Man watches bombing campaign Jodi Hilton/ZumaPress

Democracy’s Missing Meaning

As young people, born and raised in democratic societies, yield to the appeal of death-dealing groups like the Islamic State, one must ask how democracies can defeat the forces drawing them away. The answer lies not in guns or bombs, but in ideas.

NEW YORK – The decision to abandon relative peace and prosperity for brutal war and instability may seem irrational. But young people, born and raised in democratic societies, have increasingly been yielding to the appeal of death-dealing groups like the Islamic State, leaving their homes and families to wage jihad in faraway places. Why has democracy lost the allegiance of these restless spirits, and how can it recapture the hearts and minds of others who would follow suit?

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that humans would rather will nothingness than not will anything at all. The leaden despair of lifelessness, impotence, and hopelessness is vastly less appealing than intensity – even if that intensity is found in violence, death, and destruction.

In short, it is a matter of meaningfulness, the presence of which motivates us, connects us to one another, and orders our lives. If it is missing – if, say, democratic ideals and institutions are failing to provide a palpable enough sense of community and purpose – people seek a sense of meaning elsewhere, which in some cases leads them to malevolent causes.

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