Special Feature by Dr. Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.

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Terrorism: Human Fragility and the Compulsion Towards Trust

Posted October 27th. 2001

Trinidadian writer and scholar Dr. Selwyn Ryan evoked many smiles two weeks ago when he reported in the Trinidad Express how Jamaican and Trinidadian politicians were accusing one another of engaging in "political terror" in their respective states. This adoption of the word terror and its derivatives as descriptive of political reality in those countries was, of course, hyperbole. The terms were really employed to describe combative ideas and actions which, arguably, might redound to the disadvantage of constituents. Put in more exact context, this was voguish, humorous, Caribbean piggybacking on the current sad times highlighted by events in the neighbouring USA where terror - extreme fear - has been running amok since the September 11 downing of the World Trade Center towers and now, the spread of the killer bacteria anthrax through the national mail. Mused Ryan, "The language of Caribbean politics has begun to mimic that of the contemporary international political arena."

Interestingly, as the fear grips the USA, fueled by non-stop, repetitive and often irresponsible news reporting on twenty-four hour radio and television channels, the realities of the condition of fear are no cause for laughter. They evoke no smiles. Instead, the very rawness of human nature and statecraft stand revealed for all to see and that, too, engenders a deepening of the fear as general human helplessness sets in and keen awareness of individual fragility of citizens emerges. The lesson is clear. As individuals, no matter how strong we are, we are really weak without respect for or understanding of what keeps the environment solid and facilitates the building of individual strengths. For example, it is reasonable to say that the idea that their very lives could depend on whether someone or a few people decided to place anthrax in the mail was a situation never thought about seriously by most folk.

For most Americans, the deepening of fear and the rise of fragility from this stunning development with anthrax, which follows so closely the other recent acts of terrorism, represent a twilight zone type condition that is worsening, rather than getting better. The fear of horrendous, premature death by anthrax poisoning spreads despite efforts of the best brains to contain it; or so it seems. This is tough on a country whose citizens are usually weaned and then expected to feast on an exacting individualism sociological diet which says "I" can do whatever "I" will. The food contains the "I must have" ingredient as central to the flavor and liking of the dish. ""I" can pick myself up by own bootstraps," is the thinking, "even if I did not enjoy a particular meal."

Some critics of the current US administration say that it, more than others in recent times, the government demonstrated this near exclusively internal, individualist outlook and brought it to foreign policy making when it first took office. Positions taken on issues of the environment, middle-eastern politics and the decades-old Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty are cited. Now, however, the virtues and the inescapable necessity of collaboration and trust in individual life and statecraft have become more apparent.

In the wake of WTC and anthrax terrorism, the linkage of individualism to trust (cooperation with others) and resulting strength therefrom is reasonably obvious, as is how the absence of this process is linked to the inevitable emergence of fragility. These observations are not just theorizing for theory sake, as some readers of these weekly essays have suggested. They are facts made better understandable by the theory of societal creation (a la Weber et al) that, if ignored, will constrain efforts towards lasting solutions. However, ignoring Weber and company for our purposes, I amplify a bit more simply.

In "Shrinks, Ombudsmen and Trust," which was published in this column on October 10, 1999, I made the following observations: "The human is a social being incapable of doing everything for himself or herself. This creates a need for trust in personal, more friendly and more loving relationships. So too does this feature of human nature make it necessary that ordinary citizens, who do not even know one another, trust each other - often with their lives - in state and societal relationships." For society to work at all, let alone effectively, where there is freedom from fear provided by the rule of law and governmental agencies of its enforcement, we must trust those involved in sewage disposal, water supply, road maintenance, transportation, mail and health services, etc., to do their jobs competently. These are tasks we cannot do for ourselves. We do not expect airliners in which we sit to be used as weapons of terror. We do not expect that performing the routine function of opening mail will kill us. And when persons breach that standard societal trust by sabotage and other foul play, fear erupts followed by chaos and an unholy sense of fragility despite our belief in God. It is in such circumstances that government must become very tough and as, Hobbes would put it "use all helps" to punish condignly and restore and keep order. He, of course, was able to understand this fusion of individualism and trust in a wider social equation because he had a clear understanding of himself. "Fear and I were born twins," he once intoned.

Tougher response by officialdom is exactly what has been taking place in America. The national government has just been empowered by sweeping legislation to limit important aspects of people's individual freedom in search of necessary, better capacity to monitor suspects, lock up lawbreakers more routinely and even execute terrorists in foreign territories summarily.

And yet, most commendably is how far the human species has advanced in tolerance. The overall response of individual citizens to the fear has shown anticipated self-interest mitigated by tale after tale of selflessness, of inspiring heroism from adult firefighters to small school children. They are not steeped in everyman-for-himself panic but are guided by civil codes of conduct that seek to shore up and ultimately restore diminishing trust among humans. Put another way, when individuals find their own survival threatened, the typical response is a self-centered one, given the natural impulse of the human for self-protection. Fear, the greatest motivator of human action, is predictably seen in the twin impulse that inheres in the human - survival and pre-eminence.

Could it be that the humans of the USA variety have achieved so much of the basics of what it takes to survive that they are now just as equally concerned with achieving pre-eminence? Perhaps not. Too much wishful thinking. More than that, does this experience with terrorism mean that the majority of its citizens find it in their survivalist self-interest to respond in this cooperative manner of rebuilding trust towards "a more perfect union?" Will these unfortunate episodes of terrorism change things fundamentally or, as time passes, will old behaviors, beliefs and actions return



Dr. Brotherson is a Guyanese professor of political science and corporate risk-assessment consultant who resides in the USA.