century ago, an Italian fascist named Benito Mussolini consolidated his grip on power by creating a militia largely comprised of semi-illiterate thugs on the fringes of society. Some were petty thieves, others active criminals, but all inhabited the vast and poor hinterlands that separated high society from its unwashed dregs. Mussoloni gave his recruits a uniform, a cause, a common language — violence — and truncheons to make their brawny orders count. He conferred them with immediate authority, boosting the self-esteem of men who had never before known it. They acted with ferocity and zeal. The understood less about the cause of fascism than their own uniformed ennobling, which they took seriously. Suddenly, the bullies of Italy’s underworld had rank and status: they were Black Shirts.
The methods and tactics adopted by Islamic extremism, accounting for massive changes in the ways and means of communication, are very much in that vein. Extremists use a cause and ennoble those willing to participate in its carrying out, wherever it is. It is a global militia of thugs and the disenchanted largely held together by promises of glory and the means to make that glory come true, or seem to. The West’s Islamic have-nots — and they are many, in immovably secular France and elsewhere — are a militia for the molding in the same way as Italy’s malformed lumpen world served Mussolini’s ends in the 1920s.
A malcontent in Marseilles is no less likely to join the holy Islamic resistance than a bicycle thief and bully in Salerno sign up to wield a club. Though the latter also got a uniform, the former gets a plan, often a spectacular one, that ends in disruption, attention and death by martyrdom, a prospect that has its charm when middle class notions of life options are bankrupt and little about the future seems worth waiting for when compared to the potential excitement of something enacted in the stirred-up now. Unlike Mussolini’s malingerers, suicide militants may have nothing but one blunt mission, but they do have that, and its planning taps the depths of adrenalin and folly — the roller coaster fuel that can push human thrill past all limits.
Those who stop caring about their place in the social order or have come to believe the social order is meaningless, corrupt or a tool of their own enslavement will absorb persuasive alternatives. They fall quickly into the thrall of any chant in which they think they hear their name.
Mussolini’s Black Shirts were collectively made into the enforcers of a new order dependent on rigid compliance. They were not recruited as diplomats. They knew intimidation. The rest followed naturally — as did taking orders from other bullies.
Islamic extremists seeking to make a similar splash but lacking a functional army and commando units fights its wars by proxy, latching on to impressionable candidates the world over and giving them a different kind of purpose and uniform, exalting single acts of disruption as “victories” in a larger war and placing those responsible for the disruptions on pedestal, albeit briefly. Out of nowhere, the oddball from Nice is plowing a weapons-laden truck through a crowd. He’ll be dead before he knows it, but he’s won, a life “affirmed” through vengeful thrill (his perspective) or barbaric savagery (the perspective of the society whose people he’s bludgeoned).
Barring Muslims or passing restrictive legislation on religious beliefs is all well and good — it sounds loud, menacing and appropriately reactionary — but nothing changes the existence of militias in the wings, awaiting someone to tell them they’re worth something despite their life station, someone to encourage them to wear a “uniform” for a day, the last day.