In the wake of terrorist attacks like Friday’s mass killings in Paris, we often call our enemies “barbarians.” They are not. Barbarians like the Vikings, Huns, and Xiongnu lived on the fringes of civilization and preyed on their richer and more settled neighbors. But they did not hate their victims. If fact, they often admired them and adopted their ways. The barbarians were not intolerant. Nor were they even immoral by the standards of their times, since few pre-modern societies condemned violence against outsiders. Barbarian raiders were just opportunists; looting and pillaging offered their fastest route to wealth.
Terrorism is altogether different. It’s a product of civilization, which in the last few centuries has bred ideologies so intolerant they would have baffled the barbarians and even the civilized people of earlier times. Intolerance has always played a role in the history of civilization, but it only grew into a major force during modern centuries — ironically just when the barbarian threat faded away, due to the power of artillery and other civilized weapons. Mass intolerance erupted across Europe during the 16th and 17th Centuries, leading to millions of deaths in wars over the proper interpretation of Christianity. Horror at those wars led to a love of tolerance that has grown since then, but not enough to prevent new eruptions of intolerance, like the Terror of the French Revolution, the Holocaust, Cambodia’s Killing Fields, the Rwandan Genocide — and countless smaller massacres, like 9/11 and Friday’s attacks on Paris. All this intolerance springs from civilization’s ideologies, both political and religious: fascism, communism, anarchism, nationalism, Islam, Christianity, white supremacy, and many others. It attracts people filled with hate, and it gives them an outlet.
The barbarians actually presented a far greater threat to civilization. Civilization was weaker in those days, and the barbarians were far more numerous than terrorists ever could be. Lots of people are opportunists, but very few are mentally ill enough or evil enough to be terrorists. So long as they have no weapons of mass destruction, the terrorists can never hurt us the way the barbarians once did.
But terrorism is still the enemy, and we need to understand it. That enemy is not a barbaric threat from outside the walls of civilization but rather intolerance from within.
PHOTO: The Eiffel Tower lit up at night, by Tryfon Kar, provided through Wikimedia Commons
© 2015 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.