It's a common temptation for the insecure, alienated, despairing human personality of all ages. Recently, the media has featured articles trying to explain how some young people become agents on a suicide or other terrorist mission--I am thinking especially of the Nigerian young man (age 23) from an elite family who ended up radicalized and trying to bring down an airliner flying into Detroit on Christmas day. He was in his twenties--an age when not a few seem ripe for succumbing to rigid dogmatism and fanatical self-righteousness. Most who pass through that stage in their twenties make it without any significant brush with the law or criminal activity. Yet, there are some, like the Nigerian young man, who come to a big, crashing deadend. Another recent media story profiled how a frustrated young Pakistani man ended up becoming a terrorist, eventually killed by law enforcement at age 29, after seeking fulfillment as an important, acclaimed jihadist, rather than resigning himself to life as another unemployed, overqualifed university graduate in the teeming streets of Pakistan (see link).
They are sad stories of deep, painful human frustration--stories that reflect that the human personality yearns to be heard, to be respected, to do something important and significant in life. Of course, there is a continuum of fanaticism--from the trivial and banal to the outrightly criminal and terroristic, with many, in between, showing such tendencies but not endangering others. But, it seems that in most forms of fanaticism, the gnawing need for some kind of affirming purpose and importance in one's life is the driving force. Fanaticism provides a sort of celebrity status for the frustrated who thrive on shocking the more conventional expectations of others and their families, by embracing radically different beliefs, customs, associates, dress, and/or actions. In a way, it is a sad continuation of adolescent rebellion by people who prolong an adolescent mentality as more and more individuals spend most of their twenties still getting an education and, often, still as emotional and/or financial dependents of their families. In addition, the blunt fact of sexual frustration cannot be minimized, especially among the males. We have some people in their twenties who remain unmarried for years and thus feel an extra burden of loneliness and isolation.
How do we deal with fanatical personalities? It is very easy and, yes, sometimes necessary to avoid them and simply refuse to challenge or engage them. But judicious, prudent challenge can be good. Raise important questions, even at the risk of being shunned. Engage the issues, because behind every fanatic is someone seeking the truth and meaning and purpose of life. Our only hope is to engage minds with a challenge to seek truth, not within the confines of a blind, fanatically rigid system, but in the wisest sources and in the perennial conversations of our broad cultural heritage of literature, theology, history, and philosophy. As a Christian, of course, I offer, first of all, the Gospels depicting a man who confronted injustice without becoming himself at any time an unjust man, without using or urging violence in any way, shape, or form. That is the challenge: how to confront evil without becoming evil oneself, because the end never justifies evil means. We have, in my view, the perfect model in the four Gospels. Jesus is the anti-fanatic.