Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The dynamics of terror

An act of terror is inflicted upon all of humanity, regardless of whether we are direct or indirect victims. Some victims don't live to tell what they went through; others carry the trauma throughout their lives; the rest, who are the vast majority of us, become overwhelmed by fear. Terrorism is powerful because we let it be.

It would be pointless to try to comfort survivors or the relatives of fatal victims of a terrorist attack by saying that we all feel the same, that this pain and suffering has equally fallen upon us. It simply hasn't.

In truth, terrorism does not have the purpose to cause the most damage possible. It has only one objective, which is to inflict as much fear to as many people for as long as possible. In that sense, millions and millions of people are victims for the rest of their lives.

Only in 2015, there have been almost 10,000 gun murders in the United States. It is more than three times the number of deaths by terrorism on U.S. soil since September 11th. This other kind of random violence also inflicts fear among the entire population and even beyond their borders.

The origin of fear is fairly simple: we are exposed to certain information about something undesirable that has happened to someone else, and we project it as something that is likely to happen to us in our future. As fear increases, so does our level of certainty about this sinister occurrence.

One of the negative by-products of globalization has been religious terrorism. Some claim that one could go as far back as 500 years, when in the name of a Christian god millions of people were "baptized to death" during days of European kings in their overseas colonial adventures. The last 20 years, the kind of terrorism we have seen, the one that is broadcast day and night on TV and social media, has made us all so very fearful. We have been terrorized, especially in Western cultures, where several generations of us had never been exposed to such levels of despicable violence close to us. And the more terrorized we become, the more we want to consume that featured terror, even on a mobile device near you.

Watching the news, especially videos, about terrorist attacks, reinforces the belief that something as horrible as that could and will happen to us. It triggers a permanent sensation of fear and terror. It ends up breaking us, surrendering to the slavery that comes not when a man subdues another, but when a person gives up on her own liberties.

Fear is an attitude. We can choose it or we can choose any other attitude. As simple as that. We could choose to be brave, instead. Or compassionate. Or proactive, empathic, you name it. Doing so, we would perceive different moods and other feelings, not only within ourselves but also towards others. Our impact in society would be different. Our leadership would be constructive. Our character would shine out of virtue.

Fear paralyzes. It weakens us. It steals our sense of optimism, our hope for a more prosperous future, our willingness to be good samaritans, exemplary citizens, better persons altogether.

We all hurt with terror. But if we survived, and more so if we have not even been witnesses of such unspeakable acts of horror, we must dust ourselves, wipe our tears and get back on our feet. This world needs more good people to do the right thing: to love, to care for those in need, to guide, to lead. As Edmund Burke reminds us, "All it takes for evil to prevail is for good [people] to do nothing."

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Alienation and civilization from Paris to the world

Last week, I spent a couple of hours at a restaurant in République, the Parisian neighborhood where a bar was struck by a horrific episode of brutal and lethal violence last night. This morning, I imagined myself in that same place shuffling chairs and tables trying to run away from the bullets, feeling my heart beating inside my throat, adrenaline rushing through my entire body, focused on escaping the infernal scene of madness, being reached by a deadly bullet and knowing that was the end of my story: murdered randomly, victim of the alienation that has invaded many men in my generation.

Alienation is the estrangement or loss of contact with reality. Among the many causes that may lead to it are drug consumption, sports fanaticism, fiction from books, movies or video games, religion, social exclusion, violence, and indoctrination of all sorts. The perpetrators of such heinous acts of terror, in Paris and in other places around the world, are alienated.

There is no simple cause or explanation. Some of them belong to the “lost generation”, kids that migrated to Europe at a young age and remained at the margins of society. Since September 11th, Muslims worldwide have been unfairly stigmatized as a violent culture with a violent religion. These kids grew up under the promise of a more prosperous future but the largest economic crisis in decades has kept millions of educated, healthy, young adults unemployed and unattended. They have been victims of structural violence, when a disharmonious system inflicts pain and suffering on a group of people. Violence always breeds violence. They have become ideal recruits for paramilitary organizations that are fighting a war of alienation. The so-called IS, or Islamic State, is the most notorious, structured, and powerful form of alienated organization.

Civilization is not inherent to humanity. As a species, we have evolved socio-politically until becoming civilized. Among all civilized values, I claim peace is the most precious, forged over millennia, through cultures and generations that have seen and fought lengthy, deadly wars and have been exposed to vicious degrees of violence. In this context, I borrow my definition of peace from Galtung: the ability to transform conflicts creatively and harmoniously. This is, to a great extent, the way in which many nations around the world deal with conflict. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case for all nations.  

For those of us who aspire to be civilized, we have the obligation to behave and react peacefully, that is, harmoniously even towards the perpetrators, as difficult as it may be, and creatively in search for solutions to a conflict that is deeper and more widespread than we wish to believe.

There is no difference between a shooting rampage inside a theater in Paris during a concert and at a movie theater in Colorado during a Batman movie presentation. There is no difference between a shooting inside a bar at Republique and a shooting at a kindergarden in Newtown, Connecticut. The executioners lost touch with reality. Gandhi used to say that guns were not the problem, because there was always a finger pulling the trigger. The problem lies within us, in our beliefs, in the narrow-minded arrogance that makes us interpret that we are right while others are wrong.

To say that a particular religion is to blame for this is equivalent to what Hitler did, stigmatizing and persecuting Jews during the Holocaust, a genocide that belongs to an uncivilized time of human history.