Maybe the terrorist who killed Foley was a British subject, but there’s no way he was a ‘Westerner’

News reports such as this one challenge our convictions about citizenship and identity in a modern, pluralistic, liberal democracy:

The beheading of an American journalist at the hands of a London-accented extremist prompted deep reckoning among Britons on Wednesday over the particularly vicious role their countrymen are playing in the destabilization of the Middle East.

Security officials in London have been sounding the alarm for more than a year over the large number of foreigners in Syria, with the chief of Scotland Yard telling reporters last week that about 500 Britons are among the thousands of Westerners who have joined the fight….

I’ll confess right now that my first reaction is one that is unworthy of someone who prizes living in a pluralistic society. My first thought is, “That was no Englishman. That was a foreigner who had lived in England.”

But then, I have to correct myself: If Scotland Yard says there are “500 Britons” fighting for ISIS, then I have to take it to me that they hold British passports (I sincerely doubt that the Yard is referring to the old ethnic identity of Briton, as in the people who lived in Albion before the Angles and the Saxons showed up.)

And if they hold UK passports, then they are Brits. They are British subjects, with the same rights and privileges as Sir Paul McCartney or Hugh Laurie or David Cameron. That’s the way it is, and the way it should be. To say they are less English (or less British) than James Bond because they belonged to a culture that made them likely to become Islamist terrorists is to deny what separates us from the cultural fascists of ISIS.

However, all of that said… I still don’t see how they, or the 100 or so Americans among the terrorists, can be called “Westerners.” That implies a cultural orientation, one which these fighters categorically and viciously reject. Western culture is something they are against, presumably. They may hold passports from Western nations, but everything they are cries out against all that is Western — including our pious, correct insistence that legally, they are just as British as Monty Python.

Terrorists such as these challenge our vocabulary. We must choose our words carefully, as we are trying to define a new thing, a thing that if it had its way would kill us all. A decidedly unWestern thing…

31 thoughts on “Maybe the terrorist who killed Foley was a British subject, but there’s no way he was a ‘Westerner’

  1. Brad Warthen

    Wow, I thought THIS would surely draw comments.

    But I posted it in a dead time for blogging: 17:51.

    I find that blogs operate as though commenters were hourly workers punching a clock. Very 9-5, and don’t try to draw attention on a Friday, as everyone is in a rush to get to the beach…

    1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

      In a rich to get to the beach….I like that turn of autocorrect…

      We eat supper early here to accommodate rehearsals. If there is no rehearsal, I try to stay off the glow box after supper….

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yep, you can tell that was on the iPad. Which means I had been in a rich to get to the Club, from whence I typed this.

        White People’s Problems.

        You apparently are not addicted the way I am. I have my iPad with me at all times, and I never wonder about anything — I look it up immediately. When I watch a movie in the evening, it’s on my lap so that I can look up people in the movie on my IMDB app. And so forth.

        It’s definitely made me antisocial. I go to Member Appreciation on Wednesday nights at Cap City, telling myself I do so because, as a board member and member of the membership committee, I should show up at such things. But do I schmooze? No. I get a drink and take it to a quiet corner, and check comments and Twitter — and, as I did above, whine when there ARE no comments.

        When people come up to me and start a conversation (thinking I’m lonely or shy), I suppress the urge to snarl at them, and dutifully close the iPad and converse. I may even, if I’m in an expansive mood, ask them about themselves rather than just answering their questions about me. (I tend to look upon conversations in a utilitarian way. I assume people come up and ask me questions about myself because they want to know the answers. I’m always forgetting that they’re just doing it to be polite.)

        I usually find such interactions pleasant, and sometimes useful. But when I’m engaged in them, I’m OFF THE GRID! OUT OF TOUCH! So there’s some fidgeting…

  2. bud

    POTUS looked very angry at his press conference. I wouldn’t want to be a member of ISIL right now. I suspect the leaders of that group have a very short life expectancy.

      1. Mark Stewart

        There is no War on Terror. That is the most inane no sequitur ever.

        War has a tactical and strategic end. What we have is a Battle on Terror. Doesn’t sound as catchy? It isn’t – but its truthier.

        1. George Orwell

          It’s not a matter of whether the war is not real, or if it is, Victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia but to keep the very structure of society intact.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      I didn’t watch – just read the transcript.

      It didn’t come off as tough or bold. On the contrary, the transcript is fairly stale. He recited that bad guys had done bad things. Ok. Check. We know that, Sparky. We’re all up to speed on the background.

      He pretty much said obvious stuff. It wasn’t objectionable. It was just blah. Bland. Given that Obama can really punch up a good speech when he feels it’s the Right Moment, he clearly didn’t think this was the Right Moment to make his Big Speech. He voted present.

      He called ISIL’s ideology “bankrupt”. Yes, but he’d probably say that about conservatives, too. The whole speech just kind of seemed…meh.

      I also eye-rolled when I read this line: “People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy.”. Ok. Great. How passive is that?? Bad guys don’t fail on their own in a vacuum. Are we supposed to just sit around and wait for the moral arc of the universe to deal with these guys? If the moral arc of history is Obama’s big plan, then what the heck is he there for?

      And then he immediately went to play golf moments after the speech.

      I guess that makes sense, though. If Obama is confident that the good ol’ arc of the universe is going to take care of this situation, then why not get a nice little round of golf in while we wait for Father Time?

      1. Bart

        Actually Bryan, the transcript has more punch than the live speech did.

        Director: POTUS, stand before the teleprompter, have an angry look on your face and read what is placed in front of you.

        POTUS: Will it help to give the appearance of being in charge and scare the hell out of the IS guys?

        Director: Absolutely! See how well things are going in Syria, Libya, at the Mexican/American border to mention a few? You absolutely frighten the hell out of bad guys. Right now, Putin is cowering in a corner somewhere in a Moscow basement, sucking his thumb because he so afraid of what you will do if he doesn’t behave. So, get in there and give them hell!

        POTUS: After I give the speech, can I go back to Martha’s Vineyard and play more golf? And, for good measure, should I mention once again, its all George Bush’s fault?

          1. Bart

            Not defending Bush but after his little YouTube moment, he stopped playing golf, Obama seems to have increased his time on the golf course. By comparison, Jimmy Carter is not looking too bad right now when comparing him to either Bush or Obama. Well, maybe more comparison to Obama now that the news is out that an attempt to rescue the reporter in 2012 was not successful. The big difference this time is that the helicopters didn’t crash and lose several soldiers in the process.

          1. Bart

            POTUS: What the hell do you mean, I am still in Martha’s Vineyard? Where did you get your information? Do I have to find out everything that is going on by hearing it on the news or reading it in the press?

    2. Silence

      Yes, I suspect that he will sternly scold the leadership of ISIS, and if they do not listen, he will give them an even more severe scolding. Possibly he will issue a harshly-worded letter. If that is ineffective, he may put them on Double Secret Probation and ban them from having a float in this year’s Homecoming Parade.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        High-ranking sources within the Pentagon have confirmed that the US Military will conduct a massive airdrop of thoughts and prayers to the Kurdish Yazidis and Christians in northern Iraq.

        “Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby indicated that the thoughts and prayers would be airdropped from four C-5 Galaxy aircraft from the 337th Airlift Squadron, a component of the 439th Airlift Wing (the “Patriot Wing”), out of Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts.”

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, we’ve had a good discussion of the president’s speech. But does anyone want to engage the point I started with?

    There’s this Inner Bigot that I wrestle with at such moments, the one that wants to say, “That Abdullah what’s-his-name may speak English with a British accent, but he’s not a Brit! Michael Caine’s a Brit. Tony Blair’s a Brit. Petula Clark and Twiggy are Brits. In the realm of fiction, Austin Powers, James Bond and Andy Capp are Brits. This guy’s probably one of the foreigners that are all over London. Think of the line ‘London is full of Arabs” from ‘Oliver’s Army’ by Elvis Costello (a Brit if I ever heard one). This guy’s a…”

    And then I stop myself, because even my Inner Bigot is too refined to call him a “wog.”

    Anyway, he COULD be a blond, blue-eyed direct descendant of King Arthur who converted to radical Islam. We’ve seen such jihadists before.

    Those thoughts don’t last long, because within seconds my Superego gives my Inner Bigot a good talking-to, reminding him that we’re all about pluralism in the West, and a Brit is a Brit no matter where his ancestors are from or what culture he embraces.

    But… in the end, I have to object to this guy being called “Western” even if he looks and sounds just like John Cleese. Because he is at war with Western-ness. He may be a Brit, but he’s a non-Western Brit. Or perhaps “anti-Western Brit” is more to the point.

    Anyway, does no one else have such inner arguments?

    1. Bryan Caskey

      I’m not really having an inner struggle to figure out much about an ISIL jihadi who publicly murders an American. He’s a bad guy. I don’t care if he sounds like Mork from Ork.

      I think you’re wasting your time on this issue. Who cares about his accent? Britain can have bad guys, just like America can have bad guys . If this murderer is from the UK, then he’s a “Westerner” in terms of where he hails from. He’s certainly not a “Westerner” in terms of his mindset and ideology, but it’s certainly possible that he’s from some small little British hamlet.

      I get that it might disturbs you to believe that someone who hails from Great Britain could be seduced by the jihadist mindset, but evil doesn’t discriminate by political borders. I think you’re kind of in the same place where people who discover that their neighbor of many years is a twisted serial killer. And they say things like “Bob seemed so normal. He was always a fun guy at the neighborhood BBQ. I can’t believe he killed 53 people over the course of six years”.

      I think that’s your issue here. You don’t like the idea that bad guys can come from what is essentially our own neighborhood, and his accent constantly reminds you of that. And I kind of get that. It’s unsettling to think that this kind of evil can take hold in our neighborhood. It’s far more comforting to think that this is all something that happens way over THERE.

      Tell you what though, when an A-10 comes overhead and hits this piece of human garbage with its 30mm Gatling-style cannon, he’ll be dead. Then he won’t have an accent at all.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        No, that’s not my issue. It may be the issue that Brits are wrestling with. With me it’s more the idea of wrestling with the idea of identity, and whether we see people as included in a culture with which we identify.

        I identify with Brits. I’m part of that special club of Anglophone peoples, which as I say it sounds nationalistic in the sense of race and culture and ethnicity.

        This guy apparently is not, even if he once was…

        1. Silence

          Why do we feel the need to engage in taxonomy? This is the 21st century, people can decide for themeselves how to classify and group themselves. Identity politics is so 1990’s. Sure, these jihadists may have been born in Great Britain, but they have self identified with a radical islamist group.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Scene in an East End pub, some time back.

        “Oy, wotcher, Alfie?”

        “Not much, you?”

        “Oive been thinkin’ about poppin’ off to Syria, becomin’ a terrorist.”

        “‘ave you gone spare?”

        “No, I’m olroit. It’s just that there’s no work, and what wif the guv’ment cuttin’ back on the dole, and me old lady taking the piss outa me…”

        “All right, then. Time for another pint?”

        “Just the one. Then I’ve got to nip off…”

  4. bud

    All the snarky comments about POTUS pretty much illustrate the state of political discourse in this country. There is absolutely positively no way anything Obama does will EVER be construed in a positive light by those on the right. Just admit it righties you will not ever say anything positive about the man. He’s what is germane. POTUS is on vacation. He plays golf on vacation. All presidents go on vacation. Most presidents play golf. He interrupted his vacation to give a minor speech about a very important turn of events in the ME. That really should be the end of the analysis of this. But noooooo. The right-wingers go off this nonsensical smear campaign over absolutely nothing. Can’t we be a bit more constructive in our dialogue?

    1. Bart

      bud, your little temper tantrum about POTUS can easily be turned back on you during Bush’s years in the White House. Remember that you never had one damn good thing to say about Bush and it would have been just as easy for a Bush supporter to use the same words you used.

      “All the snarky comments about POTUS pretty much illustrate the state of political discourse in this country. There is absolutely positively no way anything “Bush” does will EVER be construed in a positive light by those on the right. Just admit it “lefties” you will not ever say anything positive about the man.”

      Now, disagree if you can.

    2. Bryan Caskey

      You’re right bud. We should be more constructive in our political discourse. I’ll say something nice you wouldn’t expect. I don’t think Obama will be rated that badly by historians.

      I think that when years go by, and we really have some perscpective, historians will rate Obama as “excellent” in three areas: Fundraising, Hanging out with Hollywood stars, and Improvement in his short game.

      You really can’t underestimate the value of a good short game.

  5. bud

    Are winning the war on terror? That is an even inane term than the war on poverty or the war on drugs. Poverty, drugs and terror will always be with us. Our best hope on any of these issues is to devise strategies that will contain and minimize the damage they do. I believe we have made some progress in combating poverty but there are so many issues and so much hostility toward the poor it’s only possible to make a limited amount of progress given the constraints. Heck we can even do something simple like accept Medicaid money.

    As for drugs, the mass incarceration of drug users was probably one of the worst policies our nation ever adopted. In many cases the prison time turned drug users into hardened criminals. And little if any progress was ever achieved reducing the actual use of drugs.

    As for the war on terror, our best bet is to completely withdraw our military assets from the region. We only stir up animosity. Right now that strategy would seem impossible but at some point we just need to bite the bullet and do the right thing. This never-ending cycle of bomb-retaliate-rinse and repeat is obviously not working. Let’s try the hands off approach. Can’t do any worse.

    1. Bart

      The war on drugs started 40 years ago under Nixon in a different time and different generation in charge. Live with it. The war on poverty was started 50 years ago by LBJ, again, a different time and different generation. The war on terror was declared on September 20, 2001 during Bush’s speech after 9/11. Again, a different time, and a different generation in charge. The war on terror was not started as some nebulous reaction to an isolated incident, it was started as a reaction to losing 3,000 innocent lives by terrorist’s actions. Lives from other countries were lost on the same day.

      While the words, “war on terror”, may not be accurate and should be changed to a constant “battle against terror” as Mark pointed out, burying our heads in the sand and pulling back from the rest of the world is not an option. No one wants another world wide shooting war but at some point, bastards who cut heads off and threaten to do more of the same should be hunted down and dealt with like the terrorists they really are. Ignoring IS is a fool’s errand and in doing so, eventually it will come back and bite us in the butt because as long as there is an extremist element of the Muslim religion that is willing to sacrifice 100 to get just 1 of us, the battle will never end.

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