion mantra, his mind was entirely absent on the consequences of his actions.
No amount of sophistry can connect the facts surrounding Farhad Jabar and Robert Dear’s journeys towards radicalisation.
And this is precisely because radicalisation is not explained by a particular age, religion or even mental disposition.
The only commonality is Dear was clearly no less unthinking about consequences than Jabar.
Dear’s crime was not his adopting an anti-abortion standpoint anymore than Jabar was wrong to turn to his local mosque for support.
Instead, Jabar and Dear failed to take on board society’s urgent protest that acting through terror is simply not a human choice.
Neither may have been thinking at the trigger, but Jabar sought Islamic State’s shelter knowing they acted through terror and Dear came to idolize Army of God knowing the same.
Both forfeited their humanity by putting aside this most human consideration.
Frighteningly, we must consider whether their arrival at the act of shooting is any different to the everyday habitual unthinking of that one cocktail too many slipping into a far more destructive alcoholism.
Perhaps radicalism just requires a vulnerable mind to silence with every thought except for the consequences of ones actions.
And it is uncomfortable to think that our minds are equally capable of that very same emptiness that turned Jabar and Dear to such evil ends.
This has consequences for how we spectators respond to radicalised terror.
It means that Jabar and Dear do not come from circumstances so comfortingly incomprehensible to us.
Having paused in shock, it is too ignorant to then continue being astonished because we could never imagine that the most human experience of forming a bad habit could becomes the pathway to such an extraordinary murderous act.
We should be careful not to use the fact that Jabar was so young, or that Dear was unfaithful, to create mental distance between ourselves and them.
Instead of focusing on details of difference, the shooting sprees should provoke us to look inwards to the consequences of our own habits.
It is our constant re-evaluation of our habits, not which habits we choose, that ultimately stops us short of turning our everyday actions towards evil.
Put simply, we spectators are not radicalised because we demand ourselves to stop and think.
The pubic trauma dealt by these radicalised shooters is a cruel lesson in just how crucial thinking outside of our habits becomes in these times of moral collapse.
We cannot any longer understand extremist violence by the oft-cited religion of the attacker because radicalisation is clearly capable of invading any unoccupied region of the public mind.
It is where the mind is silent that evil can too easily echo.
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