What John Cleese taught me about terrorism

I apologise if I am repeating myself but I am a HUGE Monty Python fan (after 600+ blog posts in almost 3 years I forget whether I am have already said this).  Yesterday, thanks to my eldest daughter, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a public talk by Python alumnus and master comedian John Cleese at the NAC in Ottawa.  It was a sheer delight to listen to this man talk about a wide range of things, centred on his chosen theme (and the title of the event) “Why there is no hope”.  Mr. Cleese was both serious and zany and the sell-out crowd was in stitches most of the night.

Normally one would not associate a Monty Python alumnus with terrorism but there were two things that he spoke about in his monologue and in the ensuing Q&A that got me thinking about how we look at violent extremism.  The first element was his conviction that the percentage of people in the world who actually know what they are doing and/or talking about is as low as 5%.  This, if true, is not good and Mr. Cleese went on to give a few very good examples to support his point.

When it comes to reporting on, commenting, analysing or pontificating on terrorism there is a very wide range of quality of material.  Fortunately I have found some excellent scholars, ex-practitioners and others who provide insightful, useful views on terrorism in general or on a specific incident of violent extremism just after it happens.  On the flip side we have some truly awful individuals who think they know everything about terrorism just because they can spell it as well as a whole bunch of racists and Troglodytes who use terrorism to justify whatever antediluvian beliefs they have about _____ (Islam, Muslims, immigrants, brown people…..).  One of the problems here is the lack of agreement, as I have pointed out many times before, on what constitutes an ‘expert’.  Compounding this is the media’s frequent embrace of anyone with a pulse to provide comments in order to seem to be current: there is often an appalling lack of background checks into those who appear on our TV screens and radios.

The second thing was illustrated by a quote Mr. Cleese cited by Lord Kelvin, an eminent British physicist who said in 1900 that “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”  He was a tad off in my opinion.  Similarly American political scientist Francis Fukuyama who decided in 1992 that “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such … That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In light of the return of illiberal democracy verging on fascism in parts of Europe it appears that Mr. Fukuyama’s optimism was a bit premature.

In the same vein there are those who have terrorism ‘figured out’.  This is the crowd that comes out with the equivalent to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy answer to life, the universe and everything (which we all know to be 42) when they say they have terrorism solved.  To wit:

  • it’s all about relative deprivation, or
  • it’s all about a quest for significance, or
  • it’s all the West’s fault, or
  • it’s all about mental illness, or….

So there.  We have it all assessed and there is no need to look any further.  Job well done!!  Except that there are no answers to terrorism that can adequately account for why Person A becomes a suicide bomber while Person B does not, despite their very similar life situations.  It is a still a mess and always will be.

In the end, terrorism would be like Monty Python if it were not so tragic (a really good attempt at showing terrorism as comedy was the British film Four Lions – I highly recommend it).  It is often carried  out by the last person one would think would do so.  Sometimes it makes little sense.  Every effort at distilling this down to first principles, however, has come to nought and I see little hope that this will change.  That is not the same as saying we should abandon our study of it (please keep doing so!)  but what I want to see is a little more humility and a lot more acknowledgement that this stuff is hard to quantify.

Monty Python once famously said “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”.  In that vein I don’t expect an answer to terrorism any time soon.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply