The price of modernity. Disentangling the source of modern terror

Disentangling the source of modern terror

By Ralf Wetzel, Professor of Organisation and Management at Vlerick Business School

The bloody advent of Al-Qaeda and, more recently, the so-called Islamic State has incited much and heated debate about the sources that evoke and feed modern terror. The main suspect so far has been religion, especially a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. The propagation and enforcement of its tenets seem to be an obvious cause. However, this is too short-sighted an explanation. Religion is certainly involved, but neither more or less than modern politics, law, or mass media. Modern terror tells us much more about the structure of the modern society and the side-effects of the over-simplifications we use on a daily basis than it does about any radical tendencies in religious beliefs. It is time to move beyond everyday simplifications and understand what there might be hiding behind.

The end of an ordered world

For the last fifteen years now ever more so than ever before, the West is being forced to decide about political and military interventions, while experiencing the constant risk of disaster. America is hesitant to get drawn in too close again into the quagmire of Iraq or Syria, while the actions that it does take have only limited impact. Europe is forced to decide whether to give weapons to the Kurds without knowing on which side of the front they will end up being used. The Kremlin supports local dictators, knowing full well that this might undermine its regional influence in the long run. Somehow, modern terror forces us to put aside the old distinctions that told us the lines along which the world is divided. For a long time, it was quite easy to tell Americans from Russians, democracy from stratified polities, the poor from the rich, deliberate intervention from sheer chaos, the ‘here’ of the West from the ‘there’ of the conflict zones, neo-liberals from left-wingers. All of that has collapsed to Western eyes as we witness the new battle for Iraq, the battle against the Islamic State. The classic order of this world has been broken time and again and, what is much more important, so has the moral code that attributes and distinguishes the good from the bad. It is as sub-complex as it is dangerous to still stick to the image of a liberal, enlightened West, threatened by some tribal, fundamentalist pre-nation states as well as astonishingly post-modern, agile militant networks. It does not do the problem justice. Let’s take the description of the problem to another level: We need to move beyond a worldview which understands the world as a biological body, in which everything has its place, and terror is just a happenchance disturbance, a kind of ‘infection’ indicating sickness in the body politic that just has to (and can) be healed. This metaphor does not help much.

The ‘event’ of terror and the structure of modern society

Terror attacks modern society, and it attacks it as a whole, not only its specific parts. Following Peter Fuchs, one of the strongest and most innovative developers of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory, it is a kind of protest against modernity, containing not merely the rejection, but the communicated end of communication. Terror rejects communication with the societal conditions that surround it. Probably the most frightening feature is its ‘blindness’, its undirected, furious rage which hits usually innocent people, meaning individuals who personally do not have any links to what happens some 2000 miles away, who individually did nothing specifically ‘wrong’ whichever vantage point one might apply. This rupture, this communicated termination is directed at a society that, according to German sociologist Niklas Luhmann can be characterized as a functionally differentiated society. Such a society is a network of communication, structured into heteronomous domains like economy, politics, law, science, arts, or mass media. Each of these functional domains consists of communication alone, not of people, and each provides a specific function (e.g. distributing scarce goods = economy, establishing collectively binding decisions = politics) for society. Each domain operates autonomously. By contrast to medieval or ancient times, modernity has lost its inner hierarchy, the primacy of a single observer, a role once fulfilled by religion in medieval Europe. Modernity has no centre. Triggering first the French and later the Industrial Revolution, functional domains like economy, politics, education, science, or law have replaced the hierarchy of different strata (aristocrats, guilds, slaves) that were dominant in earlier times. With this shift, another feature of the stratified order has been lost: modern society has no single representation anymore, no unifying institution which stands for society as a whole. Unlike medieval times, there is no god (or his earthly representative in the form of the pope) to whom communication could turn as a single representation of society. Someone to get in touch with, someone one could write a letter to. In other words, modern society cannot be directly accessed, the functional systems of politics or economy have no homogenic and unifying body anymore. There is nobody to contact or to vent one’s anger and frustration to. One can only reach and access organizations or individuals, who alone are still addressable. However, the organization of the European Commission, the State Department, or the headquarters of McDonalds are not fully unifying institutions of society. One could attack them, but one would only find the European Commission, the State Department or the McDonalds headquarters, not society as a whole. Terror communicates to modern society that it does not want to communicate with society. However, the communication of this rejection never reaches its intended audience. The fury of modern terror therefore rails mainly against the lacking addressability of modern society. It is built on the insight that attacking modernity directly in fact comes to - nothing. Since terror does not find an addressee, it attacks substitutes found in the environment of functional systems: innocent people, respectively their bodies. The core speculation of terror is that modern society is extremely sensitive in observing individuals and their bodies, and that all functional systems can become alarmed by the experience of innocent dead people. The fact that every (sic!) body (sic!) can become a target is what alarms almost all functional systems of modernity. This alarm takes place indirectly, and it takes advantage of one specific functional system: mass media.

The role of mass media

That terror, although confronted with the inaccessibility of its target, can nonetheless have impact happens for a reason. Modern society is an observed society, in which functional systems observe each other. One of the core functional systems providing self-observation in society is the system of mass media. This system is constantly engaged with the production of information, especially information that is new, emotional, and able to affect people in the environment of functional systems. The result of terror, the bleeding bodies, the buildings destroyed, the general outcry, together with the fury of the attack and the observable innocence of the victims, feed mass media like no other system. Terrorist attacks and their aftermath cannot be ignored by mass media. In this respect, modern terror rides the code of mass media. Terror itself is in this respect ‘modern’. It can be sure that this system will transform its substitutive work on bodies into the social language of society: Politics cannot ignore information spilled across society by mass media. Neither can law; neither can economics. Terror, as a modern system on its own, and mass media are structurally coupled; they feed and re-enforce the demands of each other. Both enable each other. Mass media is the interface through which terror irritates modern society. Even the attempts to respond to terror are, as such, bound to the logic of mass media. In this sense, they again feed the goal of terror.

And … religion?

All of this can operate without having to fall back to the one system that is regularly scapegoated as the source of terror: religion. However, religion might be as closely coupled with terror as mass media is, given its stratified internal order and the existence of formal representatives. Religion is a copy of the lost order of stratified society, the society that religiously flavoured terror in essence refers back to. The similarity of the internal structure of religion with a stratified society provides the semantics, the language that terror can start from. Clearly, this is not a feature of Islam alone. It is inscribed in nearly all religions. And in this respect, almost no religion is safe from becoming a resource or semantic for modern terror, however it eventually occurs.

So what?

All of this gives not much reason to hope for a quick solution. It seems as though terror has become a genuine feature of modern society. It might only become subject to change, once the structure, the differentiation of modern society changes. However, there are not many indications that this will happen any time soon. We might have to live with terror, whatever intervention strategy we can dream up. However, two things are needed to be set clear: The first is that the modern appearance of terror is not about religion in the first place. Terror is a reaction to a core feature of modern society, and religion is just one functional milieu giving source to its appearance. The second is that terror might become one functional milieu of its own to modernity. In this respect, it is a side effect of modern differentiation and it fuels it by its own means.

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