In a recent radio discussion on Paradise Lost, John Carey opined that Milton's Satan was the first terrorist — as his was the first deliberate assault on innocence. It's as good a starting point as any, however one of the many difficulties with understanding terror attacks today is that while Satan was rather obviously aware that his victims were pure, many modern terrorists are clearly convinced of the opposite.
In a more general sense our prevalent reasonings on motivation don't really seem to be getting us anywhere. Yesterday the UK government and the media collaborated in using the standard language and format of the nation's terror response — Cobra meetings et al. — in a manner that inevitably came off as simulated.
Meanwhile, those who suspect or openly grumble that there's a form of political correctness behind this, tend to end up making the familiar bigot's slip of assuming that while a white man's murderous rage always has a simple and largely individual diagnosis of the clinical sort, darker-skinned mass murderers are inevitably part of some sort of disturbing collective which represents an existential threat to everyone else's way of life.
And then there is the fact that multiple explanations surely have to be taken into account. Those of the person who carries out the 'atrocity' along with those of any direct or indirect sponsors.
In many, but not all cases of the sort of incident we can all tend to agree to tally as 'terrorism', both the individual and the organised ideology in the background can usually be pinpointed. Which is why some hesitate to put acts of race hate in the category, because the ideas doing the influencing are more diffuse and the individual may not be acting explicitly as a foot soldier within an incontestably corporeal army.
But Islamic State recently assumed responsibility for an attack that they may not in truth have had a direct influence over (Westminster Bridge), something which should indicate that the break-down in all these distinctions we might choose to make is actually suiting them rather nicely.
They cannot but be pleased as well with the events in London last Sunday as one distinction always remains true: organised terror by states or organisations is less discriminate in its victims than the more focussed hatred of specific others by individuals. Hence, ISIS is essentially content to see other Muslims perish along with unbelievers because their lives are a means to an end. It is always thus with ideologies.
Nevertheless, the UK government is right to give race hate attacks the security services treatment because they have as much if not more potential for disrupting our society, as the collective Blitz spirit response we have developed for 'international' terror is inevitably more muted in such cases, and thus the damage done to social relations can be more profound in the long run.
But we still need to be a bit more exact in our analysis of motivations and causes. Top down explanations - Terror - still have to be complemented by bottom up accounts.
Both the attacker on Westminster Bridge and the attacker in Finsbury Park can just as easily be compared with all those lone shooters in the USA as they can be with the foreign-trained members of terror cells.
They are essentially variations on the amok phenomenon whereby disaffected and disorientated males suddenly vent their inner demons on society at large or a specific subsection of society...like a Sorority House.
It is very important that we appreciate the important similarities across all the massacres that are being perpetrated in the West and elsewhere — and to that end we have to occasionally and very consciously remove those 'clash of civilisations' goggles.