By Nicole Schwartz-Morgan, CACOR member
“The great danger of bombs is the explosion of stupidities that they provoke.” –Octave Mirbeau (1850-1917)
If an opinion poll at the beginning of last century had asked Europeans to identify the most urgent problem of their time, the response would doubtless have been “terrorism.” A re-reading of newspapers suffices to convince us. Bombs were then addressed to symbols of power in the person of kings and prime ministers, and one such, at Sarajevo, triggered a cascading of events into world war. In hindsight, that one looks like the work of an amateur, and the anarchists of the period are now seen to have done little more than accelerate the crumbling of the great empires. From the front pages of the newspapers, they have been relegated to footnotes in the pages of the history books.
On a first analysis, it seems that modern terrorism has little in common with anarchism of the past. For even if the delirious psyche of the terrorist has hardly changed, the scale is vastly different.
- In the first place, we are not dealing with a mere handful of relatively disorganized and isolated men.
- Next, not only do modern terrorists have infinitely more dangerous technical means, possibly including the atomic bomb, but their targets have changed. It is no longer a matter of beheading a particular political regime, but of destabilizing the free world, which has been made strong and at the same time vulnerable by the interdependence of new technologies.
- And finally, no one can escape the conflict, for the global grid of communications, trade and finance means that a crisis in the most remote economy is felt immediately in others. The entire world is drawn in.
On the other hand, we get a different impression of its portent if we place the rise of terrorism in the context of globalization. For it is a product of globalization, and without intending to do so, it accelerates it.
Freedom in Excess
Terrorism is the product of wild globalization, the reaction to a process which is as destructive to human ecology as the industrial revolution was to physical environments.
- It is driven by immense technological changes.
- It rests on total denial of limitations, including human psychic life, its holistic nature and its specific needs.
- It is a brutal conquest, no longer of spaces for they were conquered some time ago, but rather of time; it is the speed of change which has overtaken the slow pace of evolutionary adaptation typical not just of animal organisms but also of the traditional cultural bodies which are constitutive of humanity: the body of the state (suppress it), social bodies (replaced by the individual choice, programmed by advertising), the body of public institutions (private is better) and the human body (industrialization of feeding, reproduction and sexuality; medicalization of behavior, and manipulation of genetics).
- It transforms the human being into a “renewable resource,” a utensil for further processing, and a market for the resulting comestibles; unusable parts and bad batches are disposed of carelessly as “human garbage” in urban or rural dumpsters which are multiplying exponentially.
- Finally, it is a radical change in all the power sharing conventions that humans have negotiated over the course of millennia.
In Marxian ideology, superabundance was supposed to become the instrument of creating a new and better form of humanity. In an ironic twist, the triumphant abundance of capitalism has transformed superconsumption into a duty, the end product of which is left to chance. The ideology of market fundamentalism (George Soros’s term) manifests an unexamined faith in pre-established harmony and refuses radically all deliberate planning. (Invocations of “invisible hand” and “comparative advantage” in support of this belief typically reflect minimal familiarity with the classic texts.) It is neither a structure nor a natural order that is operating here, but more of a vortex, a deep whirlpool that is turning more and more rapidly around itself and is held together only by speed.
The vortex analogy is reinforced in that wild capitalism contains the elements of its own destruction. The logic of market fundamentalism draws everything into its process, including the merchants of death. The manufacturers and suppliers of armaments are known to have financed directly or indirectly, and without questioning the consequences, those of our contemporaries who are the most terrified, the terrorists themselves.
Terror and Hatred
Terrorists are not alone in their dread. There is not a cultural community in the world that is not watching anxiously as its spiritual values and traditions are transformed into figures while cursing in silence the merchants of the temple. Although Americans are conceived at the moment to be the chief exporters of this disease, Europeans area also whirling in the money-changing vortex.
But for other, more isolated cultures, the sole thought that they are losing their traditional control over the social body, and especially over the bodies of women, is intolerable. It is transformed into hatred of any outside influence which threatens that control. The degree of hatred is directly proportional to the desire for control over women, which explains why some other cultural groups, equally isolated, are not terrorists. The Taliban doubtless represent this fear to an extreme degree, whence their obsession with prohibiting access to all communications media while simultaneously loading up on the most sophisticated of modern armaments. Technology is bad if it could sap their control; it is good if it reinforces it.
This deep fear of losing control explains much more fully the terrorists’ hatred of the free world than does either (1) envy of America’s material wealth or (2) its Middle Eastern policies. Their loathing would not be diminished by even the greatest of conceivable miracles, a mutually satisfactory solution to the Palestinian conflict. It is important to add that this hateful terror is not uniquely Arabic or Islamic. In fact, the psychic structure of the Taliban is infinitely closer to that of Christian and Jewish fundamentalists than it is to that of modern Muslims. All fundamentalist sects hold to the same discourse, obsessed by sexual freedom and insubordination, the very notion of which makes them mad with hatred. Depending on where one comes from, this hatred crystallizes on the United States (The Great Satan), or on specific groups (God hates faggots) which become the scapegoats of a tortured libido, as Wilhelm Reich explained in his analysis of the Mass Psychology of Fascism (1946).
And before we charge off on a religious crusade, Edward Said has suggested (The Nation, October 6) that we think again about the Branch Davidians and the disciples of the Rev. Jim Jones. They were not motivated by an old, deeply established cultural tradition but were nonetheless ready to die for an idea. That is what makes them particulary dangerous, even if up to now most of the pathological sects have self-destructed. The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, by contrast, and the white supremacists represented by Timothy McVeigh, have projected their hatred to the outside.
Just as dangerous potentially are individuals of decomposed psyche. The students of Columbine High School found models for putting themselves together on the Internet and in news media. They even found plans there for attacking the World Trade Center. Being just a couple of adolescents they did not have the means to put these into execution, but the plans were there and could just as easily have been picked up by a megalomaniac with money and followers. The collapsing towers of the WTC is an image that has been broadcast throughout the world and is virtually certain to become the mental model for a few individuals afflicted by specific destructive kinds of psychopathology. We can’t know who all of these are, but we do know that their number grows every year, for complex reasons which do not exclude the decomposition of social support structures and the virtualization of reality.
The eradication of danger spots and a preventive surveillance of crazy sects will therefore not be sufficient to prevent further events, which we know can surpass infinitely the horror of September 11. A nuclear or biological attack could kill millions and wipe out nations. These scenarios of terrorism are bound to consume the time of military strategists and futurists, be they amateur or professional.
Although granting the certainty of further attacks, more bloody, more destructive, more crazed, that are transforming the world into a global Israel, I nonetheless choose to risk treating terrorism as an epiphenomenon. The future is being written by the vortex of global capitalism, but optimistic forecasts like those of Kenichi Omae and Francis Fukuyama need some revision.
The Hopeful Scenario: Global Political Management
We are far from the end of history announced by Fukuyama, but that does not mean we will be going back to a world of small states.
To the contrary, a first scenario could pose the hypothesis that terrorism will accelerate the processes of globalization, pushing them beyond the phase of wild capitalism without faith or law and into a phase of global political management as a condition of survival. The great powers find themselves forced to do what serious analysts have long known must urgently be done: to regulate the sale of arms, to control the laundering of money and Mafia activities, to regulate migratory flows, to harmonize policies between countries, to manage common resources and environment, etc. In brief, to put political order into the disorder of an economy which has become detached from its Aristotelian roots.
The unknown in this rational scenario is power–the capacity for effective action. Who can take leadership in putting humanity in order, given that any such effort implies a legitimate use of force? The United States is today the de facto leader, not because it was target of the first attack, but because of its military and economic capacity to be policeman of the world. As longstanding incubator of the vortex, however, the U.S. is also culturally dominant, which means that it may be the nation least apt to understand “otherness” and to manage diversity. Dominance means never having to make an effort to understand the others’ viewpoint. This can mean less and less understanding, until conflict is inevitable and power relationships are altered by revolution instead of negotiation.
Accepting that the whirlwind is unlikely to be subdued by intelligent reassertion of political management, what will be the course and the consequences of its gathering speed and force?
The Emergent Scenario: Israel Goes Global
The terrorist act can reactivate atavistic defense mechanisms which drive us to gather around clan chieftans. Nationalistic sentiment re-awakens, setting up an implacable frontier which divides “us” from “them,” each group solidifying its cohesion in a rising hate/fear of the other group. (Remember Yugoslavia?) To be sure, the allies are trying for the moment to avoid the language of polarization, insisting that “this is not a war,” that it is “not against Islam,” “civilians will not be targeted.” But the word “war” was pronounced, a word heavy with significance which forces the issue of partisanship. And it must be understood that the sentiment of partisanship, of belonging to the group, is one of the strongest of human emotions.
Because the enemy has been named in the media (Islam), the situation has become emotionally volatile. Another spectacular attack, coming on top of an economic recession could easily radicalize the latent attitudes of the United States, and also of Europe, where racial prejudices are especially close to the surface and ask no more than a pretext to burst out. This is the Sarajevo syndrome: an isolated act of madness becomes the pretext for a war that is just as mad, made of ancestral rancor, measureless ambitions, and armies in search of a war.
We should not be fooled by our expressions of good will and charity toward the innocent victims of this or other distant wars. It is our own comfortable circumstances which permit us these benevolent sentiments. If conditions change so that poverty and famine put the fear of starvation in our guts, the human beast will reappear. And if epidemic becomes a clear and present danger, fear will unleash hatred in the land of the free, flinging missiles indiscriminately toward any supposed havens of the unseen enemy.
And on the other side, no matter how profoundly complex and differentiated Islamic nations and tribes may be, they will be forced to behave as one clan by those who see advantage in radicalizing the conflict, whether they be themselves merchants or terrorists.
The Forecast Scenario: Homo Sapiens Re-Made
The fanatics of economic growth lost no time in throwing ecological and humanitarian critics of the “American way” into the same bag with terrorists. “It is the intellectuals who are at fault” (the classic accusation of fascists). Several journalists accused these “enemies of free enterprise” of having given a moral pretext to the terrorists by implying that the empire is corrupt. They typically make no mention that the CIA trained Osama bin Laden and that the formidable armaments industry equipped his followers. In other words, it is an unexamined premise of market fundamentalism that any transaction which generates money is good.
Opportunities for the pursuit of money have come to be perceived as so abundant, under global capitalism, that willing acceptance of constraints to its expansion are hard to imagine. The ongoing destruction of human ecology will therefore maintain its momentum and continue the processes of
- disintegrating traditional social bodies and then turning to their reconstruction as artificial entities, derooted and fragile;
- transforming the human being, as an object, by altering its genetic material, controlling its reproduction and its relation to all environments, including especially its interpersonal relations.
The new kind of social animal implied in this destruction/reconstruction includes features such as autism, lack of empathy, and the impossibility of sustaining desired relationships. This interpretation is being repressed because we are still so impregnated by religion that we wish to believe that human life will have an intrinsic value eternally. The contemporary clash, then, is not between civilizations as Huntington would like to believe, but rather between two conceptions of the human being. One of them clings to a sense of the sacred which gives to the human a place of dignity apart from nature. The other is an emergent, transnational concept which desacrilizes humankind into an object.
Since war always favors the adoption of new technological options, we can be confident that whether the consequences of the current variety are abortive, latent or overt, their application will give an unintended impetus to radical changes in Homo sapiens. This is the most difficult scenario for futurists, because it is not only without precedent but also the most probable.