On New Year’s Eve some friends and family members had a drink at a bar in Tel Aviv. The next day a gunman shot up the place, killing two people and wounding at least five. When I heard about the shooting I was horrified, of course, but there was no special emotion caused by the proximity 16 hours before.
These days we all live at risk of random terror, whether we are in Paris, San Bernardino, Boston or Fort Hood. Many of us have had brushes with these sorts of attacks. It’s partly randomness that determines whether you happen to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
But there is something important about the accumulation of these random killing sprees — the way it affects the social psychology and the culture we all inhabit. We are living in the age of small terror.
In Israel there’s the wave of stabbings. In this country we have shooting sprees in schools and in theaters. In cities there are police killings. In other places there are suicide bombings. This violence is the daily diet of the global news channels.
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Many of the attacks have religious or political overtones. But there’s always a psychological element, too. Some young adults have separated from their parents but they have not developed an independent self of their own. To escape the terror of their own formlessness or insignificance, a few commit to some fanatical belief system. They perform some horrific act they believe will give their life shape, meaning and glory. Creeds like radical Islam offer the illusion that murder and self-annihilation is the noblest form of sacrifice.
These self-motivated attacks have become a worldwide social contagion. These diverse acts of small terror have combined to create a general state of anxiety.
Fear is an emotion directed at a specific threat, but anxiety is an unfocused corrosive uneasiness. In the age of small terror this anxiety induces a sense that the basic systems of authority are not working, that those in charge are not keeping people safe.
People are more likely to have a background sense that life is nastier and more precarious — red in tooth and claw. They pull in the tribal walls and distrust the outsider. This anxiety makes everybody a little less humane.
In country after country this anxiety is challenging the liberal order. I mean philosophic Enlightenment liberalism, not partisan liberalism. It’s the basic belief in open society, free speech, egalitarianism and meliorism (gradual progress). It’s a belief that through reasoned conversation values cohere and fanaticism recedes. It’s the belief that people of all creeds merit tolerance and respect.
These liberal assumptions have been challenged from the top for years by dictators. But now they are challenged from the bottom, by populist anti-liberals who support the National Front in France, UKIP in Britain, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia and, in some guises, Donald Trump in the U.S.
The surge of anti-liberalism has meant one of the most important political fissures is now between those who support an open society and those who support a closed society. Back in the 1990s, openness and the withering of borders was all the rage, but now parts of the left embrace closed trade policies and parts of the right embrace closed cultural and migration policies.
Anti-liberalism has been most noticeable on the right. Classically liberal conservatives are in retreat, as voters look for strongmen who will close borders and stultify the demographic and social fabric. It’s too soon to tell if the Republican Party will have fewer evangelical voters this year, but the tenor of debate has certainly been less Christian — less charitable, less hospitable to the stranger.
It’s up to us who believe in open society to wage an intellectual counterattack. This can’t be done by repeating 1990s bromides about free choice and the natural harmony among peoples. You can’t beat moral fanaticism with weak-tea moral relativism.
You can only beat it with commitment pluralism. People are only fulfilled when they make deep moral commitments. The danger comes when they are fanatically committed to only one thing.
The pluralist is committed to a philosophy or faith, but also to an ethnicity and also to a city, and also to a job and also to diverse interests and fascinating foreign cultures. These different commitments balance and moderate one another. A life in diverse worlds with diverse people weaves together into one humane, multifaceted existence. The rigidity of one belief system is forced to confront the messiness of work relationships or a neighborhood association.
The anxiety caused by small terror can produce nasty mental habits. Mental resilience becomes as important as physical resilience. That means remaking the case for open society, open cultures and a basic commitment to moral pluralism. Openness is worth the occasional horror fanatics cause.