Terrorism, Humiliation and Voice
I have two concerns (at least). First, there is no excuse for the sort of terrorist attack we witnessed last week. Period. That said, the last I heard somewhere under two hundred people died in the attacks. I wonder how many residents of Mumbai - population estimated at more than 20 million people, nearly two-thirds of whom live in slums - die of poverty and its attendant maladies in any three or four day period. I'm sure that with a little elbow grease I could find the relevant statistic. Do we concern ourselves with those souls in the way we will with those who died in the attacks last week? No. Will we worry that two nations armed with nuclear weapons might go to war over those deaths? No.
My second concern is to figure out what makes terrorists do the hateful things they do. I've discussed this here before. This time I want to draw your attention to an essay Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk wrote it shortly after the 9/11 attacks.* Here is part of the essay:
"An ordinary citizen living in a poor Muslim nondemocratic country will, like a civil servant struggling to make ends meet in a former Soviet satellite or any other Third World nation, be only too aware what a small share of the world's wealth his country has; he will know too, that he lives under much harsher conditions than his counterparts in the West and that his life will be much shorter. But it does not end there, for somewhere in his mind is the suspicion that it is his own father and grandfather who are to blame for his misery. It is a great shame that the Western world pays so little attention to the overwhelming sense of humiliation felt by most people in the world, a humiliation that those people have tried to overcome without losing their reason or their way of life or succumbing to terrorism, ultranationalism, or religious fundamentalism. ... It is not enough for the West to figure out which tent, which cave, or which remote city harbors a terrorist making the next bomb, nor will it be enough to bomb him off the face of the earth.; the real challenge is to understand the spiritual lives of the humiliated, discredited peoples who have been excluded from its fellowship.So while it is true that terrorists tend not to be terribly impoverished or poorly educated, they do tend to have grown up under repressive regimes that fail to extend civil and political liberties to their citizens. I am inclined to believe that, as Pamuck suggests, humiliation not only breeds anger but derives to a considerable extent from lack of voice. What might be required is less a bellicose response on the part of Indians toward Pakistan (from whence the Mumbai terrorist seem to have come and where they apparently were trained) than pressure from us on the regime to democratize. That may be a long term strategy. It may be less gratifying to those bent on revenge. But it might work.
Battle cries, nationalist speeches, and impulsive military ventures achieve the opposite ends. . . . If a destitute old man on an Istanbul island can momentarily approve the terror attack on New York, or if a young Palestinian worn down by Israeli occupation can look with admiration as the Taliban throws acid into women's faces, what drives him is not Islam or this idiocy that people call the war between East and West, nor is it poverty; it is the impotence born of constant humiliation, of a failure to make oneself understood, to have one's voice heard"
* Updated 4 December: You can find "The Anger of the Damned" in Orhan Pamuk. 2006. Other Colors: Essays and a Story. Vintage International. (This collection of writings is really terrific.) And you can find slightly different translations of the same essay under different titles here at The Guardian and here at the NYRB. (Thanks John!)