Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Belgium Terror Attacks: A Comment

The events in Belgium have been deeply shocking, and it is initially hard to make much sense of them. The simplest narrative is that it is related to religious extremism, but that is also simplistic and doesn’t really provide any detailed explanation of how religious extremism can take such forms.

In a study in 2008 by Dr Clark McCauley, Professor of Psychology, Bryn Mawr College, the author reviews several books relating to suicide bombers.

In particular, a book entitled “Manufacturing Human Bombs: The Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers, by Mohammed Hafez is instructive in breaking down the details behind such attacks. He notes that Hafez “argues persuasively for a distinction of levels of analysis:” The suicide attacks are Palestinian, but the same analysis can I think apply in Belgium:

- They are a strategic choice for the groups deploying suicide bombers,
- They are an act of personal and religious redemption for the bomber
- They are and an expression of Islamic revivalism and nationalist fervour in a culture that venerates martyrdom and martyrs.

It is notable that persistently those who glory in suicide missions either reframe them with theological argument or refer to them euphemistically as ‘holy martyrdoms,’ ‘martyrdom operations,’ (ishtishahd in Arabic) ‘voluntary deaths,’ ‘giving yourself,’ or ‘self-gift.’

Hafez points out that suicide bombing is a weapon deployed by any faction which would not obtain popular appeal for their particular political agenda:

“Suicide terrorism, Hafez suggests, is the weapon of the weakest factions of the insurgency - the jihadists and the Ba'thists. Neither of these groups can depend on any popular appeal; their only hope of influence is in destabilization and chaos”

That is very notable in the wave of attacks we have seen on Western democracies, and also on popular tourist destinations such as Egypt and Tunisia. Causing chaos destabilises societies, and in a climate of fear, and with modern media, the news of the atrocities spreads quickly.

As Stephen Pinker points out in “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, over the past 70 years, there has been a decline in all kinds of organized conflicts, including civil wars, genocides, repression and terrorism.”

The statistics show that violence is clearly down, but that the fear of violence is still way up. As Pinker notes, we base our fears irrationally on anecdotes instead of statistics, and in a world of 7 billion, the actual risk for any individual approaches zero. It is how we process information that creates the effects that ISIS want, and we do not process information rationally.

Moreover, the modus operandi of terror groups, at present, would appear to be linear and clustered. That is to say that they strike in multiple locations at one point in time. In that case, probably the safest place to be – although it certainly doesn’t feel like it – would be Belgium today.

Clearly the risk is not geographically distributed evenly, but none the less, even in Belgium, while the death of anyone, especially in conditions of fear and terror, is an abomination, the statistics give a population of 11,190,846 in 2015.

The statistics noted by Pinker were also noted by Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote in the aftermath of 9/11 that “one incident of violence can undo thousand acts of kindness, and we easily forget the predominance of kindness over aggression by confusing effect with frequency”

And he says that:

“For this reason, a documentation of the innumerable small acts of kindness, the good deeds that almost always pass beneath our notice for lack of ‘news value,’ becomes an imperative duty, a responsibility that might almost be called holy, when we must reaffirm the prevalence of human decency against our pre-eminent biases for hyping the cataclysmic and ignoring the quotidian." 

"Ordinary kindness trumps paroxysmal evil by at least a million events to one, and we will not grasp this inspiring ratio unless we record the Everest of decency built grain by grain into a mighty fortress taller than any breakable building of mere concrete and steel."

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