hantom pain occurs when a confused brain sends messages to severed limbs, rejecting the idea that the appendages are gone and leaving the victim in the thrashing throes of rage and despair.
Carry this mournful paradigm into the political and social arena and some of today’s seething extremism makes sense. For centuries, war and war alone purged pent-up rage and despair, paving the way for the reflection and contrition that followed — until urge to fight rose up again. War provided catharsis, repaired economies and made for wantonness that could later be regretted and repaired. The cycle lasted centuries and carried over even into the age of enlightened progress in which wholesale slaughter ostensibly had no place. But it found one.
The so-called Great War wiped out a generation. The second killed 50 million and wiped out cities. Europe’s post-war 20th-century was based on the idea that future urges to scratch at war’s old scab should be rebuffed and suppressed. The advent of nuclear weapons hinted the next war, if it occurred, would be the last. Literal and figurative states of compromise were established. If they fought at all, big states did so in small ways, to take back canals, to stem independence movements, to defang terrorism in former colonies.
What the postwar checks and balances failed to account for was a resurgence of phantom pain — which now amounts to a wrenching feeling that something’s missing and needs filling in, a filling once resolved, however paradoxically, through the old processes of wreckage and repair. Elders who miss war and newer generations deprived of it entirely miss the national (and personal) belonging belligerence is imagined to have made whole. They feel left out a fabric they feel is torn.
This populist mood coursing through Europe arises not only from a dislike of leaden establishments and disdain for immigrants but also from what might be labeled conflict Unquenched rage has no downspout.
In the past, such wars were presaged by a rise of dictators who transformed language into a howl. Demagogues excitedly took center stage. The rule of law was often abridged or suspended (in Nazi Germany, in Fascist Italy) to allow aroused and arousing leaders to acquire commanding powers (witness Turkey now). Armies were placed on flag-waving parade. War, often based on inane excuses, followed almost invariably.
Now, in the third full generation without major conflict, nostalgia for the rip-and-rest past is at a peak. People ache to reacquire an identity they’re convinced they’ve lost: once it was to Jews, now it’s to Islamic intrusion. They want some one or some entity to sweep away the cobwebs and return to the proven methods of cleansing hostility, ready to later regret what they’ve done. Whether the right or the left drives the fight ultimately matters less than scratching the itch.
At the same time, no one wants such agitation to affect generalized affluence — since despite real economic distress Europe is closer to possessing a pan-national middle class life than at any time in its querulous history. Few are starving. All own phones. And though most want more and better satisfaction, the language of breakage now prevails over that of construction.
All of which gives phantom pain greater leverage. Pain demoralizes and enrages. Those who feel it will do anything to make it stop, with demolishing coming first, since it’s easiest.
So it is that the extremism swirling through Europe reflects a desire to fill in unsatisfactory blank that is peacetime. If Islamist fighters are willing to indulge primeval violence, why shouldn’t their infidel adversaries meet the challenge? Why shouldn’t Europe grow back legs it charged forward with for centuries, until of course they were severed by brutality itself.
But legs don’t grow back, leaving only the aggressive pain of remembered jaunts. The “new” post-war, which is to say life without war, also means pining for a time when it still had limbs to lose.