Telling are the faces of radical Islam: The dark unrest on the eyes of Moktada al Sadr; the unresolved rage in the countenance of Zacharias Moussaoui; the faces in a crowd of Palestinians burning a flag. By contrast, consider the strange placidity on the face of Osama Bin Laden. The arrogance of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Or the smirk of Taheri-azar as he walked into a North Carolina courtroom...
Dispatcher: I understand that you told me that the reason you did this is in your bedroom, but can you tell me why you did this?
Caller: It really is to punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world.
Dispatcher: So you did this to punish the government?
Caller: Yes sir....
This is an excerpt from the 911-exchange between Mohammed Taheri-azar and an operator, shortly after the former had driven his SUV into a group of students near the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The stated reason for Taheri-azar's action was to "punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world."
But the reasons behind someone's actions often go deeper than what is stated. Actions often have a dual nature, that is, of outcomes and motivations.
"Punishing" the US government by harming innocents, however symbolic or misguided -- has to do with outcomes. But what impelled Mr. Taheri-azar to drive an SUV into a group of innocent students? Whether or not he can actually articulate his motivations is unclear. But I believe he was driven -- like other would-be murderers that lurk in the spaces between civilizations -- by something more than an ideology that sanctions murder. He was motivated, at least in part, by an identity complex.
Call it: the "desire for recognition" or the "thymic urge." Consider this description from Francis Fukuyama:
"Thymos is something like an innate human sense of justice; people believe that they have a certain worth, and when other people act as though they are worth less -- when they do not recognize their worth at its correct value -- they become angry. The intimate relationship between self-evaluation and anger can be seen in the English word synonymous with anger, "indignation". "Dignity" refers to a person's sense of self-worth; "in-dignation" arises when something happens to offend that sense of worth."
When Fukuyama argued that only liberal democracy could sufficiently control the thymic urge in people, he was mostly right. Our institutions can peacefully channel most of the facets of that urge -- the envy, the vainglory, the clannishness, the pride. That's because the bases of self-respect are preserved effectively in societies that place a higher value on the individual rights. No society is perfect. But liberal democracies tend -- generally -- to have relatively peaceful populations because their institutions jibe with any individual's sense of self-worth.
Where Fukuyama erred was in suggesting that the passage of events would write the victory of liberal society into the book of historical inevitability. Our liberal institutions do provide a peaceful concord in which individuals can have both peace and dignity simultaneously. But Fukuyama underestimated one remaining, post-Cold War ideology that was ready to be animated by that desire for recognition -- an ideology that would allow the thymic urge to burn out of control, rather than channel it into productive ends.
Despite the boldness of his claims about the end of history, we should credit Fukuyama with having revisited the concept of thymos. More importantly, however, we should pick the idea up and start to dissect it a little; as currently it's pretty vague. Much of that vagueness comes in the fact that the phenomenon may be elusive to some degree. But we cannot fail to acknowledge that it exists. Parsing some distinctions may bring clarity:
- How the desire for recognition manifests itself in someone's actions is a matter of degree. The ways in which a person might lash out in order to be acknowledged can fall on a continuum from weak to strong. To gain recognition, one might compete in sports. Or he might shoot up a school. In other words, the thymic urge doesn't always have to manifest itself violently, but when it does it certainly gets our attention.
- It is useful to touch on the individualist/collectivist distinction as it relates to the thymic urge. Radical Islam operates mostly under collectivist assumptions, which means Islamists are feeling something like: "acknowledge us." Thus, Islamists tend to think groupishly and often emerge from societies that operate more under a theocratic "we" than the Western "me." Alternatively, a serial killer or an Eric Rudolph might be considered more individualist in his desire for recognition, even though the latter purported to be killing in the name of unborn babies. They think more like: "acknowledge me."
The UNC student terrorist Taheri-azar was probably operating from a mixture of both individualist ("acknowledge me") and collectivist ("acknowledge us") desires for recognition. But since most terrorists operate under more collectivist thymic urges, membership in the army of Allah is a way of getting recognition for one's people. The individual identity of any jihadi is secondary to his membership in a terror-group. But the underlying force is the need to be acknowledged -- the "self-esteem" of a people, as it were. The feeling that accrues to one as a member of a group, seems to suffice for a replacement for self-esteem given that identification with his group is so strong. This fact is sad to Westerners who place a higher value on their own individual values and feel that their institutions support them in doing so. But a jihadi somehow finds self-worth in the collective.
I make the distinction between individual and collective not to create hard and fast categories, but to show that the urge can take different forms. And when it comes to Islamic radicalism, we must understand that those who are attracted to the ideology end up losing their own identities in mass fundamentalist movements that are born out of something like a grand inferiority complex.
In trying to understand our enemies, some argue that "they hate our policies." Others believe they "hate our freedoms." Both of these assertions have a modicum of truth, but hatred is not enough. A strong, collectivist thymic urge is one in which people will go to great lengths to quell a feeling of envy or sense of inferiority. For some in the Islamist world, OBL is a Saladin -- a holy warrior who symbolizes not only a struggle against the West, but one who can command respect from decadent Western nations who consider those in the Arab world backwards and barbaric. Bin Laden comes to represent them.
Could a new focus on the collective desire for recognition change our foreign policy choices? It's not as if the US government can become one big self-esteem-building seminar to the world.
Maybe it's enough to realize that our worldview is irreconcilable with theirs -- and that we will either have to change them or kill them. Fukuyama's latest views notwithstanding, maybe the neoconservative agenda of spreading liberal democratic institutions by all available means is the only hope for reshaping the radical Muslim identity, channeling the urge, and creating institutions that diffuse a sense of self-loathing-by-comparison. Maybe not.
Either way, the force of thymos is one we should consider broadly at first, then view analytically, and then attempt to observe in its real-world manifestations. One need only think about the way one's own self-concept affects one's well-being to realize what such forces could mean on the scale of a whole people. And, of course, it's easy simply to agree with a naked ideology -- but when an ideology is fueled by the most basic of human desires, it can turn people into killers.
Max Borders is the Managing Editor of TCSDaily.com.
 Francis Fukuyama described this in The End of History and the Last Man -- one that Kojève identified before Fukuyama, Hegel before Kojeve, Hobbes before Hegel, and Plato before Hobbes.