I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Star Trek and Terrorism

I chose Locutus as display name and “Resistance is futile” as blog title because I am a trekker. I just love Star Trek in all its incarnations. Some stories are better and some are worse, but what I like of ST is the idea that in a century or two humanity will live in peace.

I know that physically we are almost identical to the savages that 70,000 year ago left Africa to populate the world. But I am always amazed to discover how senselessly violent modern humans still can be. On an evolutionary scale, seventy millennia are a comparatively short period of time. Therefore, it is no surprise that our emotions and impulsions haven’t changed. But shouldn’t we have learned to control them?

I am not talking about the Vulcan discipline that can completely suppress emotions. It would be enough if we managed to avoid domestic and sectarian violence.

For most of our existence, human males needed aggressiveness to survive in a hostile and wild world but, in our modern society, testosterone-driven violence is a hindrance to true civilisation. Nothing is completely good or completely bad, and without ambition and stamina we would have failed to progress in many areas of human endeavour. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t let our desire to assert ourselves lead us to hate and violence.

There is so much to say.

At the root of most acts of violence that we see reported in the daily news is a combination of desperation, intolerance, and greed.

Take for example terrorism. I don’t condone for a moment the act of detonating a bomb in the midst of a peaceful crowd. I couldn’t do it. And yet, I can understand why some decide to blow themselves up in a market square full of people. They are desperate. They are alienated and see no peaceful means to achieving the society they are striving for.

Being born is a lottery: you can hit the jackpot and enter the world in a developed country like Australia, Europe, or North America; or you can draw a blank and come to life in places like Gaza, Rwanda, or Somalia.

Those who like me were born in a western developed country are among the lucky ones. It is therefore up to us to reach out to the less fortunate ones. Ours is the greatest responsibility. If we don’t manage to foster tolerance and understanding, how can we expect the dispossessed to do it?

Imagine to be a palestinian young man. You were born in a refugee camp in Jordan and grew up in a shack made of cardboard and corrugated iron. During the day, the temperature under the metal roof reached fifty degrees centigrades. You and your four siblings shared two cots, until you grew out of them and had to sleep on the ground. An open sewer ran on the back. In Summer, the stench was almost intolerable, and in Winter, when the occasional rains fell, a brown smelly liquid seeped under the back wall into your living area.

When you were seven, your little sister Jamila fell ill. She had a diarrhoea that didn’t want to stop. Your mother took her to the dispensary and you went along. It was a big hut painted white with a red crescent moon and a red cross above the door. A pale doctor in a splattered white coat and a funny accent gave to your mother some pills for Jamila. Fortunately, a couple of days later, everything was back to normal.

When you reached ten years of age, you were given the daily chore to go to the well and fetch water. You had to queue up sometimes for half an hour before reaching the pump, and then drag back home the plastic tank with twenty litres of water. It was heavy, and you had to stop several times and take a rest. Your father had managed to find a job in Amman as a construction labourer, but it was poorly paid, and barely enough to feed a family of seven.
One day, your father managed to hook up your home to electricity and bought a second-hand TV set. The TV programmes made you realise that not everybody was living like you. Some people had beautiful houses with swimming pools and gleaming cars. Some people wore immaculate clothes and shining shoes.

At the koranic school, older boys told you that you were living in the dusty camp because the Israelis had thrown your family out of your own country. You learned that you couldn’t ever hope of doing most of what you saw people on TV do. You learned that you were stuck where you were, without hope of ever improving your condition.

Some of your teenager friends got involved in minor crimes. A camera snatched from the shoulder of a fat tourist, sun glasses taken from a car left open, a case of bottles stolen from the back of a truck. You didn’t want to go down that path. You wanted to do the right thing, but there was nothing to do. In part to combat boredom, you started going every day to a mosque with an energetic and young imam. His speeches touched your heart. They encouraged you to take pride in your faith. Judaism and Christianity were stepping stones leading to the only true religion: Islam.

Slowly slowly, you began seeing yourself as an island of integrity in a world that was disintegrating around you. You took distance from your friends and their petty thefts. You rejected the luxuries you saw on TV as the manifestation of moral decadence. You assiduously studied the Koran and felt that your faith was growing stronger.

One day, the imam introduced you to a young man. He spoke with an accent you hadn’t heard before. You later learned that it was from Saudi Arabia. He asked you whether you wanted to do something for your People, and you replied yes, without hesitation. He took a picture of you with a small camera and said that you would hear from him again. One month later, you were on a non-stop flight from Amman to Karachi. In your shirt pocket you had a Syrian passport with a name that was not yours. You were excited. Finally, you would be doing something to fight against the infidels who had stolen your land and subdued your nation.

From Karachi you flew to Islamabad, and from there you travelled on a truck across the border with Afghanistan. During the next two weeks, in a training camp fifty kilometres East of Jalalabad, you learned how to fight, how to build pipe bombs, and, most importantly, that there were many other young men who thought like you. You felt part of the elite of pure warriors who would defeat the decadent infidels. You no longer needed to murmur your beliefs. Now you could shout them from the bottom of your heart and other would join you. It was glorious. There, among foreign mountains, you found yourself.

Your enthusiasm was misdirected. You were only trying to give a sense to a life devoid of any hope, and grabbed the first hand stretched towards you. In your thirst for a purpose, you lost contact with reality. You fell pray of people who had lost their way as well. How could you think that true Islam could sanction the senseless murder of innocent women and children? Unfortunately, there was nobody who could make you see how wrong you were.

If you think that the hypothetical character I just talked about is far fetched, think again. Peer pressure can push us towards ideas and actions that we wouldn’t normally consider. And peer pressure combined with a feeling of powerlessness is what drives the desperate acts of violence we see every day on the news.

In the mid seventies, while I was living in Rome, I shared an apartment with a friend of mine. One of her friends was a militant member of the university students’ movement. For the sake of this narration, I will call him Marco, although he had in reality a different name. The movement sympathised with the extreme left of the political spectrum and Marco took part to many demonstrations against conservative policies. One day, he came to visit us after a demonstration. He was all excited and told us that he had thrown his first Molotov cocktail against the Police. These were times when the Red Brigades killed Aldo Moro, a Christian Democratic politician who had been Italy’s prime minister.

We told Marco that he should have never done it, that police officers were only young men doing their job, that there was no civil war in Italy and no cause for starting one. I don’t know whether he did it again and what happened to him, but his behaviour was emblematic of how left-oriented youth felt then. Why did he ignite a bottle half full of petrol and throw it to the Police? He felt that we were living in a police state, where civil liberties were being suppressed. He talked with people who reinforced his feelings and moved in a milieu where the government was the enemy. When the police charged and somebody put in his hand a Molotov cocktail, he had to throw it. He simply had to.

I know, detonating an explosive belt is much more serious than throwing an incendiary bottle, but the mechanisms behind them are the same. People become fanatics and terrorists step by step, when they see no way out of their situation. We have to understand and accept that these people are still human being, even if they treat their fellow humans with contempt.
The only way to eliminate terrorism is to remove the causes of desperations that afflict so many young men (and, increasingly, women) in our world. And, as I said, the initiative must come from us, the fat cats.

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