Friday, July 08, 2005

The Terror Era

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The so called "war on terror" is not only not working, it is falling flat on its face and taking us down with it.

I must confess that I was quite taken aback to read about the London bombings on the CNN and BBC websites. Where oh where would we be without technology? A personal twist was brought into it because I know people who are there, and hearing it from them was indeed sobering.

It brought back unwelcome memories of the day a bomb went off in Nairobi, in 1998.

I recall at the time I was nowhere near the central business district, that hosted the former US embassy. I was in fact a couple of odd dozen miles away but despite the distance was still able to hear the explosion. A colleague dismissed it as "damn kids and their fireworks!" and the matter dropped.

An hour or so later as we were boarding the bus to take us into town the conductor informed us that we were not, as a matter of fact, going into town, but bypassing it altogether. Our resulting reaction left that gent in no doubt he was deeply unpopular. When he was able to get a word in edgewise, something to the effect as there having been a bomb blast in the CBD, we assured him that we questioned not only his intelligence, but his senses of sight and hearing.

Some ten minutes later we were passing outside the hospital in Hurlingham it became apparent that something was very wrong. There were dozens of people standing outside the hospital, bandaged with suits and dresses covered with dust and blood.

Someone thought to turn on the radio and it was a grim statement indeed that we heard:

"The Ministry Of Health calls on all medical staff, whether on training, on leave or in retirement to report to the nearest hospital to help."

By the time I got home all the bits and pieces had come in.

There had been an explosion at the US embassy. As curious Kenyans gathered to find out what was happening an even bigger explosion had occurred. An indeterminate number of people had died.

Of course I wasted no time in making my way to the CBD.

I can still remember the feeling of acute shock as I walked towards the site. The explosion had shattered the glass of countless buildings and the pavement was littered with broken glass. I remember the crunching of the glass under my shoes. From the looks of things I was not alone in my shock.

By and large we are a lucky country. We have not had civil wars, so when it comes to violence at such scale we were, and I dare say still are, clueless. Losing a life in an accident is a big deal, but losing dozens of lives to deliberate acts by unknown people?

The site itself .. words cannot express. It had been cordoned off but we could see it from a short distance away. The combined efforts of the army, police, fire services and ambulance were completely unable to cope with the carnage and the wounded. There were dead bodes lying in the rubble. There were wounded people lying on the pavements and the roads.

And Kenyans, as they are wont to do, rose to the occasion and volunteered their private cars and vans and pick-ups and buses to help out.

What I remember most was a man sitting on the pavement with his head in his hands, asking again and again about his wife. I sat down next to him for over fifteen minutes and could not think of a single word to say.

The toll stood at around 200.


No matter how low you set the bar, the human being always manages to find a way to slither under. 3 years later I listened in real time to news of the planes flying into the World Trade Center and I watched in shock as a 747 banked and flew into the side of a building.

The toll? Thousands, including a deeply personal loss I still feel today.

And then there was the Spain bombings. And Bali. And now the London explosions.

I can just imagine the people, still a bit jubilant at getting the Olympics going about their business to find themselves real victims of terrorism. As I am writing this - 37 dead, 700 injured.

I have wondered for a long time just what can drive people to do some of these things to each other. I recall unwittingly watching the video of the unfortunate Nick Berg as he knelt there in bewilderment as someone read a statement in a language he could not understand behind him and the next thing the poor man knew his head was being taken off with a knife. He could not understand what was happening until it was too late.

Needless to say it was weeks before I got a good night's sleep.

Among us are people who have no qualms about shooting us, blowing us up and beheading us. Beheading us! With a knife!

Among us are people who will go into a Beslan school with hundreds of children and shoot them. Grown men and women ready to shoot innocent little children.

All these incidents beggar the question:

Just what is it that would drive a human being to do this to his fellow human being?

But the more you think about it the more you realize it is not as simple as that.

Now you ask yourself:

Just what is it that would drive a human being to do this to innocent people?

But the more you think about it the question changes yet more subtly:

Just what is it that would drive a human being to feel passionately enough about something to do this to innocent people?

In the papers and in the news we keep reading and hearing about suicide bombers. Think deeply about the concept.

A suicide bomber.

A suicide bomber is going to blow himself up. A suicide bomber is fully aware that he is going to die. He has no doubts about it. There is no 'if'. There is no 'perhaps'. There is no getting away, no escape. If he succeeds he will die. If he is intercepted as he tries to perform his act he will die. There are no two ways about it.

But he will wrap explosives around his middle and go into the midst of his fellows and blow himself up.

And he is so convinced, so driven by his beliefs that he does not hesitate.

Now ask yourself -- what can make you feel so passionately, so deeply, so totally in something that you'd give your life, that you'd blow yourself up?

It's very easy to say that you will die for your faith, or for your loved ones. Or die for your beliefs. It is quite easy to say indeed. It is quite another to walk your talk.

It's not that there are one or two suicide bombers. They have been dozens and dozens, in Israel and in Iraq. As recently as a couple of days ago one donned a police uniform, walked into a mess and blew himself up in Iraq.

There is no short supply of these people who feel this passionately about whatever it is their misguided cause is. They are lining up to blow themselves up. They have been there for years.

It is naive in the extreme to introduce religious connotations into this, and this is the slant that the world seems to have gripped with both hands, inadvertently or otherwise.

The unfortunate thing is that human beings have this tendency to fear things they do not understand, and fear is a very powerful force. Fearful people in large enough numbers are a recipe for disaster.

Sad fact: people do not understand Islam at all, and this has contributed immensely to the problem.

Consider this for instance: Osama Bin Laden and his comrades in arms have declared themselves openly as being staunch Muslims on TV. Now, what would have been the effect had they turned out to be Bible thumping, cross carrying Christians? What if he appeared and after a couple of Our Fathers got to his latest declaration?

I don't know about you but personally I am convinced the world would have no problem with dismissing him and his associates as a deranged and isolated bunch of crazies.

But since they claim to be Muslims, for some reason the world has a problem divorcing them from Islam at large.

Of course we don't like to acknowledge this, which is why after we condemn the terrorists we always add that ubiquitous trailer "... we realize that Islam is a religion of peace, and that these are isolated militants."

Without a doubt that last addendum would not be there had they been Christians.

Even if they are Islam, I find that perpetually referring to them as 'Islamic Extremists' is doing little to help, besides subtly drawing an association between the two.

And what is the result? Muslims who have nothing remotely to do with Osama Bin Laden are increasingly finding themselves on the defensive. I have lost count of the number of frustrated Muslims I have run into who always find themselves having to explain their faith is one of peace to an increasingly sceptical audience.

Shortly after the 911 events a number of Muslims were assaulted. People who "look like" Muslims inexplicably have a rough time at airports.

It is just a matter of time before this misguided impression causes a real problem -- where the Muslims are living in fear, and like I have said before fear in a large enough number of people is a disaster waiting to happen.

I am not a Muslim by the way. I am a Catholic, and extremely unlikely to defect. I say Hail Mary's when I'm scared out of my pants. I always carry some sort of cross or the other on me. Every two weeks or so I spend a couple of minutes raising the eyebrows of my priest with my antics of the past fortnight.

I grew up as a wee schoolboy knowing that they were funny people who went to Church on Fridays and their girls could not decide between wearing dresses or trousers and therefore decided to enjoy the best of both worlds and indulge in both. That was as far as my prepubescent knowledge went.

Of course age, experience and knowledge make you wiser. I made some good friends in high school and university who are Muslims. We have had lengthy (and spirited) discussions of religion past and present. I have read the Koran. I know a lot more about the faith than I used to.

I won't pretend to know Islam, or even half of it but I know for a fact that the gulf between what the Osamas are doing and what I know of the faith is unbreachable.

Just like the Muslims, Christians have their own rotten apples. The things Christians have done to each other in the name of religion are a study of terrorism, from witch hunts to inquisitions and right down to the latest bit of bother between Christians in Northern Ireland. Christians have been clubbing, crucifying, beheading, drawing, quartering and burning each other at stakes for thousands of years.

Protestants and Catholics have been merrily beating, shooting and bombing each other for years in Northern Ireland. It was a rare fortnight indeed that a news announcement as to the latest explosion in Belfast did not make the news.

And I remember after each of these announcements Protestants and Catholics outside Northern Ireland have had no problem concluding that those are a bunch of crazy misguided yahoos and go on to meet at the tee for a rousing game of golf or at the club for a stiff drink and some roasted meat. Can you think of anywhere where Protestants and Catholics did not get along?

It has never been necessary to add a qualifying statement at the end. This is undoubtedly creating another problem.

Just yesterday some Hindu Militants engaged the police in a shoot-out for hours before being silenced.

It has never been necessary to add a qualifying statement at the end.

It is creepy how terrorism and Islam always seem to end up in the same sentence.

My point? Organized religion is a convenient scapegoat for the many atrocities man commits. Man has spent millennia looking for scapegoats for antics, right from blaming snakes for appropriated apples right down to religion to killing others. Osama Bin Laden and his ilk have no problem appropriating Islam for their own use, violating almost all its basic tenets in the process. With all our experience and all the information at our disposal we should be wise enough to divorce the two.

There is something deeper driving these terrorists and we need to find out.

Diseases & Symptoms

"War on Terror" will be an utterly meaningless statement until we find the root of this problem.

Yes, we can speak passionately against terrorists on TV. We can create commissions and committees, declare war, send in Navy SEALs, commandos and special forces to fight terror. We can condemn the terrorists at every opportunity until we are blue in the face. We can form Departments Of Homeland security and unite the workings of the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and the police. We can increase threat levels. We can install cameras and issue ID cards.

The grim reality is that at the end of the day we cannot watch every inch of every border, We cannot read the minds of those flying into airports every day. You cannot watch all those suspicious looking people in the bus with us. unfortunate truth is that at the end of the day we are extremely vulnerable. The terrorists only have to succeed once whereas the security forces must have a 100% record of success, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

The odds cannot be more stacked against them.

Don't get me wrong -- I am not saying we should not be on the lookout and we should not actively seek these people out from wherever they are. We should. We have no choice but to. But despite our best efforts, and even if we succeed 100%, I fear we will remain precisely where we are now. Here's why.

I watched Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice and Vladimir Putin all grimly saying that they are going to "fight terror".

I found myself asking, just what does this mean? What is it to 'fight terror'?

To find all the terrorists that we can and shoot them?

I'm afraid this will achieve little, if anything: it will be a stop gap measure and a short lived solution at best. If anything, it will exacerbate things. If you intercept a bomber, suicide or otherwise, and shoot him in the head, and go on to parade on TV about your latest victory, in a house somewhere a young man will see his father has been shot dead by "them" and steel himself to complete his father's work.

Ask the Israelis. They've been shooting and arresting suicide bombers for years and years. Things are slowly starting to turn around when someone realized

"Hey, getting rid of these guys is just not working. We need to address why they are willing to kill us, and themselves in the process."

Those suicide bombers and terrorists who succeed gain a larger than life status to their fellow believers. They gain respect. They become heroes. And somebody somewhere becomes inspired. Those who don't still drive yet others to take their place.

A scary and obscene corruption Tertullian's words: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians".

Finding them and bringing them to justice is not fighting terror. It is fighting terrorists. It is not treating a disease -- it is treating symptoms.

We need to delve deep into these people and find out just what it is that is driving them and then maybe we might have an idea of how to if not solve the problem outright, at least ideas on how to approach the undoubtedly long journey that curing the root causes is. Once we do that the symptoms have no choice but to die out as well.

What I do know is that the CIA, the FBI, MI-6, MI-5, special forces, commandos, police and Navy SEALs are not going to deliver this world for the looming threat of terrorism. They've been trying for 40 years now, from Baader Meinhoff Gangs to Red Army Factions right down to Al Qaedas.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is just not working. All we are doing is marking time at best, and slipping backwards at worst.

We have to find out what the disease is and treat that, and not the symptoms. We need to actively ignore the smoke and mist and hone in on the real issues. Then can we have a hope of removing this looming threat from our sights.

The time we have to do this, I fear, is not much.

It takes seconds, maybe minutes, maybe hours, maybe days to change minds. But it takes a lifetime to change mentalities.

We may be too late to stop the Osama Bin Laden and his ilk but we had better start right away nipping his successors in the bud.

Right away.

Our prayers are with the victims and their families. God will comfort you.

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