One Way to Beat the Bombers

As I began to waken on Wednesday, the events of Tuesday started to seem more dream than reality, the kind you stir slowly from, and with vast relief as you realize what you thought had been real was not. If only.

What marked Tuesday's attacks was not "sophistication," a word I've heard enough since then. Certainly not in the sense of technological sophistication: they used plastic knives! Nor logistics, cost or co-ordination. It was all relatively simple and stripped down. That's what's scariest. Once it's been shown to be doable, it becomes re-doable, with relative ease. Except for one item, harder to duplicate and on which it all depends: the willingness of those involved to kill themselves. This is what marks these attacks as twenty-first century rather than twentieth.

The great motivator of political action in the twentieth century was ideology: socialism, fascism, national liberation. In its name, people were ready to murder massively and, in a better version, to die for their cause, their fellow humans and the future. But willingness to die for a cause is not the same as a deliberate choice to kill oneself for it. Political ideologies are secular and this-worldly; their horizon of hope lies in this world, where their followers want to build something better; all of which will be lost to them if they die, though not to others who may benefit.

The worldview that motivated Tuesday's events is different. Its horizon is otherworldly. It sees this world in the frame of another world, the supernatural and an afterlife. It is, in other words, religious; not just religious but fundamentalist and simplistic. Robert Fisk, the British journalist, says it pits theology against technology, the only force that has shown an ability to equalize. This is religious, as opposed to political terrorism; and the difference is the choice not just to die if necessary, but to willfully commit suicide. It sees its cause not in social change but in a cosmic "titanic struggle between good and evil," according to experts quoted by The Globe and Mail's Marcus Gee. In an eerie parallel, President George W. Bush said this week that America was in a fight between good and evil. There are days when it seems that George Bush and Osama bin Laden deserve each other.

Bizarrely, the rise of fundamentalist religion as a political factor in many parts of the world owes something to American policy. The U.S. chose to nurture Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to undermine Soviet control there; in the course of which it worked with, armed and trained - Osama bin Laden! In a similar way, Israel chose to encourage fundamentalism among Palestinians to undermine secular left-wing forces. I point this out for two reasons. As a wise reader wrote to me recently, "There is a fundamental principal of Vedic philosophy (Hinduism) that asks one to examine, when confronted with adversity, what one 'owns' in it." And if the West had some role in creating this force, perhaps it can do something to uncreate it.

It won't be easy. It truly feels - pardon this cultural reference - like a genie you can't stuff back in the bottle. You can't hunt it down because no country is its home; its home is despair, delusion and faith in values such as cosmic war and an afterlife. You can't "make them pay"; they're already dead. You can't threaten their families and communities; that's what started the cycle. But if you can't destroy it, you can try to defuse it.

By that, I mean deprive it of the soil it lives in. Take a precursor: Japan's kamikaze pilots during the Second World War. They were dependent on the emperor's blessing, their nation's applause, its mythology etc. Remove that and it would have been hard to find candidates. Today's soil is the despair and sense of injustice in places such as the Middle East. Communities have been created that laud these gestures, as one sees at Palestinian funerals. "Terrorism experts say the approval of the community is an important reason why terrorists do what they do," wrote Marcus Gee. You defuse this by eliminating the worst cases of wretchedness that sustain it. An obvious example, since Palestine has been a tinderbox of religious terror, and the Israeli occupation has been the tinderbox of the tinderbox, would be to end the occupation and hand those lands back to Palestinians. It would be hard, because of the settlers, but it would eliminate the tinderbox. A similar case would involve ending sanctions against Iraq that have led, the United Nations says, to the death of a million children.

The fanatics themselves wouldn't vanish. And fanaticism itself may be a human perennial. But there would be massive relief among huge numbers who yearn mainly to live decent, unharassed lives. The despair, mania and hate that sustain the fanatics would largely be withdrawn.

Would this mean "giving in to terrorism"? No, it would be a strategy to cut off its oxygen. It would also be the right thing to do, but think of that as merely collateral damage.

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