Islamists have struck again in Europe, this time in Brussels, where bombs at the airport and a metro train today took the lives of 30 people and injured hundreds more, with the casualties climbing as I write. The event has been headline and top-of-the-hour news all day—as were the attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo a year ago and the Paris rampage last November—whereas bombs and beheadings in Syria and Iraq are page ten news. But why?
It is not that the lives of the Belgians or French are more valuable than those of Syrians and Iraqis, who have been murdered by ISIS in numbers that are orders of magnitude higher. All lives matter to the people who live them. The real explanation has to do with the motives of the killers.
In Syria and Iraq, ISIS is one of many contenders in a civil war for control of failed, authoritarian, Muslim countries. Civil wars are notoriously vicious; motives, alliances, and tactics are complex. But why attack Belgium? ISIS made the laughable claim that the “country [is] participating in the coalition against the Islamic State.” Belgium has a tiny role in that coalition.
No, the real reason is the underlying motives of Islamist terrorists—and the philosophical ideas that underlie those motives. Attacking Europe is attacking modernity itself: the culture of reason, individualism, and secular politics. And the attack comes not from a vision of something better—Islamists in ISIS and al-Qaeda have no coherent vision—but from a hatred of what they see, but resent, as better.
Like most of my readers, I’m sure, I vividly remember September 11, 2001. I remember where I was when I saw the first images of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. I remember sending the staff home early to grieve, give blood, and otherwise deal with the tragedy; no one could concentrate on work. And I remember suddenly grasping the meaning of the event.
In “The Assault on Civilization,” which we published two days later, I said,
Civilization has always attracted parasites who wanted to steal wealth from those who produce it. But this phenomenon is different. The nihilists do not seek wealth for themselves. They want to destroy the wealth of others. They do not seek freedom from domination. They want to abolish freedom. They do not seek a place at the table of world commerce. They want to smash the table. They do not seek a better life. They glory in death. They represent the worst form of envy, the most vicious form of human evil. They hate us not for our sins but for our virtues, and they will not be appeased.
What I was describing was “the hatred of the good for being good,” Ayn Rand’s term for the malice at the heart of evil, which is so powerfully portrayed and explained in Atlas Shrugged. I had long understood that insight intellectually. But on 9/11, the visceral horror of what I saw gave the insight much deeper meaning. It rocked my world, as the event itself rocked the world we all live in today.
That’s what I see in the attacks today, as with so many other outrages and atrocities. As I wrote in The Ideas That Promote Terrorism, “to witness these things is to see the face of evil. We are dealing with evil men and evil deeds, for which there can be no excuses, no justifications, no explaining away.”
If you want to understand the roots and the reasons for Islamist terrorism, I invite you to visit our collection of commentaries on the subject: Modernity and Terrorism.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.
David Kelley founded The Atlas Society in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.
Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.
Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.
Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.
His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.
An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.
“Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.
The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.
“Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989
“Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987
“The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986
“The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.
"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.