News reports such as this one challenge our convictions about citizenship and identity in a modern, pluralistic, liberal democracy:
LONDON — The beheading of an American journalist at the hands of a London-accented extremist prompted deep reckoning among Britons on Wednesday over the particularly vicious role their countrymen are playing in the destabilization of the Middle East.
Security officials in London have been sounding the alarm for more than a year over the large number of foreigners in Syria, with the chief of Scotland Yard telling reporters last week that about 500 Britons are among the thousands of Westerners who have joined the fight….
I’ll confess right now that my first reaction is one that is unworthy of someone who prizes living in a pluralistic society. My first thought is, “That was no Englishman. That was a foreigner who had lived in England.”
But then, I have to correct myself: If Scotland Yard says there are “500 Britons” fighting for ISIS, then I have to take it to me that they hold British passports (I sincerely doubt that the Yard is referring to the old ethnic identity of Briton, as in the people who lived in Albion before the Angles and the Saxons showed up.)
And if they hold UK passports, then they are Brits. They are British subjects, with the same rights and privileges as Sir Paul McCartney or Hugh Laurie or David Cameron. That’s the way it is, and the way it should be. To say they are less English (or less British) than James Bond because they belonged to a culture that made them likely to become Islamist terrorists is to deny what separates us from the cultural fascists of ISIS.
However, all of that said… I still don’t see how they, or the 100 or so Americans among the terrorists, can be called “Westerners.” That implies a cultural orientation, one which these fighters categorically and viciously reject. Western culture is something they are against, presumably. They may hold passports from Western nations, but everything they are cries out against all that is Western — including our pious, correct insistence that legally, they are just as British as Monty Python.
Terrorists such as these challenge our vocabulary. We must choose our words carefully, as we are trying to define a new thing, a thing that if it had its way would kill us all. A decidedly unWestern thing…