BUENOS AIRES — How can we interpret a terror attack like the one perpetrated in New Zealand? The main hypothesis is that today's world is the setting of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West, with roots dating back centuries. Irreconcilable differences between their values make conflict inevitable.

Sometimes it will erupt in episodes like ISIS decapitating hostages, and other times, as a gun rampage by a white supremacist at a mosque in Christchurch. And yet when we look at attacks undertaken by people who do not identify themselves as religious, we must find an alternative hypothesis to explain their terrorism. No, this wave of global terrorism is not an episode of the Crusade-versus-Jihad saga.


New Zealanders mourn victims of the Christchurch shooting — Photo: PJ Heller/Xinhua/ZUMA

The New Zealand shooting has more in common with another, recent shooting in a Sao Paulo school than with socio-political or theological differences between Christendom and Islam. We propose this explanation: in our time, terrorists can adopt any badge, from religious fervor to ethnic purity or national integrity, even if they are ultimately all just attire and fantasy. They are myths of an ideological identity that is strategically impossible and lacks any political horizon or utopian destination reachable through violence alone. These are not members of organizations or even "lone wolves" acting for an admired if distant leader. There are no institutional, ideological or tribal foundations to this terrorism.

The thing about chaos...

It is instead far more a manifestation of individual nihilism, or the conviction that the conditions of existence are so bad it merits destruction. And this, in this age of globalization where destructive capabilities have risen exponentially. Today it is easy and an inexpensive to find means of inflicting more pain, more quickly, which means violence will no longer be a means but just an end in itself. There is no political solution to this, or a deal to negotiate.

Regarding the causes of this violence, the prognosis is not good: this nihilism is a reaction to structural processes. God has died, globalization reduces millions to poverty, nation-states have lost control and polarization is tearing societies apart. There is no Divine order today, nor global powers with the authority or will to impose order, nor any grand economic model or revolutionary promises to transform the system.

The uncertainties and threats of our global (dis)order are even making the splendid option of isolation impossible. So expect more of this nihilistic violence, as a frightening if endemic response to the existential angst of our time. The Joker explains the logic in a Batman film: "Upset the established order and everything becomes chaos," the infamous villain declares. "Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!"

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