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Joseph Conrad

“And Mr Verloc, temperamentally identical with his associates… drew them with a certain complacency, because the instinct of conventional respectability was strong within him, being only overcome by his dislike of all kinds of recognized labour — a temperamental defect which he shared with a large proportion of revolutionary reformers of a given social state. For obviously one does not revolt against the advantages and opportunities of that state, but against the price which must be paid for the same in the coin of accepted morality, self-restraint, and coil. The majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly. There are natures, too, to whose sense of justice the price exacted looms up monstrously enormous, odious, oppressive, worrying, humiliating, extortionate, intolerable. Those are the fanatics. The remaining portion of social rebels is accounted for by vanity, the mother of all noble and vile illusions, the companion of poets, reformers, charlatans, prophets, and incendiaries.”


A prophetic excerpt from Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale.

In this section, Conrad is speaking about Mr. Verloc, the novel’s protagonist who infiltrates and succumbs to the seductive ideology of an anarchist gang operating in London. But the assessment of the terroristic personality could not be more applicable today.

Conrad observes that there are two major characteristics of those who commit acts of terror – lethargy and vanity.

The terrorist is someone whose sense of self-importance weighs so heavily that he craves attention and recognition to the point that he will even die to see his name live on. Laziness enters the equation through the methods he uses to achieve this notoriety. Instead of applying his energy and intelligence – and make no mistake, most modern terrorists are highly educated – to constructive pursuits, the terrorist instead reverts to the atavistic urge to smash things up, to mutilate, inflict pain, and in doing so arouse emotions inversely proportional to his grandiose conceit.

The explosions, the manhunt, the Time Magazine cover: these are his fifteen minutes of fame. The residual fear is his immortality.

Since 9/11, and especially in the recent line-up of self-radicalized terrorists, we see a definite psychological profile emerge. Osama Bin Laden, for all of his ascetic pretensions, routinely doused his hair in Just for Men as he sat alone, watching and re-watching videos of himself giving speeches; and this vanity threads deeper, from the surface into the soul.

Yet the indolence of particularly anomic terrorists must not be minimized either. Indolence in tactics, first. The youngest of the Boston bombers returned to his dorm room and took a nap, then went to a house party, the night after the marathon explosions, but he and his brother failed to hatch even a rudimentary getaway plan or dispose of any incriminating evidence. Richard “The Shoe Bomber” Reid never tried on his sneakers to test his weapon of choice; as a result, when the fuse became soaked with perspiration, it was no longer ignitable. The underwear bomber couldn’t light his Hanes on fire; the Time Square Bomber got locked out of his carbomb.

Crucially, however, there is also the indolence of strategy. Vanity may compel a person to seek immortality, but the terrorist takes the easiest path to get there. Golda Meir was fond of saying that once Arabs began to love their children more than they hated the Jews, there would be peace and security in Israel. But this phrase, in all its glibness, overlooks the possibility that hatred is a much more intoxicating and gripping emotion than love, and this fact alone may lie at the root of much of our world’s ills. And in this same way, destruction is much easier and much quicker than construction. As Chuchill reflected, while surveying the smoldering rubble of East London after a Blitz: “To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.”