Throughout history, violent, extremist ideologies have arisen and asserted they are necessary to transcend the existing, unjust societal order. From Jacobins to fascists to communists to Islamic terrorists, each abhorrent movement has sought to create a new order, “recreating” humanity by forcefully “liberating” their fellow human beings from the consternating complexities and perceived failings of their ages.
Even if momentarily ascendant, these extremist ideologies’ efforts to butcher their way to Utopia ineluctably fail; and, in some instances, are replaced by an even more destructive regime (i.e., the French Revolution was succeeded by Napoleon). This historical record stands in stark contrast to the antithetical “freedom revolutions” – most notably the American Revolution and the Eastern European revolutions against their Soviet occupiers in the late 1980’s. Why?
These freedom revolutions were inspired, guided and, thereby, in accord with humanity’s immutable desire to choose their own pursuit of happiness absent government coercion; as such, the freedom revolutions shared a vision of a post-revolutionary social order premised upon the inherent, inviolate dignity of the individual, empowered and protected by democratic institutions, free market economics, voluntary civic organizations and religious organizations. Thus enlightened, these enduring freedom revolutions did not seek to transcend the existing, unjust social order by coercively recreating humanity. These enduring freedom revolutions recognized and fought to liberate the God-given liberty of frail, flawed human beings immune to perfection. In sum, the freedom revolutions wanted to end existing oppression, not to impose new, supposedly egalitarian oppression.
Intrinsic to these freedom revolutions was the tacit understanding the attainment of liberty would not merely result in a purposeless existence of self-indulgence and alienation. These movements understood freedom is the God-given right, and the means of every person to reach for their potential by voluntarily envisioning and pursuing a meaningful life in harmony with and beneficial to their fully equal fellow human beings and the justly ordered society they share.
Amidst today’s travails, as in past trying times, in the many eyes at home and abroad, this purposeful existential underpinning of freedom seems to have ebbed in our consciousness and practice; consequently, the results of the freedom revolutions are mistakenly viewed not as emancipation and purpose but as enervation and purposelessness – the vacuity of modernity, defined as the absence of an answer to the existential query of, ‘why strive in this secular, relativistic Age of Aimlessness?’
Thus arises the strategic conundrum of defeating Islamic terrorism: how to earn the support and trust of peaceful middle-eastern Muslims who loathe us for our perceived amoral purposelessness?
To date, our strategic answer has been a combination of martial, material, and political means, but it has lacked the proper purpose – as determined by the peaceful middle-eastern Muslims who, in our all too typically well-intentioned but off the mark American way, we are trying to “help.”
Not surprisingly, our strategy has foundered, engendering more hate and despair than hope and resolve. Militarily, we have lurched between attack and retreat; economically, we have alternated between aid and exploitation; diplomatically, we have careened between nation-building and isolationism – all the result of a dearth of strategic purpose that corroborates the widely-held Muslim view that the West has fallen to vacuous modernity, which they absolutely do not want imposed upon them.
In fairness, just as domestic policymakers have vainly struggled to address the vacuity of modernity gnawing at Americans as they gaze into the future of their families, communities and nation, America’s foreign policy wonks have alternately and unsuccessfully tried offering middle-eastern Muslims two distinct answers to this question: democratic capitalism and the welfare state/open society. Both answers are premised on secularism and relativism. Charitably put, neither has been well received, separately or in tandem.
So, why should an observant, pacific Middle Eastern Muslim believe that United States and the west rather than ISIS is the preferred facilitator and protector of his or her right to live a purposeful life as they wish – especially when the other guys are hanging out in the neighborhood beheading their enemies?
The answer rests in one word: voluntary.
This is the one thing an Islamic terrorist group cannot offer anyone, as the very reason for their murderous movement is the imposition of an extreme ideology to recreate their fellow human beings and society. Therefore, the ideology constitutes not a solution but a rejection. Conversely, while America continues to wrestle to perfect its own experiment in democracy and formulate an answer to the vacuity of modernity, our nation must not arrogantly emphasize freedom as an end, let alone attempt to impose what that end will be on Middle Eastern Muslims. Instead, the U.S. must articulate and facilitate freedom as the means by which Middle Easterners, absent coercion, exercise their God-given right – and concomitant duty – to reach for their potential by voluntarily envisioning and pursuing a meaningful life in harmony with and, beneficial to their fully equal fellow human beings and the justly ordered society they share.
In hindsight, then, it is no coincidence one of the few, fleeting successes of America’s attempts to defeat Islamic terrorism was the strategy formulated by General Petraeus. That’s because its goal was to protect innocent Iraqis, not so they could one day live a nation with democratic-capitalism and/or a welfare state or open society, but so they could freely choose their own futures in accordance with the tenets of Islam within a free nation.
Adopting the principle of “freedom as a means” within our strategy to defeat Islamic terrorism will provide clarity, alacrity and efficiency to America’s military, economic and diplomatic undertakings in the struggle against Islamic terrorism. Militarily, it will provide a just rationale for continued targeted military strikes against terrorists, and a strategic imperative for reducing our armed forces’ presence within the region as soon as prudent based upon the facts on the ground – specifically, after the enemy has been decimated and the population’s ability to defend itself established. Economically, this strategic purpose will allow for the locally determined nurturing of sustainable financial and commercial enterprises and projects. Diplomatically, it will instruct U.S. foreign policy to avoid becoming ensnared in unending experiments in nation-building or the injurious abandonment of allies combatting terrorists. Ultimately, in our struggle to defeat Islamic terrorism, America will be able to simultaneously reduce our presence and costs in the region and advance our purpose: the attainment of peace through the expansion of freedom.
It will be difficult to implement this policy within America’s strategy to defeat Islamic terrorism, not only for President Obama but for all U.S. policymakers, because to varying degrees it contradicts their (often divergent) aims and ideologies. The domestic proponents of democratic capitalism and the welfare state/open society will object to any contrary future for Middle Eastern Muslims, however voluntarily divined and pursued by them. Such ideological objections must be surmounted. For while they share the same insane conviction their ideology can recreate humanity and society, unlike their Politburo predecessors, Islamic terrorists don’t believe in mutual assured destruction, only continual assured destruction in a gruesome generational struggle for supremacy.
Except the barbarous terrorists, who wants that to fill the vacuity of modernity?
Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter is an itinerant guitarist and a recovering former Member of Congress.