The last decade and a bit has consisted of two arcs: terrorism and superheroes. The world is now intimately familiar with both al-Qaeda and minor Marvel/DC intellectual property. There’s a fair bit of crossover – in the summer of 2001 I spent about a month and a half in the US, and happened to see the Spiderman trailer a month or so before 9/11 after which it was pulled for obvious reasons. A little over a decade later (two days back), I saw The Avengers, and I was slightly gobsmacked at the quantity of knowing (or unknowing) references to 9/11 in it. What struck me most about the film were the numerous Alan Moore references, which I’m sure were conscious on Joss Whedon’s part. If you don’t know who Alan Moore is, you might be familiar with the Watchmen film that was released a couple of years back (which butchered significant sections of the comic), or, visually, the iconic “Anonymous” mask is his work, from V is for Vendetta (also a great work butchered in film). In short, a recluse comic book author’s dystopian take on the concept of superheroes is now filtering through into the biggest hollywood blockbusters.
Here I’m going to make the argument that people writing about lone wolf terrorists should get a cup of tea/coffee and read up on Alan Moore. I understand that comics aren’t for everyone, even though Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is one of the best works of literature, full stop, IMHO. Moore is important because in Marvelman/Miracleman, he made the direct connection between the concept of a ‘superhero’ and Nietzsche/Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘superman’. He also made the corollary argument that rather than awe, or comedic anger, the correct societal response to such persons should be abject fear. In The Avengers, a major plot point hinges on the fact that ‘normal’ human society has no defence against superheroes. Echoing the pinnacle of Moore’s work on Marvelman, the denouement to the Avengers film references 9/11 memory walls in memory of the ordinary people killed in the crossfire when superheroes fight (there was plenty of framing dialogue about ‘containing’ the bad guys, but hey…). It wasn’t quite the climax of Moore’s work on Marvelman (in which the narrating ‘good’ protagonist admits to using a car full of innocent people as a weapon against the ‘evil’ supervillain) but the point stands – innocent people die when superheroes fight.
I think that superheroes happen to be an important way of thinking about ‘lone wolf’ terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh or Anders Breivik. A single person, capable of unleashing terrible force/changing the planet etc. Nietzsche was talking about Supermen as persons unbounded by the morality of the herd, Moore made the point that persons capable of unleashing terrible force should be an object of worry, regardless of whose side they happen to be on, and furthermore, there’s no reason to think that they might agree with ‘our’ way of thinking. Lone wolf terrorists are persons that are capable of unleashing terrible force, unbounded by the standards of a given society. In essence, they’re one part Nietzsche, one part Moore – dangerous and worrying despite lacking the funky Ironman suit or hammer of Thor.
Terrorism studies tends to situate itself in the level of organisations: networks of terrorists versus the state. More important, I think, is the relationship between the individual and the collective. This is one of the ‘deep’ questions of political philosophy. Reading Hobbes and Locke etc, one of the clear assumptions is that the balance of power is fundamentally stacked against the individual, at the most brute level, individuals might be able to use force, but in the face of the collective, or state, they are powerless, hence the need for rights, and arguments regarding the authority of sovereigns (the embodiment of the collective). There are challenges to this, in the form of assassins and first wave anarchists, but in reality, the state system is a giant boot, and individuals are ants. When the gloves ‘come off’, states can do terrible, terrible things to a person. The narrative of the lone individual against such a bureaucracy (see 1984, A Brave New World et al) is powerful for this reason. But what happens when this fundamental relationship is altered?
What is important about lone wolf terrorists, and, for similar reasons, movements such as anonymous, is that we’re sliding towards a world of ‘supermen’, and it’s not a pretty sight. The “Don’t tread on me” idea is relatively harmless when espoused by half baked survivalists defending bunkers in the Adirondack mountains against the IRS, but not so great when a single dissenting voice can shut down planet-wide infrastructure (see Paypal, Visa), or kill a significant amount of people (see McVeigh, Breivik). What happens when these individuals or small groups start going to war? There have been nods towards this in the real world (remember the Anonymous ‘vs’ the Mexican cartels hoax a while back?) but the worst is yet to come. What happens when Anonymous pisses off some criminal black hat hackers? What if another Breivik provokes a violent response from a similar type on the ‘other side’? In either case, lots of innocent people are going to get caught in the crossfire (admittedly, the Anonymous thing likely wouldn’t end in physical violence). The fundamental point of these people is that a single person with sufficient motivations can develop the skills to perform an act (likely one time, but there’s the Unabomber to think about) which horrifies the majority, and there’s little that our existing governmental architecture can do to prevent this.
What does the world, let alone a democracy, look like when a single dissenting voice, or small group of voices, can override (not simply be protected from) the will of the majority? If there’s one aspect of this that I’m certain of, it would have little to do with the existing literature on freedom and liberty, regardless of hue, be it Paine, Godwin or Marx. At the moment, democracy/society works by protecting individuals from the majority, but by exluding minority positions (see anarcho-primitivism as much as white power thugs) that most people disagree with. The whole ‘Occupy’ consensual decision making is fine, when working within a shared framework of people that want to talk to one another, but where would common ground be found in a discussion between UKIP and the left-er sections of the Labour party? The simple answer is that it wouldn’t – if fifty million people had a veto, the country would stop working. What worries me most about Breivik and Anonymous isn’t their particular ideology or goals, but what they represent – the forceful veto of the individual on the collective outside the democratic process.