01 December 2008

Terrorism, Humiliation and Voice

I have been thinking about the mayhem in Mumbai, wondering what to make of the mess we are in. I say "we" because, while most of those killed and wounded are apparently residents of the city, the terrorists seem to have been after westerners.

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.

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"
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.
* 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!)



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Humiliation may be one of the reasons why these guys are so goddamn angry and cruel, but there are other non-Islamic young men who've come of age in totalitarian states, who don't commit senseless acts of barbarism.

Maybe because these young men are raised inside madrasas run by religious mad men, they turn out crazy, too. (I'm willing to wager the madrasas in this region don't teach many very good things.) There is not a political grievance in this world that can justify shooting dead a 13-year-old girl, and a 77-year-old couple. The terrorists who did this don't have even an ounce of humanity left in them. They are completely and totally brainwashed.

It is disgusting and frightening to think what a cesspool of terrorism, and extreme Islamic fundamentalism, Pakistan has become. And to think, this country has nukes! This is a poisonous formula.

BTW, India's security agencies are a joke! How can 10 lunatics with AK47s kill almost 200 people, and shut down their most economically important city?!

02 December, 2008 04:31  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I agree that motivation is insufficient; there are recruiters and lots of coordination. But Islam is not even a necessary condition for such barbaric acts - Think, for instance, of the Protestant and Catholic terrorists in Northern Ireland or the Tamil in Sri Lanka.


02 December, 2008 10:02  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Thanks for bringing up that essay by Mr. Pamuk, Jim. It's the one thing many Americans (and other people of privilege- often unbeknownst to them) have never felt or experienced- and therefore, will never get.

White Americans have often downplayed the effects of racism here in America: it's in the past, it's part of life, get over it and get on with life... But given two people with similar qualifications, if the person of color gets it because of that one differential in a token attempt to have some small measure of diversity- watch out! You can't do that! It's not fair! That's reverse discrimination!! What kind of society is this!!!

02 December, 2008 10:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree that Islam is not necessary for terror. There's plenty of terror in the world not committed by Muslims, and especially in India. Not long ago there was a vicious attack on Muslims by Hindu extremists, who burned them alive. Insanity.

That said, I think the impulse to find a universal explanation for terror is faulty. I suspect the causes vary on a case-by-case basis. Most of the time, it is probably geopolitical. Sometimes, though, it could plausibly be pure fanaticism. The Mumbai attacks suggest to me to be of the latter kind. Setting off a car bomb, is one thing, and shooting your victims, point blank, after you heinously tortured them, is another. The latter instance requires a far more sadistic state of mind, which most people don't have, even terrorists. It's thus hard for me to believe that the guys who did this are anything less than brainwashed fanatics, although their leaders are probably somewhat "rational" and calculating.

02 December, 2008 22:04  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

D, I agree on all points. J

02 December, 2008 22:52  
Blogger AMEN said...

I would also inspect the state's response to such events, and the outcrop of that response. This attack is being called "India's 9-11". How tragic. It is as if the hundreds who died in similar attack in India and around the world are not as media ready, simply because they are poor. Do we, also, so quickly forget what 9-11 brought us? Useless, but highly profitable, war. Loss of civil liberties, across the board. Stabalization of an already shaky political climate. These are not to be forgotten, and with Obama's promise of a war on Pakistan, in varied wording, we are sure to see this attack be compensated with another larger war. I will not even go into the aspect of the attack being geared on american and british citizens. That would take me far too long to explain in a comment.

06 December, 2008 22:51  
Blogger VQ Bubba said...

A clear violation of blogging and only being concerned with the present, but this post has persistently frustrated me for a while. Forgive me for not having links to the relevant news articles.

Media/world focus on Mumbai hotel shootings and ignore Mumbai train bombings of 2006;
UN Peacekeepr focus on rescuing foreign aid workers in Congo and ignore massacre of locals;
US focus on treatment of detainees in Gitmo and ignore plight of 150-200,000 prisoners in North Korea;
Western focus on 'terrorists' and ignore the millions subject to humiliation without voice.

Is it a question of focusing on 'game changers', those capable of moving a larger mass of people in a certain direction for good, or bad?

If you drill a well for a village, to give access to water and alleviate dependency on a leader, what do you make of the situation when that leader returns and kills those who drink from the well?

Fragments of incomplete thought on the subject, but how do you acknowledge voice, and relieve humiliation, when altruistic actions can have deadly outcomes at the hands of those, to paraphrase Pamuk, who choose to throw acid in the face of women.

11 December, 2008 12:20  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I am not entirely sure what you are getting at but I'll take a stab at a reply.

If, in fact, the source of terrorism is something like what Pamuk identifies (and there seems to be reasonably strong evidence to that effect) then the long term policy ought to be to try in some plausible ways to put pressure on our extremely repressive allies (say, the Saudis) to lighten up. While we cannot impose democracy (ask the Iraqis) we can bring pressure to bear on repressive regimes.

That does not mean that there should not be forceful responses to terrorist activity. It does mean that we are not going to fight our way out of the problem.

And the fanatics throwing acid are a minority by virtually any account.

11 December, 2008 15:11  
Blogger AMEN said...

I think what Matt is saying is a direct indictment of media being an arm of the state. When we get the reports of certain attacks as being more important than others, there is always a response that is convenient from authorities. It was not beneficial, for various reasons, to focus on attacks in poor communities at a time when there was no benefit of attcking thoe responsible.

Now that there is a clear mandate of attacking Pakistan and Afghanistan, shown in the wide support of Obama, despite his military loyalties to Israel and his pledge to up military spending and military attacks in those regions, these such stories are prescient. This is evidence of media's submission to power.

11 December, 2008 15:38  
Blogger VQ Bubba said...

There are two points I'm trying to make. The first is that media, like all conduits of information, distort what actually transpires and this distortion is magnified by what each of deems important, or sympathetic. It's not just that broadcast coverage of the Mumbai attacks centered on the Taj hotel - it's also that we're more sympathetic to the plight of those who look like us, or are in a similar social status as us. The American family trapped in the hotel room catches my attention more than local Indians at the cafe near the train station. I don't know that there is a way out of this trapped perspective.

The second point is that even if we acknowledge these shortcomings, or devise a means of bypassing them to correctly see the world, I doubt that we are equipped to deal with that world. The call for action in situations is loud, but any sort of long term focus on doing the hard work of correcting underlying causes is relegated to NGOs with limited resources and a handful of govt civilians. I have the gut feeling that even if a good plan were put together, and billions allocated to it, to relieve poverty, minimize a famine, etc - that the implementation would fail - and cynically, it would fail for lack of interest.

12 December, 2008 11:24  
Blogger Mike said...

I was struck by the resemblance of the response to Mumbai in today's Guardian by Arundhati Roy to the piece by Susan Sontag in The New Yorker following 9/11. Both showed great courage in swimming against the current, and both were viciously attacked by the right-wing media. One would hope that India might learn something from the example of Sontag and America, but Roy seems to me to be facing a much more complicated and difficult situation, and the stakes are even higher.

12 December, 2008 18:45  

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