Friday, July 21, 2006

"I will never understand why terrorists are so willing to embrace death and destruction".

I hear this every so often and it worries me. If the ideological danger of radicalism (specifically that of jihadist terrorism in this case) is to be defeated, then I think the appeal of "death and destruction", or why a person would want to deliberately target violence at civilians, must be understood, or else it cannot be effectively combatted.

Much of the political Right doesn't particularly care about this of course: their approach seems to be "terrorist = animal" and such individuals must be elimated. The concept of how a terrorist actually comes into being is viewed as incomprehensible and on that basis is apparently disregarded completely: terrorists exist, they are Evil, kill them, preferably painfully. End of discusion. This has serious consequences, the most obvious being that the Right pays no regard to the possibility that the actions that they take in eliminating terrorists may have the unintended consequence of creating more of them. For a side of politics that supposedly makes "the law of unintended consequences" a central part of its world-view, it doesn't actually apply it much.

The Left for its part acknowledges that jihadism has root causes, but somehow always seems to come to the conclusion that these roots are entirely the West's fault. I don't think I agree.

Trying to understand the darker side of human nature is not pretty, nor is it easy, but I'm trying.

My first instinct is to say that the creation of a terrorist includes "dehumanisation" as a significant factor, but I think it's a little more difficult than that. One of the triumphs of Western liberalism I believe is the view that every human being starts out as innately equal in worth, and that no human being is worthless. A person's actions may shift their worth, but the innate starting point for everyone is the same, and this innate worth is not determined in advance by a person's racial, cultural or other grouping. People who have grown up in environments where this is a well-entrenched norm may find it difficult to conceive of a worldview in which some groups of humanity are considered innately superior or inferior solely by their belonging to a specific group, before any other considerations are applied. It's not that hard to see places where this remnants of this particular worldview still pop up in Western societies, though: stereotyping for instance.

It's less difficult to conceive of a human having zero innate worth. This concept has not been banished from Western society and still occurs in the process known as dehumanisation: denying a human any innate worth by denying that they're human. The radical Right does it the moment they make the "terrorist=animal" formulation, stripping away a terrorist's humanity so it becomes easier to feel no moral qualms about killing them in cold blood, torturing them, denying them due process - all the things that are viewed as moral wrongs in Western society when they're done to human beings.

In an illiberal worldview, it's not so much "dehumanisation" as the concept that some members of the human race have zero, or even negative, innate worth. The consequence of this is de-empathisation. Empathising with someone - feeling their feelings as if they were your own - occurs as a result of believing that a person's feelings are as worthy of consideration as your own, and I believe is the basis for why a person freely chooses to care about other people besides themselves. If you believe a person is worthless, then there is no motivation to care about their feelings, and there is no motivation to restrain from acts of violence against them, up to and including murder. If you believe that they have negative worth, then there is motivation to engage in acts of incredible cruelty against that person as a just recompense for the lessening of the world that the person's existence causes simply by the fact that they exist.

For a terrorist to come about, a proto-terrorist must have accepted this illiberal method of determining the worth of human beings as part of their worldview.

There's much more to it of course. Hopefully I can get to some other points. Hopefully I'll be more concise if/when I do.

1 comment:

Mind Booster Noori said...

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