TCS Daily

Killing for Recognition

By Max Borders - March 22, 2006 12:00 AM

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."[1] 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

[1] 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.



How do Israelis feel about all this?
Penitents and rogue bulls
Haaretz (Israel), March 22, 2006

...Among those turning their backs on Bush -- and it is important to take note of this -- are the leading lights of the neoconservative movement, starting with William F. Buckley Jr., and in his wake such prophets of the conservative right as George Will, Francis Fukuyama, Bruce Bartlett, Andrew Sullivan and others. They gave Bush political and ideological cover, and now they are taking both away from him. BUCKLEY AND HIS COHORTS ARE OPENLY REPENTING and admitting that they both erred and misled when they enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq. And, even more lethally, they are also beginning to FIND FAULT WITH THE PRESIDENT'S PERSONAL INTEGRITY and public credibility.

Here (in Israel), meanwhile, nobody is repentant. While the war in Iraq was not our war, nonetheless, all THOSE WHO SOWED AN ENORMOUS PANIC HERE WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN OR FORGIVEN. They sent an entire country into panic and explained with signs and wonders the profit and gains that Israel would reap from a war of the children of light against the children of darkness.

It is not the people who are wrong who are most dangerous. Who does not make mistakes? THE REALLY DANGEROUS PEOPLE ARE THOSE WHO ARE WRONG BUT DO NOT ADMIT THEIR MISTAKES and refuse to take responsibility for them. Those who insist like donkeys on sticking to their mistakes are like the rogue bull that has already gored three times, even though its owner was warned each time to tie him up.

just misunderstood
I'm sure the ACLU is busy crafting the "Allah is my Co-Pilot" defense for the poor, misunderstood fella.

Flipside of the "thymic urge" theory
Shame, guilt and the Muslim Psyche

Baghdad Bob tries again
Obviously Mr. Hampton has never lerned the definition for insanity when he continues to inflict his sock puppet act on us. But he remains on a level with Charlie Sheen.

Israel goes to the Polls
TJ, outside of Likud most Israelis do not see things your way. Don't believe me? Just watch the election:

Israel Goes to the Polls
Featuring Yaaron Deckel
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 22, 2006

The weakening campaigns of Labor and Likud have virtually ensured that Olmert will head the next government. Israelis have shown that they do not trust Labor Party leader Amir Peretz because of his lack of experience, and THEY DO NOT TRUST LIKUD LEADER and former Israeli prime minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU because of his experience ... Netanyahu’s strategy is based on portraying support for Kadima as support for the 1967 ceasefire lines, but his recent efforts to establish a bloc -- with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultraorthodox Shas -- before the elections was a mistake. A more beneficial strategy for both Netanyahu and Peretz would have been to brand themselves not as potential winners, but as potentially influential partners in a Kadima-led government.

Mr. Deckel is a leading political analyst in Israel and Washington correspondent for Israel Television and Israel Radio.

Hampton remains Zero for Zero on the prediction business
Love to see you at the races given your prediction record here.

Walk the Talk
For the record, I expect Kadmia to win 30-32 seats and Likud to finish third with 13-16 seats. What is YOUR prediction TJ?

I'll take that bet
Just another wishful fantasy. I wouldn't hazard an exact prediction on an Israeli election when I wouldn't do so on an American election. But your prediction has about as much chance as the dhimmiecrats taking both houses this year.

I'll say this much for you, you're consistent and make a great contrary indicator.

Hungry for Crow?
If anything, Kadima will win MORE seats than I predicted, not less. So if you want to back out, now is your chance:

Israel's Olmert says only parties who support West Bank pullouts will join his government
AP, March 23, 2006

...The latest polls indicate that Kadima will easily win Tuesday's election, but not command enough seats in the 120-member parliament to go it alone.

KADIMA WOULD GET 36 SEATS, three less than in last week's survey, according to a Dahaf poll published in Yediot. Labor gained two seats to 21, and Likud dropped one seat to 14...

Why would I deprive you of your diet
Your record for predictions is known to all here. As an expert in dining on crow and surviving on this diet there is aboslutely no reason why you should in anyway be discouraged from continuing your diet.

Bon appetit!

What's your beef?
I really don't understand your point in this thread. For example, you called me Baghdad Bob for pointing out that the neo-con view of Iraq is not popular in Israel. You've also implied that Kadima will not win the most seats in the upcoming election.

So what is it, TJ -- do you think that the majority of Israelis favor Likud? What's your beef?

Where's your beef goes Baghdad Bob?
Gee you sounded this line when you said before the war that Americans opposed invading Iraq? You'll never learn that you can't lie and get away with trying to tell the world its the truth. It just doesn't work for you. Must be the amount of BS you see fit to lard your posts with.

1, 2, 3
One, you're attributing to me things I never said.

Two, I didn't start posting to TCS until summer/fall of 2004 -- after the war started.

Three, you didn't answer my question. What is your complaint about my writing that Israelis will vote for Kadmia over Likud?

Yeah we can remember all the predictions and your aliases
Please don't insult our intelligence here. Its sad how many times you have been caught in your lies and have had to had them pointed out to you. Why not just talk with Eric, he is your intellectual match.

Final Results
To refresh your memory, I predicted, "Kadmia to win 30-32 seats and Likud to finish third with 13-16 seats."

Final Results
The Jerusalem Post, March 29, 2006

These results are based on a count of 99% of the ballot. The final official count is still to be released.

28 seats - Kadima
20 seats - Labor
13 seats - Shas
12 seats - Yisrael Beitenu
11 seats - Likud

Like wow
Was anyone prediciting a Likud viuctory? You called a win but missed on the margins. Its like a bet on a football and taking plus 6 and making plus won. Your bookie won you lose.

You're consistent.

'Just another wishful fantasy'
TJ, how does my prediction square with your comment that it was "Just another wishful fantasy. I wouldn't hazard an exact prediction on an Israeli election when I wouldn't do so on an American election. But your prediction has about as much chance as the dhimmiecrats taking both houses this year."

What in particular of my prediction did you find so objectionable -- that Kadima would win the most seats? that Likud would win so few?

That your arrogance was on full display
And remains for all to see. As if you had predicted snow was comming in December. Now what exactly was so remarkable given that no one had everpredicted that any other party would win? Are we supposed to be in awe of an idiot who never got the specifics right. Come on exactly what is it we are supposed to be in awe of here.

You want to surprise is all tell exactly what the November results will be. I bet you can't even get the the side that actually cvontrols the House and the Senate right.

Come on ace lets see what you have to say. You know everyone will remember the day after election day and they won't be saying how bright you are.

Your ignorance begat arrogance

TJ, it was you who quipped "Hampton remains Zero for Zero on the prediction business" after I had posted a message that, "outside of Likud most Israelis do not see things your way. Don't believe me? Just watch the election."

Apparently you wanted to take my bet that Kadima would win the most seats and Likud would win so few because you thought I was a fool. So you see, TJ, the arrogance is yours alone, based on your ignorance of Israeli society.

Jackass braying
Can't read can you? I said I'd make no prediction though it was fairly clear what the outcome would be. As usual you demonstrate the arrogance of old who predicts the morn and expects kkudos.

I've given you a simple challenge ace. Now you can exercise those fantastic mental skills and cognitive abilities which you have amply demonstrated with all sort of dire predictions with the usual record of accuracy you are famous for.

What say ace which party will win the house; the senate; and by what margins.

Just so we can compare it in November. Now why is it that your braying has suddenly stopped? Such arrogance suits you. It is what we expect of a little man.

Caught you
Just a few days ago you told me -- and I quote -- "your prediction has about as much chance as the dhimmiecrats taking both houses this year."

But now you claim that "it was fairly clear what the outcome would be."

Make up your mind TJ

I used language that was too harsh
The election was not in doubt but predicting foreign elections is a joke since they are nevre correct as yours demonstrated. I have asked you repeatedly to demonstrate your abilities in a straight forward way.

Your failure to respond to an objective and fair request can be judged by all who read this site and remembered for next time you bray.

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