Timor mortis and responding to Islamic State

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Timor mortis conturbat me‘ – the fear of death disturbs me. These words, from the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church, first became a literary device in medieval times, bracketing human follies and fears within the ambit of our common mortality.

That disturbance of our psyches plays a more significant part in the exercise of terror and our responses to it than we may like to admit.

I defy anyone to claim that they were not disturbed, and to some extent unhinged, by the scale and enormity of what had been done in the days and weeks after 9/11. Shortly after the flight ban which followed the attacks had been lifted, I experienced something which will never leave me. A large jet aircraft flew over the streets of a small East Anglian town, at a lower altitude than is the norm. Every single one of us in that street stood stock still and looked up in fear.

The fear was irrational – the security precautions which had been enacted at that time had probably made aircraft movements safer than they had ever been – but the dismantling of any sense of security and normality went very deep. We felt vulnerable to a fanaticism which cared as little for the lives of its own adherents as for those of its victims. That is the theory and practice of terror. We have to learn from that overthrowing of our balance.

We know what resulted from the derangement. ‘Shock and Awe’; the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents; the hollowing out of a country’s civil structures and infrastructures without thought for what would be put in their place; the sowing of the despair and hatred which grows into nihilism and violence without boundaries.

Islamic State is both the terrible fruit of that madness and the begetter of further fearful reaction. The savagery of its actions is appalling and induces in us the same response which leaves little room for analysis or rational, moral thinking. The parliamentary debate last Friday (26 September) was of poor quality. Anecdote was piled on outrage as though anyone still needed to be informed of the crimes against humanity which are being committed by IS fighters. The Prime Minister majored on making our flesh creep with warnings of an extremist caliphate on the borders of Europe but had little intelligent analysis to offer. Among the voices opposed to bombing, Green MP Caroline Lucas was quietly rational while George Galloway shouted so loudly as to be inaudible.

The blunt instrument of airstrikes carried out by western powers plays into the Great Satan narrative of extremist Islamism. It has been pointed out that since the US began its bombing campaign in August, IS has recruited over 6000 new fighters. Rebel commanders on the ground in Syria report that the majority of these new recruits are between 15 and 20 years of age, have never been involved in armed conflict before and that local support for the jihadists is increasing. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20875).

We are in danger of falling into a mindset which which sees IS as a juggernaut which is almost unstoppable. There has been little discussion of restricting the ease with which young zealots can cross the Turkish border or of how they can be ‘de-briefed’ and enabled to turn their peers away from such terrible brutality when they return home disillusioned, their youthful idealism betrayed by the horror they have experienced. Nor has much thought apparently been given to the inevitable entropy of a grouping such as IS, which will certainly come, however much it may currently be transfixing us by its barbaric actions and astute media propaganda. Like Al-Quaeda and the Taliban, lslamic State will eventually begin to split, fragment and present a far less monolithic appearance. We need to be taking action now that will hasten this and which will make us effective in managing its aftermath.

If we are to make any lasting contribution to tackling the threat posed by Islamic State, it must be by enabling a regional solution. To that end, Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, a former army officer and deputy governor of an Iraqi province, has called for “large, knowledgeable, energised teams on the ground working through these issues minute by minute.” He seems a lone voice.

Because all armed conflicts end in negotiation, it makes sense to wind back a concept of what that might entail to the present time. IS may currently appear far beyond any such dialogue but that does not mean that engagement to this end cannot be made with other regional actors.

If we permit ourselves to be literally frightened out of our wits by terrorism, we will have acknowledged its supremacy.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen