‘If you want to strike at the sinful west, you pick a Friday night. While devout Muslims are fresh from prayer, young Parisian non-believers are knocking back the booze’, wrote Roger Boyes, diplomatic editor at The Times, on 17 November. ‘Islamic State killers made their point about a clash of civilisations: frustrated young men ready to blow up revellers of a similar age because they are seen as representatives of a corrupt society in terminal decline.’
As with much of the commentary about the Paris attacks, you have to wonder who is making what point here. The killers apparently had enjoyed their own share of Friday-night revelling, before deciding that the road to virtue lay in mowing down as many members of the public as possible. And it wasn’t only young people they set out to murder: families at restaurants, the crowds at the Stade de France… Anyone who happened to be in that part of Paris would do.
Still, the death toll at the Bataclan has focused attention on the youth of many of the casualties. ‘It was my generation’, said a young woman interviewed by BBC News during the commemorations on Monday. ‘Last Friday in Paris was the slaughter of the young by the young’, wrote Alice Thomson in The Times. And there will be something to say about the generational character of the Islamic State and the reaction to it among Western youth: even if it remains unclear exactly what that is.
Young people, not older people, are travelling from Britain, France, Belgium and other parts of Europe to join IS. To understand what drives them to Syria, you would need to know something about IS, which few commentators really do. To understand what drives them away from, and against, the nations in which they grew up, you would have to recognise the depth of the crisis of Western values, which few commentators are prepared to do.
Instead, those who are seeking to understand why this growing terrorist movement has come about tend to fall back on the more familiar ‘why?’ of their own youth. The generation who grew up deeply affected by the struggles of the Sixties and Seventies, when anti-war campaigns were framed by opposition to such conflicts as the Vietnam War and the Algerian War, are used to pointing the finger at Western governments and the bloodshed caused by colonial wars and foreign-policy adventures.
We know that these conflicts were cold-blooded and politically motivated, and that many of their victims were civilians, including children. We know that interventions in the Middle East by the powerful West have destabilised regions and inflamed tensions. The opposition to these conflicts wrote and followed a now familiar script: these interventions were immoral, and their effects have proven dangerous.
But that was then and this is now. Attempting to analyse the ‘why?’ of IS in terms of the drama that affected youth in the Sixties and Seventies – or even the Eighties and Nineties – only confuses our understanding of this new generation of terrorists. The suicide bombers determined to wreak fear and destruction in the West are not, after all, following the script laid down by previous generations of freedom fighters; they are writing their own warped screenplay, which seeks no progressive cause, and has nothing positive to say.