We need to go beyond the surface level of what terrorists want us to believe about themselves and delve instead, to the extent possible, into the deepest levels of their actual lived reality. Last week a federal grand jury indicted Army soldier Naser Jason Abdo, age 21, on three charges related to a plot to attack soldiers near Fort Hood, Texas. Much of the attention on this case so far has focused on Abdo’s religion- Islam. Any effort to make sense of this troubled young man will need to include an understanding of how he chose to approach and interpret his religion.
Yet in May, the Army charged Abdo with possession of child pornography found on a computer he used.
I want to be clear. Considering whether or not pornography use may have been one factor shaping Abdo’s disturbing behavior is not to pin the lone cause of Abdo’s pursuit of terrorism on pornography. Pornography is not a necessary cause of terrorism. The abolition of pornography would not lead to the cessation of terrorism in the world. Terrorism existed well before graphic pornography and its mass spread via the internet. Likewise, pornography is not a sufficient cause for terrorism. There are pornography users, even addicts, who do not become terrorists.
Yet pornography now appears frequently in the possession of terrorists and their supporters, including Osama bin Laden. When asked about the “smut” found on captured media, a Department of Defense al-Qaeda analyst was quoted in The Atlantic in 2010 as saying: “We have terabytes of this stuff.” Terabytes [i.e. one trillion bytes]. That’s a lot of “smut.”
In a powerful 1993 article, Andrea Dworkin suggests that the wide circulation of pornography in the former Yugoslavia functioned as instruction in “a way of being: dehumanization of women; bigotry and aggression harnessed to destroying the body of the enemy; invasion as a male right.”
“[T]he pornography,” Dworkin argues, “was war propaganda that trained an army of rapists who waited for permission to advance. An atavistic nationalism provided the trigger and defined the targets.”
Ideas, ideologies, and -isms do matter, but they do not exist in isolation. What happens when a radical ideology adheres in a pornography-saturated mind? Perhaps the twisting of the mind which results from pornography has an impact- an exceptionally dark and dangerous impact- on how radicalized individuals act out the concepts of their ideology.
We need to go beyond the surface level of what terrorists want us to believe about themselves and delve instead, to the extent possible, into the deepest levels of their actual lived reality. Consider Abdo…his words do not tell the whole story. As evidenced by Abdo’s possession of child pornography, he appears to have had interests other than- and in conflict with- just being a man who “knows his religion” or who takes his religion “into account.”
If we want to understand the inner workings of terrorists and would-be terrorists, we must seek to understand their entire person. In the case of the 9/11 hijackers who visited strip clubs, and Abdo, along with what seems like an increasing number of terrorists, whose actions include sexual perversions and pornography use that cannot be squared with their ideology, we must not try to isolate one cause of their violent tendencies, but rather assess them as complete persons.
When terrorists adhering to such ideologies are found with pornography, we tend to look only at the terrorists’ words, not at the reality of their behavior. Pornography has long circulated nearly unbounded due to calls for “freedom,” but what if we are actually making ourselves less free by allowing pornography itself to be more readily accessible? Are there security costs to the free-flow of pornography? As Bynum and Fair pointedly questioned, “Can being more realistic about who our foes actually are help us stop the truly dangerous ones?”
Here I offer only questions. I do not know their answers or what rigorous studies of these and related issues will yield. I merely think the time has come to suggest that our continued failure to ask these questions and to pursue their answers may be a mistake we make at our own national peril.
(Photo Credit: Pablo Ruiz Múzquiz)
Jennifer S. Bryson is the director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ. This article is a shortened version of an article which appeared on August 12, 2011 at The Public Discourse.