In a featured report on May 31, 2013, entitled “Terrorists Driven by Low Self-Esteem, Florida High Schoolers Told”, Fox News issued a story implicitly challenging the tone and substance of a world history course provided to high school students offered through the Florida Virtual School, a statewide internet-based public high school. The course, entitled “Invisible Warfare”, deals with the global threat of terrorism and makes the assertion that “Common traits that psychologists have found in terrorists are that they are often risk-takers and many suffer from low self-esteem.”
The author, Joshua Rhett Miller, seems to bristle at the suggestion that a phenomenon as menacing as Islamic extremism could be explained by reference to something so common as low self-esteem. Psychiatrist Keith Ablow is quoted as saying, “Much more in the way of psychiatric disorder is required to create a terrorist than just low self-esteem”, but self-esteem is more than a psychiatric problem. It is a philosophical problem. Indeed, those who fully appreciate the role of self-esteem in man’s life and the total self-abandonment that characterizes Islamic terrorists and their ideology will see that the Florida school’s curriculum is more correct than Mr. Miller or even its framers may know. Certainly a problem of self-esteem is far from all that drives these individuals, but there is a grain of truth in the curriculum’s claim, and one worth exploring.
Whether in pulling the cord of a suicide bomber’s vest, flying planes into buildings, or merely surrendering his basic rights and freedoms to live in subservience to the will of an imam, an ayatollah, or an Islamist party, every action of the Muslim extremist is an act of submission and an acceptance of the morality of self-sacrifice—the morality of altruism. It entails surrendering one’s judgment to a proclaimed higher authority, one’s rights to their mandates, and, in many cases, one’s life in an act of self-immolation– or in years of self-abnegation, guilt, and sacrifice. In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt describes self-esteem as an “inviolate certainty that [man’s] mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living.” What morality could be more contrary to that of the suicide bomber or the theocrat than one that recognizes the efficacy of man’s mind, his life as the highest good, and his own happiness as his moral purpose?
The aversion of the article’s author and others he quotes to accepting the role of self-esteem in this process points to a broader problem in conservative approaches to the conflicts we face today: a refusal to recognize the philosophies that animate our enemies and to ask whether and in what ways our culture is failing to answer them. If the philosophy of our enemy is a primitive one of mysticism, non-objectivity, altruism, and statism, it is only through an intransigent insistence upon a fundamentally American one of reason, self-interest, and individualism that a moral opposition can be posed. To do so, however, requires conviction in one’s beliefs, rational certainty in our advocacy of Western values, and an unwavering assertion of our individual rights. It requires self-esteem.