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Psychology of terror

If September 11 was a flare drawing attention to savage retaliation possible from aggrieved and humiliated communities, it was also a warning to all factions to turn from destruction to negotiating peacefully the common and equal right to the world's riches. VISA RAVINDRAN on a kaleidoscope that emerges in the present war if one researches cause and effect.

"When Bin Laden and those like him appropriate religion in their view of the world at war, they are not so much politicising religion as they are religionising politics. They are elevating worldly struggles to the grand drama of religion."

Mark Juergensmeyer, author of Terrorism in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence.

"The scale of violence they seek to wreak is an indicator of the extent of their perceived injury".

Dr. Raj Persaud, Consultant Psychiatrist, London.

THE world is witness to the terrifying images of destruction — as much to the awesome precision of hijacked planes ramming into New York's symbols of power as to America's military might pulverising pathetic mud hovels, the "collateral damage" in both cases, innocent civilian lives paying for the arrogance and injured sensibilities of vested interests. "Why can't you understand our anger?" asked an articulate Muslim woman on British Broadcasting Corporation's "Panorama" programme. The Muslim editor of Newsweek International answered that saying it was not the time to make allegations and counter-<147,1,0>allegations but question why "the system of democracy and justice is not working now."

But the huge gap between the West and the East yawned yet again when Richard Perle, Adviser to the Pentagon, glibly repeated the official speak that is rapidly losing credibility all round, saying that in this war as in previous ones, Americans will die in taking extra effort to avoid killing innocent civilians, that there is no place where Americans will not help and that "it is nonsense to suggest that Americans have no compassion". But in the age of live and 24-hour coverage, official speak wears thin when placed against the haunting images of bandaged young heads, bleeding civilian populations, and an eight-year-old putting protective arms around the gaunt shoulders of a younger brother amidst the rising dust of his former home.

The question that keeps surfacing in every discussion is why Islamic terrorism? Why is a struggle to gain power seen in religious terms? Is an acknowledged act of terrorism to be answered by more violence? Even more pertinent, as Zakaria, the Newsweek International editor, asked in the BBC discussion, what is the reason that this culture is producing so many extremists and terrorists? Could an important reason be that Arab countries, in the last 30 years, have been economically, socially and politically a failure, and their rulers have failed by not delivering democracy to their people?

The profile of the terrorist has changed but not the causes he holds dear; technology has put new weapons in his hand but it is still drama and rhetoric that give him a sense of empowerment, and the ignited passions for punishment and vengeance are fanned by long-nourished grievances with which are enmeshed complex feelings of hurt and anger at the unjust distribution of the resources of the earth. As Juergensmeyer observes, "Through interviews with violent religious activists, I have come to see their acts as forms of public performance rather than aspects of political strategy." They are symbolic statements aimed at providing a sense of empowerment to a desperate people using religion to provide moral justification for killing, he adds, and the images of cosmic struggle allow activists to believe that they are waging a spiritual war, the religious "mores and symbols make possible bloodshed, even catastrophic acts of terrorism". One cannot ignore here the images of might from the so-called allies against terrorism, their own selective publicity or the troubling similarity in the use of the drama of death raining from the skies supported by the rhetoric of the spindoctors of the Pentagon and State Department spokespersons.

A Press Trust of India (PTI) report on the 55 Brigade, an elite fighting corps of Islamic fundamentalists, describes it as a multinational force of about 5,000 men financed and trained by Osama and his Al-Qaeda organisation. The group, supposedly made up entirely on non-Afghans with special training and equipment, now comprises two overlapping generations, we are told, one that fought in the anti-Soviet jehad between 1979 and 1989 (funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Saudi Intelligence, trained by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)) and became a free-floating pool of Afghan Arab mujhahideen in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the second generation comprised those trained in Afghanistan who went home to fight different "holy wars" in Kashmir, Chechnya and Bosnia.

Others joining the brigade are from other similarly troubled parts of the world all united and held together by their religious fervour and a ruthless pursuit of their jehad. What is even more frightening in the report is the fact that their training methods include the use of special services manuals from the United States and Pakistan, constantly reinforced by religious instruction.

The wide dispersion of extremists all over the world united by religious rhetoric supporting the idea of preserving and protecting an endangered religion from the infidel and the politically powerful not only reinforces this illusion of the cosmic nature of the struggle but serves to sublimate earthly discontent into a quest for otherworldly and eternal riches. It must be emphasised however, that it is an extremist view that hijacks religion to its own narrow purpose and the cohesion of its objectives and method of using religion to attract and sustain its members should not lead one into the error of attributing homogeneity to all practitioners of Islam. Just as drama and rhetoric have attracted attention to the extremist acts of violence, their absence has kept the moderates inconspicuous, and often misunderstood.

Yet another dimension is added to the discourse when one notes that when Western notions support Islamic dictatorships in the name of "cultural specificity", they are hiding the real motive of their argument that Islam and democracy are incompatible. The Outlook cover story (October 15, 2001) whose theme is that violence in the Muslim world is as much "a creed of social churning as it is of religious inspiration" quotes historian Mushirul Hasan, who argues that those who assume that Islamic tenets and Western values are irreconcilable "ignore Islam's own internal variations, the Sunni, Shia and other sects, the Sufi stream and the regional/cultural/political specifics." It is these critics, in the historian's opinion, who also say that democracy, individualism and women's rights that are the defining values of the West are something Islam will never accept.

A frightening profile emerges of the modern terrorist. Gregg McCary, a retired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent, is quoted on the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News webpage as saying that the World Trade Center (WTC) suicide bombers "were well-trained, focussed and often had years of experience and a particular expertise." Dr. Park Dietz, psychiatric consultant for the FBI remarks that far from being "crazy", in order to be chosen for such a mission, (they) would need to prove themselves trustworthy, reliable and dedicated to a cause.

Experts add that commitment to that cause could be born of personal experience with terror or violence, or a feeling of being persecuted. They do not display depression, hopelessness and helplessness as suicides generally do, but commitment and determination in the accomplishment of an awful mission "seeking revenge and publicity." Unlike serial killers "who feel some connection to the victims," says a Harvard Medical School psychologist, "these terrorists are very impersonal; they see us as insects to be destroyed."

A bewildering kaleidoscope emerges in the present war if one researches cause and effect. Robert Bowman, a veteran who flew 101 combat missions in Vietnam, addresses President Bush — "You said that we are a target because we stand for democracy, freedom and human rights in the world. Nonsense! We are the targets of the terrorists because in much of the world our Government stands for dictatorship, bondage and human exploitation. We are the targets of terrorists because we are hated. And we are hated because our Government has done hateful things." And advises that abolishing the CIA and diverting its funds to relief agencies would be a better way of removing the causes of terrorism.

A Lebanese-American, who went through trauma because her 83-year-old grandmother was killed in bed and the lower portion of her body burnt off by Palestinians living in wretched camps next door to their home in the Lebanon, records her shock at seeing affluent Lebanese families uncaring even after this episode that rocked their lives. She despaired at the indifference that she felt was morally wrong.


Afghan refugees near a fence at an entry point to Pakistan ... an uncertain future?

But after her emigrating to the U.S. overcoming her trauma, learning from her psychologist mother that closing one's mind to the suffering of refugees and using the disgust and armed militancy as an excuse is denial, a way of coping with unpleasant reality, and this helped her to see it all more clearly. "The reality of the world is that when your neighbours suffer so much, you are not safe. You may not like them. You may not think their problems are your problem. But their suffering will affect you. For your own good, do something to help."

A year after the sarin nerve gas attacks in Tokyo, only 13 per cent of Americans polled were worried about terrorists using weapons of mass destruction to attack a U.S. city despite information on chemical and nuclear weapons being freely available on the Internet.

But today the daily panic and the long line of citizens testing for anthrax mocks this misplaced confidence. If the world has reaped the rewards of its shrinkage, it must learn also to practise the rules of living in a community of equal nations.

If the exaggerated violence of September 11 was a vivid flare drawing our attention to the savage retaliation possible from aggrieved and humiliated communities, it was also a warning to all factions to turn from destruction to negotiating peacefully our common and equal right to the world's riches.

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