The New American Anarchists

Many Americans were shocked to watch college campus groups defend Hamas’s killing of innocent Israeli civilians. What is life like for a person unable to say that beheading babies is evil, or who tries to qualify the event by “giving it context”? Most people can’t even imagine it. Such a person must have different feelings and different joys—his or her view of the world is not the same as ours and life doesn’t seem a very precious gift.

Yet pictures of the campus groups invariably reveal not one but several different populations of radicalized students, and the explanation for their immorality may not be the same for all.

One population includes students of Arab descent. Some of them were likely raised in the anti-Jewish culture well-documented in Middle Eastern life. Also, many of these students likely had friends or relatives directly affected by the Arab-Israeli dispute. Their immorality in condoning Hamas’s targeting of innocent civilians is horrible but comprehensible.

Another population of students is the bigger mystery. They look to be Americans of European descent, well-nourished, and upper-middle class. They were probably not exposed to anti-Semitism growing up; nor did they have a family member killed or land confiscated during the Arab-Israeli wars. Yet now they wear the Palestinian keffiyeh around their necks and celebrate Hamas. Their path from playdates to shopping malls to virulent anti-Semitism and celebrating the purposeful slaughter of innocent civilians is as puzzling as it is artificial.

It is not enough to call their behavior youthful rebelliousness, for rebellion aims at setting up a new rule in place of the old rule. The Arab-American students may be rebellious in their call to eliminate Israel—they have a definite aim—but for the other students (we’ll call them “old Americans”) their aim seems muddled, ranging from climate change to gay rights (which few Arab states recognize) to hatred for the police, while their enemies go beyond Israel to include the government, corporations, and anyone who voices an opinion that might cause a marginalized person pain.

Nor is theirs the ideology of socialism, which also has a definite aim. Socialists may see capitalism everywhere—because their minds are fixed on capitalism. But they do not see things to kill everywhere, because they have control over their minds. Something similar may be said of the Arab-American students who support the ideology of anti-Zionism. They see Zionism everywhere because their minds are fixed on Zionism. The most extreme among them want to kill Jewish civilians. But they do not see things to kill everywhere. Their hatred is focused like a laser beam.

In contrast, some of the old American students not only do not know what they want, but do not even know exactly who they hate. They lack any power of distinction, or sense of proportion, by which to draw a line between justified violence and inhumanity, not because their hatred of Jews is so intense, as it is for some Arab-American students, but because they cannot stop their own thoughts of hate. They cannot return to normal. In this respect, they are more like anarchists than socialists or anti-Zionists. If the Arab-American students who celebrated the killing of innocent civilians are like the happy person who laughs, then the old Americans who celebrated the event are like the hysterical person who cannot stop laughing.

The immorality of the old American students might be best understood in connection with two other anarchistic types now common in American life: the lone wolf killer and the radicalized knowledge worker. At first glance, the two types appear to have nothing in common. The former is often right-wing, while the latter is often left-wing. The former is often poorly educated; the latter is often over-educated. Nevertheless, the two types share a common experience. Spending hours online, and with little to no contact with the object world, they both believe strongly in illusions, which inspires them to lash out—the radicalized knowledge worker through illiberal, intolerant, and violent anti-democratic action; the lone wolf killer through mass murder.

Detached from Reality

On May 14, 2022, Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white man, traveled 200 miles to a supermarket in a black neighborhood, where he shot and killed ten people, yelling racial slurs the whole time.

Gendron was a lone wolf killer. He had no formal ties to any organization. Nor did he know his victims. All he had were his illusions, including the illusion of race. Many of his illusions came from abstract concepts he learned online, which Gendron later admitted.

Other lone wolf killers have also spent an inordinate amount of time online. They gain insight into the world not by learning about life and people first-hand, but through an online study of images and symbols—through language. In the U.S., over half of the deadliest mass shootings in the last 100 years have occurred since 2014, when social media took off. Gendron sprinkled his pre-murder manifesto with abstract words such as “fascism,” “capitalism,” “nihilism,” “hedonism,” and “individualism,” in an effort to explain his thinking. As a teenager, he said he was committed to “communism,” then to “authoritarianism,” and later to “populism.” Connor Sturgeon, another lone wolf killer (and knowledge worker) who shot and killed five people in 2023, filled his manifesto with vague and ill-defined words from popular psychology, including “self-esteem,” “negative self-image,” and “self-improvement.”

All these words can exist without being connected to anything that does exist. They have no well-defined cognitive content. They lend themselves to illusion because a person can project his or her own desires, hate, and fears onto them. They can mean whatever the person says they mean.

Even if we were to dream the same dream every night, which we do not, it would barely affect our minds because the people and objects we meet every day would drown out its effect. Because of this lack of continuity, we know the world of our dreams is not the real world. Our dream—our illusion—cannot survive our awakening. But for lone wolf killers, the illusions hold fast, for in some sense these people never awaken. Their waking world is a dream world, spent mostly among symbols, images, and abstract words, often online. With social science education geared toward abstract concepts, schooling in that field, even at the high school level, becomes almost an extension of that dream world.

As more Americans lose contact with the real, the rest of us are left trying to make sense of their cruel nonsense. But to do so, we sometimes privately wonder whether we are dreaming ourselves, so awful is the nightmare before us.

Radicalized knowledge workers reveal a similar trend, spending a large amount of time, both at work and at home, on social media. There are also the years spent in school training for knowledge work, where life is also strangely abstract.

Urooj Rahman was a radicalized knowledge worker in her thirties. She threw a flaming gasoline-filled beer bottle into a New York City police car during the 2020 George Floyd riots. Tending toward the anarchic despite being a lawyer, she shouted, “I hope they burn everything down. Need to burn all police stations down and probably the courts too.”

Rahman spent much of her life amid abstract concepts. She spoke “the language of abolitionist Twitter,” one writer observed. She was “steeped in the language of social justice and racial politics.” Ill-defined terms such as “race,” “gender,” “LGBTQI,” and “environmentalism” seem to have shaped her crude perception of reality. Life for her became a theater in which her own little plot, built upon abstract words, was always being played.

The old American students who celebrated the purposeful killing of innocent Israeli civilians revealed a similar obsession with abstract words, constantly referring to phrases such as “colonialism,” “apartheid,” “humanitarian,” and “identity.” The words reflect the same creepy simplicity of mind that chills the blood.

Abstract Words

How did abstract words so fully penetrate our lives? To some extent, the problem is cumulative, with illusions in general bombarding us from every corner of society. From politics comes the illusions of ideology. Art, by definition, is an illusion. Popular psychology promises illusions of personal perfection. Science pushes the illusion that the scientific method can be applied to human affairs. Technology cultivates a realm of illusion to help people escape reality—for example, online.

Abstract language began its most recent ascent in the 1980s, when elementary words such as “fat” and “dumb” lost favor in influential circles. Although bewildered by the reasons, many people stopped using these words; they hid their natural personalities behind a façade of decorum. Meanwhile, new words so broad and abstract as to be devoid of content crept into the nation’s vocabulary—words such as “triggering” and “inclusivity.” None of the new words were subject to precise definition. All of them had to be interpreted. Everyone who spoke the words played a game in their minds; they projected their own mindsets onto the words—that is, they created illusions—then, in any given situation, competed with others to see whose illusion would prevail.

A certain kind of intelligence expressed itself in the new words. It was the kind of intelligence that arrives at solutions to problems through abstract reasoning rather than through an instinct based on a profound knowledge of people and things. It is the difference between someone who believes in “capitalism” (or “socialism”) and tries to run a factory based on that belief, and an actual manufacturer who has grown with his plant, who knows every cog, and who has worked with his employees.

The new words ran counter to instinctual truths. The old words “dog” and “cat,” for instance, are clear of content and easy to define. When people see a dog or a cat they instinctively know what they are looking at; when thinking the words “dog” or “cat” they are at one with the object of their thought. The new abstract words, in contrast, are purposely vague—for example, “social change” or “oppressed person.” Many people came to believe it was wrong to dwell in the real, in simplicity, to know things through intuition and common sense, and to use simple, short, one-syllable words. They used the new abstract words, which must be carefully interpreted. And interpretation is the origin of illusions.

The new words have turned many of their users into euphemists, but for a peculiar purpose. For example, the Hamas-supporting old American students proclaimed something like the following: “The oppressive regime in Israel invited an attack upon civilians that merits balanced analysis and suggests the attack was neither disproportionate nor intolerable, including toward civilians of younger age.” The sentence soothed them. But if one had said, “Murder Jewish babies,” these students would have sat up quite suddenly. This, in fact, happened, as some students became embarrassed, even though the two sentences, in cold logic, are exactly the same.

Yet what startled these students, it seems, was not just the crudity of the second phrase, or because their true intentions had been exposed, but because the more euphemistic phrase had allowed each of them to interpret the awful event in Israel as they saw fit, for their own purposes, and within the context of their greatest pet peeve. For example, some transgendered old Americans did, rather oddly, dive into anti-Semitism and support the Hamas murders, often linking the Hamas cause and the transgender cause with the abstract phrases “humanity” or “oppressed people.” These abstract words let them relate events in Israel with some deeper private resentment, as both experiences were made to fall under a more general desire, again expressed euphemistically, to “build a better world” or “enact meaningful change.” Getting rid of the euphemistic phrase and focusing specifically on the murder of innocent children robbed them of their chance to luxuriate in this private anger through the connection.

Our Nightmares

When lone wolf killers, radicalized knowledge workers, and old American students who acquiesce in killing innocent civilians voice outrageous beliefs, we often wonder what extraordinary encounter led them to be so committed to their cause. But that is not the way to think about it. These people are often not committed to their cause because of some encounter with the issue at hand. Many of the old American students, as noted above, have no connection with the Arab-Israeli dispute. Instead, the cause came into their lives at a time when they were committed, only they did not know yet to what cause.

Young people commit to causes for a variety of reasons. Some because they are idealistic. Some because they are bored. Some because they need a sense of purpose. But some because they are … very angry.

For many old American students who supported the butchering of innocent civilians, anger cast about for a cause on which it could settle. Eventually, it found one. They then gave that cause special features and provided it with all the substance they needed to grow passionate about it. Using abstract words to frame it made it especially easy for them to connect that cause with other causes, thereby creating an illusory world that they colored with their own passions. Through their support of Hamas, they brought their anger to the level of the real.

Their state of mind can be likened to how a man can quickly fall in love with a rare and fleeting vision of a pretty woman but just as quickly lose interest when he actually gets to know that woman. A whole anxiety process is set in motion and serves to fix his love on the woman who has become the object of his love, although she is barely known to him. The passion for his love is not in reality; it is in his imagination.

For the old American students who supported Hamas, passion for their cause was equally boundless. It did not occur to them to think how little place the cause occupied in their own lives. Like the man in love with his vision of the most perfect woman, they extracted from the Hamas cause something pleasurable precisely because the cause still carried mystery about it. It existed mostly within themselves, in their imaginations. Strip their cause of their passion and there would be nothing left.

Something similar is true for lone wolf killers and radicalized knowledge workers. They feel angry and put upon, for whatever reason. They find a cause with which to express their anger. In their anger, they feel low and beneath conventional morality. Yet they also feel themselves to be supremely educated about the world, because they know abstract words, and so they also feel high above it. In either case, they feel free, and that they have the burning moral duty to attack violently or adopt outrageous positions expressed in strange, imprecise words. Neither of the two types seems to be at a loss for an effective moral attitude. They do everything on principle.

As more Americans lose contact with the real, the rest of us are left trying to make sense of their cruel nonsense. But to do so, we sometimes privately wonder whether we are dreaming ourselves, or dreaming that we are dreaming, or dreaming that we are awake, so awful is the nightmare before us.