Posts Tagged Terrorism

Something Beyond Our Selves

The uncertainty of the danger belongs to the essence of terrorism.
~ Jurgen Habermas
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As I write this, I am shaken, confused, scared, angry… today morning I nearly lost sensation in my legs, I stood trembling in a dark corridor for an hour and fifteen minutes hearing the macabre symphony of grenades for snares and the terrifying staccato of 39mm AK-47 rounds ricocheting on walls and floors, and whizzing through the air, and ripping through human beings whose only mistake was to be non-locals and followers of a different faith that had chosen to try their luck in Mandera. This all took place a mere fifty metres from where I was trying to catch forty winks before being awoken by the loud bang of an Improvised Explosive Device whose purpose was to blow open the gate to a compound that held over thirty souls whose lives were about to be put on a knife’s edge by extremists who have no respect for the sanctity of life. At the end of the carnage, six were dead, scores were injured, and the police and other armed forces then kept the town on edge for hours as they shot continuously into the air targeting remorseless phantoms that had already disappeared into the night with innocent blood on their hands.

Those 75 minutes were excruciatingly long and hard, they brought me face to face with myself. I contemplated the worst. I was numb. But in all this, I remembered something I had read in a book recently: confronting the reality of our own mortality is important because it obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life. While most people whittle their days chasing another buck, or a little bit more fame and attention, or a little bit more assurance that they’re right or loved, death confronts all of us with a far more painful and important question: What is your legacy?

Allow me to share a story from this book with you.

“Ernest Becker was an academic outcast. In 1960, he got his Ph.D. in anthropology; his doctoral research compared the unlikely and unconventional practices of Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis. At the time, Zen was seen as something for hippies and drug addicts, and Freudian psychoanalysis was considered a quack form of psychology left over from the Stone Age.
In his first job as an assistant professor, Becker quickly fell into a crowd that denounced the practice of psychiatry as a form of fascism. They saw the practice as an unscientific form of oppression against the weak and helpless.

The problem was that Becker’s boss was a psychiatrist. So it was kind of like walking into your first job and proudly comparing your boss to Hitler.
As you can imagine, he was fired.

So Becker took his radical ideas somewhere that they might be accepted: Berkeley, California. But this, too, didn’t last long.

Because it wasn’t just his anti-establishment tendencies that got Becker into trouble; it was his odd teaching methods as well. He would use Shakespeare to teach psychology, psychology textbooks to teach anthropology, and anthropological data to teach sociology. He’d dress up as King Lear and do mock sword fights in class and go on long political rants that had little to do with the lesson plan. His students adored him. The other faculty loathed him. Less than a year later, he was fired again.

Becker then landed at San Francisco State University, where he actually kept his job for more than a year. But when student protests erupted over the Vietnam War, the university called in the National Guard and things got violent. When Becker sided with the students and publicly condemned the actions of the dean (again, his boss being Hitleresque and everything), he was, once again, promptly fired.

Becker changed jobs four times in six years. And before he could get fired from the fifth, he got colon cancer. The prognosis was grim. He spent the next few years bedridden and had little hope of surviving. So Becker decided to write a book. This book would be about death.

Becker died in 1974. His book The Denial of Death, would win the Pulitzer Prize and become one of the most influential intellectual works of the twentieth century, shaking up the fields of psychology and anthropology, while making profound philosophical claims that are still influential today.

The Denial of Death essentially makes two points:

1. Humans are unique in that we’re the only animals that can conceptualize and think about ourselves abstractly. Dogs don’t sit around and worry about their career. Cats don’t think about their past mistakes or wonder what would have happened if they’d done something differently. Monkeys don’t argue over future possibilities, just as fish don’t sit around wondering if other fish would like them more if they had longer fins.
As humans, we’re blessed with the ability to imagine ourselves in hypothetical situations, to contemplate both the past and the future, to imagine other realities or situations where things might be different. And it’s because of this unique mental ability, Becker says, that we all, at some point, become aware of the inevitability of our own death. Because we’re able to conceptualize alternate versions of reality, we are also the only animal capable of imagining a reality without ourselves in it.
This realization causes what Becker calls “death terror,” a deep existential anxiety that underlies everything we think or do.

2. Becker’s second point starts with the premise that we essentially have two “selves.” The first self is the physical self—the one that eats, sleeps, snores, and poops. The second self is our conceptual self—our identity, or how we see ourselves.
Becker’s argument is this: We are all aware on some level that our physical self will eventually die, that this death is inevitable, and that its inevitability—on some unconscious level—scares the shit out of us. Therefore, in order to compensate for our fear of the inevitable loss of our physical self, we try to construct a conceptual self that will live forever. This is why people try so hard to put their names on buildings, on statues, on spines of books. It’s why we feel compelled to spend so much time giving ourselves to others, especially to children, in the hopes that our influence—our conceptual self—will last way beyond our physical self. That we will be remembered and revered and idolized long after our physical self ceases to exist.

Becker called such efforts our “immortality projects,” projects that allow our conceptual self to live on way past the point of our physical death. All of human civilization, he says, is basically a result of immortality projects: the cities and governments and structures and authorities in place today were all immortality projects of men and women who came before us. They are the remnants of conceptual selves that ceased to die. Names like Jesus, Muhammad, Napoleon, and Shakespeare are just as powerful today as when those men lived, if not more so. And that’s the whole point. Whether it be through mastering an art form, conquering a new land, gaining great riches, or simply having a large and loving family that will live on for generations, all the meaning in our life is shaped by this innate desire to never truly die.

Religion, politics, sports, art, and technological innovation are the result of people’s immortality projects. Becker argues that wars and revolutions and mass murder occur when one group of people’s immortality projects rub up against another group’s. Centuries of oppression and the bloodshed of millions have been justified as the defense of one group’s immortality project against another’s.

But, when our immortality projects fail, when the meaning is lost, when the prospect of our conceptual self outliving our physical self no longer seems possible or likely, death terror—that horrible, depressing anxiety—creeps back into our mind. Trauma can cause this, as can shame and social ridicule. As can, as Becker points out, mental illness.

Becker later came to a startling realization on his deathbed: that people’s immortality projects were actually the problem, not the solution; that rather than attempting to implement, often through lethal force, their conceptual self across the world, people should question their conceptual self and become more comfortable with the reality of their own death. Becker called this “the bitter antidote,” and struggled with reconciling it himself as he stared down his own demise. While death is bad, it is inevitable. Therefore, we should not avoid this realization, but rather come to terms with it as best we can. Because once we become comfortable with the fact of our own death—the root terror, the underlying anxiety motivating all of life’s frivolous ambitions—we can then choose our values more freely, unrestrained by the illogical quest for immortality, and freed from dangerous dogmatic views.”

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Wonderbra forbidden, serious

No propping

“They love life, we love death, the blood will continue to flow”

Those are the chilling words that often accompany the death wish that suicide bombers have, the blood bath of which they invite hapless and often innocent victims, far removed from their grievances, to partake in.

I will be the first to admit that the longer I live, the less faith I’m having in humanity and even worse am beginning to see a direct correlation between organized religions (or their misinterpretation to be precise) and the conflicts in the world.

Across the border from Kenya lies Somalia, this is a land with the dubious distinction of being one in which the study of a government of anarchy could be done practically, I recognize there’s a supposed central government in the name of the Transitional Federal Government, but anyone familiar with the chaotic political imbroglio that is the horn of Africa should know that the lame duck President of the TFG is nothing more than the mayor of a town; a besieged town.

The persons with the real say in most of Somalia are the dreaded “Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen” which loosely translates into Movement of Warrior Youth. Recent intelligence reports point to this group, commonly referred to as Al-Shabbab, as being in control of most of southern and central Somalia including the capital of Mogadishu, this in spite of the group being estimated at a paltry 4,000 to 7,000 militants.

Initially Al-Shabaab began as an off-shoot of the Islamic Courts Union which had been forcefully removed from power by the Ethiopian army, but it is an understatement to say it has morphed into an almost unrecognizable fundamentalist group, both imposing a draconian interpretation of Islamic law and waging what it calls a war against “enemies of Islam”. It has even been constantly attacking food aid organizations trying to alleviate the suffering of close to 4 million Somali IDPs, killing over 40 relief workers between 2008 and 2010.

Some of the bizarre and manifestly barbaric edicts and actions of this group include:

  • A declaration of war of the United Nations and Non Governmental Organizations withing Somalia
  • The stoning to death of a 13 year old girl accused of adultery, the execution was done while she was buried up to her neck in the pitch of a soccer stadium in Kismayo packed with spectators, it later emerged she had actually been gang raped.
  • Recently, in the coastal town of Merca, Al-Shabaab decreed that gold and silver dental fillings were un-Islamic, and dispatched patrols to yank them out of people’s mouths using crude instruments
  • In late 2009 they began the public whipping of women for wearing bras which they claimed violated Islam as they are ‘deceptive’. Gunmen were sent into the streets of Mogadishu to round up any women who appear to have firm busts for inspection to see if the firmness is natural, or if it is the result of wearing a bra. If found wearing a bra, they were ordered to remove it and shake their breasts after receiving a whipping from masked men
  • The group has also banned the ringing of school bells as un-Islamic. Bell ringing is, in the words of Sheik Farah Kalar, “a sign of the Christian churches”.
  • Musical ringtones are not allowed on mobile phones
  • Watching sports, such as the World cup, is forbidden and two Somali men caught watching the World cup in June 2010 paid for it with their lives.

On 11th July 2010, Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for bombings in Kampala, Uganda which killed 74 people, this is especially unsettling when it is noted that as recently as 7th February 2010 the militant group declared a jihad on Kenya over what were unsubstantiated claims that Kenya was training Somali troops.

How prepared Kenya’s, or indeed our ally, Ethiopia’s, governments are regarding preventing any such threat is to most a matter of conjecture, all I can hope for is that, considering the global phenomenon of a slide towards home-grown militants, the large Kenyan population with Somali roots and who are mostly moderate will stand with our intelligence in helping put paid to the match of this extremists who have no regard for human life, including their own.

I’m not a Muslim but my research into the one religion that is a way of life and from the analysis of reading Muslim scholars it’s clear that there’s no place for wanton violence or mass murder by suicide of fellow human beings, for in Islam:

Suicide is forbidden.  “O ye who believe!… [do not] kill yourselves, for truly Allah has been to you Most Merciful.  If any do that in rancour and injustice, soon shall We cast him into the Fire…” (Qur’an 4:29-30).

The taking of life is allowed only by way of justice (i.e. the death penalty for murder), but even then, forgiveness is better.  “Nor take life – which Allah has made sacred – except for just cause…” (17:33).

In pre-Islamic Arabia, retaliation and mass murder was commonplace.  If someone was killed, the victim’s tribe would retaliate against the murderer’s entire tribe.  This practice was directly forbidden in the Qur’an (2:178-179).  Following this statement of law, the Qur’an says, “After this, whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave chastisement” (2:178).  No matter what wrong we perceive as being done against us, we may not lash out against an entire population of people.

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