Monday, October 24, 2011

Violence and Fragility

This represents a continuation of my thoughts about terrorist violence.

Violence is a bad long-term solution to moral problems because it creates more trouble than it solves, eventually doing injury to the cause that it is invoked to protect.  (Despite the fact that it existed nominally to protect Irish Catholics from Protestant violence, the IRA ends up being responsible for more Irish Catholic deaths than any other organization in Ireland, North or South: read Shanahan's book for references.)  But the real problem is something different.

When do people get violent?  Is it not when they have run out of other options, when they are "backed into a corner" (as the saying goes)?  One thing that holds true across all of the terrorist groups I have looked at (Muslim zealots, Basque and Irish nationalists) is that they feel trapped: they are "oppressed" by powers to which the only sane response (in their eyes) is violence (up to and including suicide, whether by detonating themselves in public or going on hunger strikes in prison).  The vision that gives meaning to the life of a terrorist gives him freedom (to think, to find meaning in life), but that freedom comes at a terrible cost, because it is inherently fragile.  It depends on other people having feelings that they may not (and in the case of modern terrorists, do not) have.  It demands validation that history appears very loathe to give (as the overwhelming majority of Muslims, Irish, and Basques continue to reject the visions of utopia that their less inhibited comrades proclaim).  The fanatics, inspired with the holy zeal of absolute truth, cannot admit this.  Even if they do, they promptly cast themselves as prophets who will "lead the way" in spite of their people's backsliding ways.  If enough of us play the bloody hero, they seem to think, surely the cause of Allah will prosper, and the nations of Euskadi and Ireland will shake off Britain and Spain to become heaven on earth.

As for those who actively oppose the terrorists, they are pond scum, orcs with no real motivation backing up the mindless cruelty they inflict on true Muslims, Irish Catholics, and Basques.  You don't treat with pond scum.  You don't compromise.  You do whatever it takes to get the orcs off your land and out of your life.  If that means blowing up some of their ill-favored children (or the children of others too blind to see them for the irreparable cancer that they are), well then, so be it. 

There is an important common thread here between terrorist reasoning and the ongoing financial collapse of the Western world.  Banks are failing because the way we do business in a modern world is too efficient: there is only one true way to do things, the cheapest way that maximizes profit.  Ideologies are failing because they are likewise too efficient: there is only one true way to exist, and that is the way of Allah (as preached by Osama bin Laden).  When maximizing profits creates snafus, true believers in the modern market economy cannot think of a new way to do business: like an alcoholic who has drunk all the gin in the house, they start raiding the medicine and cleaning cabinets, grasping for anything to keep their drunken dream of happiness alive.  Just so, when the violent way of Allah creates hell instead of heaven, the terrorists respond with more violence, hoping that the ideologically driven crusade that is in many ways the cause of their problems may magically turn into a solution.  When Coriantumr kills Shiz (Ether 15), they may finally have their way.  If there are no people left in the world, then there will be no sectarian violence!  But is that the best resolution we can come up with?  What is the point of heaven anyway, if the only way to have it is to raise hell?

The more I think about moral conflicts, the less useful violence seems to me.  It has its place, of course, and it will not be denied.  But that does not mean that that place is necessarily where past generations have put it.  And there are differing degrees of violence.  I can kill someone actively, or I can passively make their lives so miserable and impossible that they kill themselves.  I can hurl bombs, or I can hurl insults.  (Note that polite insults are still insults.)  If the choice is necessarily between one and the other, I naturally prefer the insults and the passive aggression (whether I am on the giving or the receiving end).  But I would actually like to maintain my distance from both kinds of violence.  I want my way of life to be as nonviolent as possible.  Ironically, this requires that I admit some violence, since to deny it entirely would merely lead to its appearing under some clever disguise (like the "re-education camps" employed by certain high-minded regimes).  Pretending that I am utterly harmless is as silly and as wrong as indulging every opportunity I have to do harm.  I have to admit the real harmfulness that is in me.  I have to know it, and I have to develop real means of dealing productively with it.  This is tough stuff, requiring a lot more moral fiber than many of us seem to think (to judge from our public discourse).

More on this later.  For now, I'm tapped out.

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