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

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Dilemma of the USA and the Terrorist Mindset

Posted September 15th. 2001

The horrific acts of terrorism that struck the USA on Tuesday, September 11, present the entire world with an ugly mirror image of the human beast. At the same time, ongoing happenings in the aftermath of the catastrophe give a kinder portrait of the human through constant revelations of pity and sorrow that attend the brutality of the violent deeds. These include gut-wrenching pains, open shock, psychological trauma, selfless actions, other inspiring sacrifice, community and national bonding, and spectacular acts of heroism. At the same time, a roaring, justifiable national anger has swept across America, and we can expect the world’s mightiest military machine to unleash thunderously its wrath against those who are deemed to be the culprits.

This duality of “good” and “bad” that inheres in the human remains puzzling. How is it that we can be so completely barbaric and inhumane to one another and yet, almost at the same time, display love and positive hope of betterment through belief in fate and faith? This column has sought to address the paradox over the last two years while newer insights towards deeper understanding derive frequently from episodic eruptions of contrary examples – like those with graphic television images which currently dominate the news about the terrorism that struck America.

Today, I address the issue from particular angles of vision by essaying responses to specific questions. For example, can a focus on the new challenges of tension between democracy and globalisation yield valuable answers? What is the main dilemma that the USA faces in this first decade of the Twenty-first Century? And why is it that some terrorists are able to cultivate and live comfortably in an ideological mindset which persuades that eavenly rewards await those who, with gleeful brutish delight, maim and kill in the name of “causes?”

In advanced western democracy, and especially in the United States, a still as yet unappreciated but powerful, divisive, deepening tension exists between the consequences of globalisation and the democratic form of government. It is defined by the necessity of modern statecraft to curtail people’s freedoms in order to preserve other core ones. For hardcore true believers, even saying such a thing is akin to philosophical and ideological heresy. But, I believe this tension, where globalisation groundswell meets democratic imperatives, helps explain why the terrorists behave the way they do today and were able to penetrate the USA and execute bold, unprecedented and successful strikes.

Take the attack on the Pentagon, headquarters of the world’s most formidable military, located in Washington, DC. There were no defensive perimeters around the massive agency. Many moons ago, a decision was made not to have tanks, anti-aircraft batteries, etc., on display there in a defensive posture. Why? It would be too unsettling for citizens accustomed to civilian control of the military and completely unaccustomed to living amidst a daunting military presence in the nation’s Capital. Democracy, it was reasoned, must not only energize the political system but also the presence of military hardware would bruise the democratic image of openness and accessibility. Perhaps, there might even have been lawsuits seeking to reverse open display of military power.

Contradictorily, on the other hand, the White House is massively fortified and there has been success with keeping that protection inconspicuous. But after the 1993 attack on the same World Trade Towers by terrorists, the White House countermanded security instructions to seal off Pennsylvania Avenue from all traffic including people. That street put people in rare proximity to the White House. The explanation given was the need to keep democratic image smartly varnished by sustaining people’s access to seat of the executive branch of government. Thus, an important question is whether security forces at the White House, shocked by a speeding airliner to the mansion, would have even opened fire on a civilian plane, which hesitancy is what the terrorists no doubt counted on to give them time. It is simply contrary to democratic principles to attack civilians; even though there is the example of the US navy doing just that some years ago overseas when it mistakenly shot down a foreign civilian airliner.

After the 1996 Oklahoma bombing by local terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, extraordinary security was implemented at US airports, seaports and border points of entry. And, prior to that, when hijackings of aircraft were more common, armed federal marshals rode airliners to provide visible security. But as soon as these crises diminished in intensity, democratic values of openness and individual freedom overpowered security interests of people and individuals. Display of the prudent deterrents was discontinued. The truth is Americans have not been able to face up to the reality that they will have to give up certain kinds of freedom, the absence of which are mere minor irritants, in order to preserve other freedoms in the democratic political system, e.g., the right to freedom from fear that the government must provide.

This dilemma the United States faces has historical roots, especially as far back as the beginnings of the Twentieth Century. Simply put, there is an increasing pressure to maintain superior American standards of living which result from enormous generation of wealth in the globalised world which is largely dominated, if not actually controlled, by America. But it has to win this maintenance in a different kind of world than that which obtained in the beginning of and for most of the Twentieth Century. Besides, as the sole remaining superpower, America finds itself in a non-winnable situation. It must take positions and make comments (often displeasing to friends and foes) on every issue that negatively affects status quo international relations. And if it chooses to remain silent, that posture is itself interpreted as action. Most people do not see that because it is a superpower, the USA will routinely have conflicting interests, e.g., its support of the British against Argentina during the Falklands war in the 1980s despite a firm treaty with the Argentines.

That Twentieth Century had been marked by promises of advanced industrialized states to end world poverty by helping the large and scantily understood bloc of countries called “non-Western.” As Isbister and others remind, those “promises were not kept” despite some genuine efforts. Notably, the USA had been at the forefront of some of the efforts, e.g., helping to end colonialism and granting generous amounts of foreign aid. Most of the time, however, efforts seemed geared to skirt the promise - especially when communism challenged to become the world’s dominant ideology and, thus, an unacceptable threat to capitalism. The poor and the powerless of humanity lived with hopes for betterment under a variety of ideological “isms” rooted in both capitalism and communism only to have them dashed repeatedly by chicanery, perplexing boom and bust cycles, marginalisation, racism, etc., that effectively institutionalised fragility and instability in the Third World.

For the poor and powerless today, through globalization’s amazing shrinkage of the world into a global fishbowl by means of technology, it is possible for everyone to observe everyone. This has led to a radical shift in their disaffection with the status quo arrangements that dominated the Twentieth Century. They are able to see the possibilities of living in the alluring Western lifestyle. In extraordinarily increasing throngs, they have cast off the imprisoning outlooks fatalism and disenchantment of the world. They now are schooled in rationalization of the world which suggests powerfully that, by means of ideology that emphasizes pragmatism and reason, anyone can accomplish a good life by careful planning and pursuit of goals by doable means. People are able to see and understand, more than was ever possible before in human history, the power of democracy and they want those same benefits – not tomorrow but now, in the same instant manner that permeates American and other Western societies as a value, e.g., instant coffee, instant photographs, fast food, etc.

Humans see themselves armed with inalienable rights to a decent, fulfilling life from the simple fact of just being human. They have been socialized in the groundswell sweep of globalization’s advanced technologies to expect positive results quickly from democratic government. Most of the world embraces POLITICAL DEMOCRACY precisely because of the influence of the advanced Western industrialised states; especially with vastly improved technologies after the fall of communism. But, in the poor states, there has been no viable achievement of ECONOMIC DEMOCRACY. The more things have changed, the more they have remained the same and even gotten worse. Rightly or wrongly, these Third World masses who constitute what Fanon called “the wretched of the earth” blame the advanced democracies for their plight of seeming permanent suffering. We saw this very aggressive ideological bent in the recent debate brawl in Durban, South Africa, at the conference on racism sponsored by the United Nations.

And what of the terrorist mindset? David C. Rapoport, James C. Davies, Ted Robert Gurr and Chalmers Johnson along with a classic text by Walter Laqueur and Yonah Alexander called “The Terrorism Reader,” remain favorites that provide hair-raising insights. Perhaps Davies’ work is among the best because it focuses on psychological factors. We do know that the terrorist mind is energized by deprivation, longing for redress of grievances and, over time, it displays sociopath-type behaviors. It also shows shocking ideological rigidity by otherwise intelligent individuals, especially when their political idealism is twinned with esoteric but illogical religiosity.

Here is an excerpt from Davies: “Their state of mind, their mood is one of high tension and rather generalized hostility, derived from the widening of the gap between what they want and what they get. They fear not just that things will no longer continue to get better but – even more crucially - that ground will be lost that they have already gained. The mood of rather generalized hostility begins (slowly at first) to turn toward government… The dissonant energy becomes a resonant, very powerful force that heads like a great tidal wave or forest fire toward the established government, which it may then engulf.”

Terrorists also have in common a craving for publicity of their cause. Rapoport cites the Algerian terrorist of yesteryear, Abane Ramdane:

“Which is better for our cause? To kill ten enemies in a gulch in the country – which will go unnoticed, or one in Algiers which will be written up all the next day in the American press? If we are going to risk our lives, we must make our struggle known.”

Sadly, time does not permit the examination of criticisms of state terrorism. Theorists argue persuasively that established states, in the name of allegedly defending themselves from terrorists, wreak atrocious terrorism themselves upon innocent people, including women and children. One regular reader of this column nearly bit my head off in pontificating that Ariel Sharon of Israel should share the same jail cell with Mr. Milosivic of Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity. Instead, he is welcomed by the White House as good and moral man who is now a prime minister! His crimes? Among the more notorious was his execution of military policy to deliberately break the arms and legs of Palestinians during the 1980s uprisings in the Middle East. He also bulldozed their farms and confiscated their property without any recompense.

As horrific as the attacks against the USA were, we have not seen the last of such actions around the world. Their persistence makes an ugly statement about human nature. END.



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