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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Terrorism: An Age-Old Enigma

Terrorism, though as old as the history of mankind has become the most dreaded word of the twenty-first century, of course, after the word Cancer. As I say age-old, what immediately strikes to my mind is the assassination of Julius Caesar by Brutus and others in 44 CE. Interestingly, here too, Brutus, perceiving himself as the indispensable man for the preservation of Rome’s liberties, develops idealistic and patriotic opposition to Caesar, and in that ‘motivated blindness’, instead of stalling the ‘insurrection’, joining hands with the assassinators of Caesar , arrogate to himself the divine right to take away the life of Caesar.

Looking at this “warfare by external means”, a famous British journalist indeed called the current period of us as ‘The Age of Terror’. Yet, there is no concrete explanatory definition of the word, for each individual/agency has tried to define it from their own point of view. We do, however, have a vague idea of what terrorism is. It is essentially perceived as an effective tool in the hands of the weaker side in the conflict—be it nationalistic, ideological, ethnocentric, social, political, transnational, or religious conflict—to acquire power. Suffice to say that terrorism is simply all about “the pursuit of power, the acquisition of power, and the use of power to achieve political change.” Incidentally, some nation states too are found engaged in what is called ‘state terrorism’. It is precisely for this reason some scholars opine that terrorism is always associated more with politics than with religion.

Terrorism has thus become synonymous with ‘violence’ or the threat of violence that is resorted to in the pursuit of or in the service of a political or even a religious aim. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a terrorist as “Anyone who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation.” The underpinning of this definition is that terrorism is a planned and calculated systematic act—and an act undertaken to thrust on the other party what he/she considers as right. It is often perceived as “a game of psychological warfare”. And this threat transcends all countries.

Now, this posits a new question: Who is this terrorist? Surprisingly, they, much against our normal expectation of being ‘wild-eyed’, ‘trigger-happy’ fanatics engaged in an irrational spree of killing all and sundry, appear ‘normal’. Researchers aver that they are highly articulate, of course, of their own ideology, and are extremely unselfish young individuals. Importantly, they consider terrorism as a rational choice to set the things right. These ‘normal’ looking people’s deliberate choice of a path of mindless bloodshed and destruction is quite an enigma—an enigma that is equally challenging to comprehend.

Recently, I had a chance occasion to browse through an interesting paper—“Understanding the Terrorist’s Mind”, written by Laurent Metzger that addresses this enigma at length. He, tracing the history of terrorism, has made an attempt to answer vital questions such as: Who are the terrorists? Why do they resort to such extreme behaviour? Was there something in their upbringing that led them to choose such destructive path?

Admitting that no clear-cut answers can be provided to these questions, he argues that many of the Jihadis are young, usually aged between 15-35 years, bachelors hailing from religious families, mostly “brought up in families without a father”, and “do not have a popular political leader/intellectual to idealize or emulate.” He also avers that “often terrorism runs in the families.” He further observes that most of these youngsters “felt a kind of emptiness in their lives”, and driven by poverty, anguish and humiliation, and frustrated by the injustice meted out to them, often took to terrorism as an escape from the realities of their lives. Examining the present-day Jihadis who made their presence in Syria and Iraq in the recent past, Laurent Metzger comments that they are mostly of self-made and are thus “more frightening as it is difficult to detect lone Jihadis who can be anywhere.”

Though the article runs mostly on generalities, it does throw open new vistas for research on terrorism. For instance, the author observes that the role of ‘emptiness’ stemming from poverty, lack of education and the resulting unemployment in alienating people, particularly, the youth from mainstream of life, needs rigorous examination. Indeed, the role of the ills of ‘capitalism’—industrialization leading to ‘capitalism’ taking firm roots in Europe and America and the resulting ‘Luddite riots’ in Great Britain—that he found playing a crucial role in alienating the youth merits a systematic study.

Interestingly, Metzger drawing our attention to the enigma, “Why do they [terrorists] hate us [Americans, indeed involving all westerners] so much?” comments that no satisfactory answer can be offered except to say that it is their policies which might have stirred hatred. In this regard, he cites the example of Irish people fighting a long war against the British under the banner IRA. Of course, Noam Chomsky attributes this hatred to the “flaws of the US diplomacy, which may have given way to a feeling of revenge by those who resented such policies.”

That said, we must also take cognizance of the recent deeply encroaching phenomenon of ‘globalization’ that has boosted the growth in the national GDPs, to evaluate if  it had any role in the present crisis. For, globalization has widened the gap not only between the rich and the poor nations, but also between the already rich and the poor within the nations, thereby causing deep distress among those who are left behind by this growth. And, no wonder if this discomfiture between the two groups eventually transformed into hatred breeding extremist groups. And America, being the votary of capitalism and globalization, one wonders if out of this growing disparity within the societies engendered  natural hatred towards that country in the minds of the Jihadis.

All this obviously calls for systematic research through coordinated efforts between countries to understand how terrorism is spreading across wider and wider geography and what needs to be done by nation states and religious heads to arrest its growth if not to root it out completely. No doubt, it’s a great challenge. But nations must muster courage to face it.


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