Hatred, enemies, revenge: how to destroy yourself

I was spending my time in the doldrums
I was caught in the cauldron of hate
I felt persecuted and paralyzed
I thought that everything else would just wait
While you are wasting your time on your enemies
Engulfed in a fever of spite
Beyond your tunnel vision reality fades
Like shadows into the night.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

Do you hate? Do you have enemies? Will eliminating your enemies make you safe? Do you take revenge? Do any of those things make your life better? Do they bring you happiness?

Hate as a psychological phenomenon comes in seven forms: cool hate (disgust), hot hate (anger/fear), cold hate (devaluation), boiling hate (revulsion), simmering hate (loathing), seething hate (revilement), and burning hate (extreme combination of all components of hate, driving a need for annihilation). These feelings are painful. They cause despair, illness, violence, war. But none of them are necessary or inevitable. Many people have moved beyond hatred to feelings of forgiveness and compassion for all humankind, or all living things. Those people, in fact, understand hatred from a different angle than those who continue to hate. They understand that we should not judge others for being different, but accept them as misguided, or simply unfortunate, extensions of the human family.

Why hate people? People are basically products of their genes and their environments, neither of which they had any but the remotest control over. How can I judge another person knowing that? On September 15, 2001, a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot as payback for the terrorist attacks of four days earlier. Although Sodhi, a Sikh, was related to the hijackers neither ethnically nor religiously, a United States gripped with fear forgave and forgot about his murder. 1700 incidents of abuse of Muslims took place in the five months following 9/11. Muslims had become the outsider, the twisted, the enemy.

An evil Jewish landlord evicting a poor old German man


Jews being kicked out of school in Nazi Germany

The enemy is not human like us. In his excellent book the Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Dr Philip Zimbardo describes the process of dehumanisation. When others are less than human, torment, torture and murder can seem entirely legitimate and even pleasurable. The book’s website contains pictures of Nazi comic books that led young Germans to consider the Jews deserving of a final solution, many examples of government propaganda depicting the enemy as an enemy of god, a barbarian, criminal, rapist, and subhuman creature, and postcards of lynchings of blacks in the old American South that people would send each other. It is well worth a visit.

One of the main points of the Lucifer Effect is that anyone, regardless of mental ability, can become evil. The right justification and the right rhetoric, perhaps mixed with a stressful situation, can lead anyone to viewing others as subhuman. The movie American History X describes the process by which an intelligent, well-adjusted young man became leader of a gang of neo-Nazis. He had all the apparently well-reasoned arguments in the world. White people came to America and prospered, he averred, while all the other races fell behind. His mistake was assuming the reasons why that happened were racial or cultural, rather than anything else. A little ignorance of history turned everyone but white, protestant-descended Americans into his enemies.

But why have enemies? How could a Christian, for instance, want to kill his enemy, when the Bible says to love them? How could the lower classes have foreign enemies when their true enemies are the elites in their own society that repress them? After all, we did not choose our collective enemies; political opportunists did. Who are the scapegoats on any given day? Terrorists? Muslims? Iraqis? Iranians? Chinese? Are communists still our enemies? I forget. In George Orwell’s 1984, the enemy, the object of all the hate, would change when the Party decided it would change, and the stupid people accepted it without question. Orwell had a strong understanding of how manipulable humans are. To this day, the enemy of the people is whomever the elites who control the people say it is.

Too often we cling to enemies as we might to a security blanket. A Buddhist website says, “If you try for a moment to befriend an enemy, he will become your friend. The opposite occurs if you treat a friend like an enemy. Therefore, the wise, understanding the impermanent nature of temporal relationships, are never attached to food, clothing or reputation.” The time for being enemies or friends needs to last no longer than we want it to. Life is fleeting, too short to waste being angry. Buddha said, “In another life, the father becomes the son; the mother, the wife; the enemy, a friend. It always changes. In cyclic existence, nothing is certain.”

We should not struggle against enemies, but against ourselves. That is why the Prophet Mohamed called the struggle against one’s own shortcomings, movement toward the full embrace of moral living, greater jihad (holy war is lesser jihad). Often, our hatreds are a reflection of what we see in ourselves, and what we dislike about but are not willing to admit to ourselves. Think about the wars of the world: most of the worst are between groups that have the most in common. Since they are different groups, however, only one may remain.

Along with hatred and enemies, revenge is a misguided action. It springs from loss of control of oneself. Revenge tends to lead to a cycle of violence (unless it leads to genocide) that descends through collective imagination and memory to infect young nationalists and prompt them to pick up guns. It turns cool heads hot, whipping people into a frenzy that leads to irrational and self-destructive action. Chandrakirti said, “It is foolish and ignorant to retaliate to an enemy’s attack with spite in hopes of ending it, as the retaliation itself only brings more suffering.” Here is a familiar example.

Why did 9/11 happen? Do people know yet? Have they read the 9/11 Commission Report? Here is a brief summary of what made people so cross with the US. Bin Laden and his associates declared all Americans deserving of death due to the sins of their government. What could make someone so blind with anger he cannot see distinctions among 300m people? First was the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and support for despotic governments in the Muslim world; second, the suffering of Iraqis under US-imposed sanctions during the 1990s; third, US support for Israel and its brutality. All those results were the brainwaves of American foreign-policymakers. The Bin Laden Gang’s mindless advocating of violence was never very popular among Muslims but many of them could nonetheless agree that the US’s foreign policy had had disastrous effects on their societies.

In the Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely describes our desire for revenge as akin to mindless anger: not directed, but just a desire to do harm. Now the US has entered into wars with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether or not Afghanistan was a reasonable target has become irrelevant. The American people were still so filled with revenge that, at any given time, between 56 and 78% of Americans polled felt it was right to invade a country they knew nothing about to kill people of the same religious category as the ones who killed a small number of their compatriots. Of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, who was taking revenge? Both sides. Who won? Neither. Revenge has neither eliminated the threat nor provided any kind of catharsis to anyone.

I learned all I needed to know about revenge from the old cartoon He-Man. When some powerful sorcerers were making others fight each other against their will, He-Man came along and subdued them. The victims immediately called for blood: make the sorcerers fight now, to teach them a lesson. But He-Man, in his wisdom, told the erstwhile gladiators, if we force them to fight, we are no better than they. Let us instead forgive them and grant them the opportunity to redeem themselves. They felt good for having performed an act of forgiveness and kindness, and the others had the chance to rediscover the good side of themselves. Everyone’s suffering was over.

When we are under stress, we turn inward to the groups we say we belong to and turn against the unknown. Political opportunists and hate mongers do not want us to learn about other people, because we will learn about our similarities, become interested in their differences, and realise that we have been lied to by the propagandists we hear on the news.

Hate begets hate. Love begets love. Free your mind of desires to cause pain in others and soothe your own pain in the process.

So I open my door to my enemies
And I ask could we wipe the slate clean
But they tell me to please go fuck myself
You know you just can’t win.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

Why aren’t there more terrorist attacks?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the book Counterterrorism. In his book, Dr Ron Crelinsten describes one challenge would-be terrorists face. A reasonable question to ask is, why have there been no successful terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11? Well, he explains, terrorists need money, food, shelter, training, weapons, explosives, safe houses, communications and travel documents to carry out their missions. The reason there have been no attacks on, say, malls all over the US is that the terrorist needs to be a resident in the community, to know the ins and outs of the mall, and plan everything accordingly. They cannot simply plan the attack from New York, fly to a mall in Kansas City, and blow it up. Furthermore, despite some well-publicised discrimination, American Muslims are generally well integrated into their communities. They do not suffer the de facto segregation of many of their counterparts in Europe that could be the foundation of the desire to do harm.

Another answer to this question comes from Loretta Napoleoni. Since 9/11, we are seeing a concentration of terrorism in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, when there were no terrorists before. The supposedly globalist terrorist organisation of today, however, is like a virtual organisation. They often recruit through the internet, and they do not engage in selection or training, like the Western European leftist terrorist groups of the Cold War did. They can be recruited partly because they are not very smart, and thus “the reason why they are not doing so much [in the US] is that they’re not very good at it.” Anyone who thinks he might bring down the US or the UK by blowing himself up in a subway is stupid. The leaders are clever, but the fanatics on the bottom are not.

Bruce Schneier has a third perspective: three reasons that probably run counter to the conventional wisdom. First, it’s not easy. “Putting together the people, the plot and the materials is hard. It’s hard to sneak terrorists into the U.S. It’s hard to grow your own inside the U.S. It’s hard to operate; the general population, even the Muslim population, is against you.”

Second, there are simply not that many terrorists in the US. Contrary to post-September 11th FBI scaremongering, there are no terrorist cells in the US. Al Qaeda is not Cobra or the Decepticons or the Joker and his gang. It is more like an affiliation whose members know each other only by a secret handshake or hidden tattoo. After all, most of the terrorist acts, successful and foiled, in the US since 9/11 have been by lone wolves and nutcases.

Third, because terrorism is communication, small attacks may not serve terrorists’ needs. Terrorists want to scare millions by killing a few. An imperfect attack might not scare enough people, which in turn may be counterproductive because their ineptitude is laid bare before their audience.

Finally, as an aside, Mr Schneier reminds us that most of the terrorist bombings we hear about are in places where terrorists believe they are fighting occupation: Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Russia, China, Iraq and Israel. But no one is occupying the US.

The al-Qaeda label

What labels do you use to introduce yourself? Do any of them accurately describe you? Do any of them account for the nuances in your thinking or identity that make you unique?

Do you consider yourself a liberal? A conservative? Do others label you as such? If your answer to any of these last three questions is yes, you are playing a game that cannot be won. Such labels are useful to simplify our thinking and polarise disputes, erasing nuances and the colours in between. The more people call themselves liberals and conservatives, the more people we have on our team. There is no room for diversity of thought or deviation from orthodoxy: you are either with us or against us.

The same liberal-conservative false dichotomy is reflected in the terrorist-freedom fighter example (or perhaps today terrorist-martyr more accurately describes this inaccuracy). People cling to their labels as symbols of their identity, which is why simplistic labels are pernicious. Of many significant examples, this post will look at “Al-Qaeda” as one such label.

Al-Qaeda is not really one organisation like the Tamil Tigers or the PKK. It is a very loose network of people who violently oppose American occupation of traditional Muslim land. Al-Qaeda members in different regions have little or no contact. However, to read US government communications, it is a well-organised group inches away from taking over the world. (The US is not alone.) The label “al-Qaeda” is extremely useful for the US government to legitimise its actions. Whenever someone declares himself a member anywhere in the world, the US government feels justified in violating sovereignty, detaining anyone who might be “al-Qaeda” and engaging in so-called targeted killings (assassination). There is no legal basis for such action simply because someone says he is al-Qaeda: he needs to participate in hostilities to be targetable. But to the American people, al-Qaeda is evil and must be stopped at any cost.

The US government is currently targeting Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination. It says such a policy is justified because he is leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is associated with al-Qaeda, an organisation with which the US is at war. Awlaki is located in Yemen, and while he presumably poses some degree of threat to US interests in the Middle East, it is unlikely he can conduct any major terrorist attack on American soil. Dangerous, probably; worth invading Yemen and keeping Guantanamo open for, international law would say no.

Of course, the other side of the coin is just as important. People have rushed to form organisations named al-Qaeda in order to bait the US into a war, for the purpose of draining its military power, depleting its treasury and frustrating its people. The naming of al-Qaeda in Iraq (or Mesopotamia) illustrates this point. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed his organisation in 2003 to oppose American occupation, but it was not for another year that he renamed it al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi knew that by declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renaming his organisation al-Qaeda, he would be perceived as defender of Sunni Islam from the crusaders and get all the press he could want.

But the question was not, was he al-Qaeda, but rather, was al-Qaeda in Iraq deadlier than any of the other insurgent groups there? The Bush administration immediately assumed so in its external communication. George mentioned al-Qaeda 27 times in a speech in 2007, even though about 30 groups had claimed responsibility for attacks on American targets in Iraq and many experts at the time did not believe al-Qaeda in Iraq was a real threat. But it did not matter to Americans: al-Qaeda did 9/11; al-Qaeda might take over Iraq; give us more support for the mission and the recent surge. Al-Qaeda is there, and we must remain until it is defeated.

Wise people eschew collectivist labels that are designed to divide. Belligerents revel in them.

How to destroy the PKK

The Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, has just extended a ceasefire it declared in August. The Turkish government seems in a conciliatory mood, at least toward the PKK (though not toward Israel). We could be at a peaceful crossroads. But there are signs that might not be so.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has usually adopted a tough stance toward the PKK, perhaps most starkly in 2008 with his willingness to break international law and intervene in Iraqi Kurdistan to avenge the deaths of Turkish soldiers. He has been courting Syria, presumably with a view to isolating the PKK diplomatically. (The PKK received ideological support, training and arms from Syria during the Cold War.) The ceasefire might not hold, and might not be worth the breath that produced it: clashes between the PKK and the Turkish military have not ended. Commentator Ali Bulaç considers all this activity a sign that Erdoğan is trying to vanquish the PKK, whether militarily, diplomatically or legally, but that doing so is impossible without addressing “the major sources of the Kurdish issue”.

It is likely the PKK is no longer fighting to secede from Turkey. There is already a nearly-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Furthermore, the PKK seem to be holding out for amnesty, rather than independence. In fact, if one is to believe Erdoğan and Syria’s President Bashar al-Asad, amnesty is on the table. But, beholden to an angry Turkish public weighing its options for the next election (scheduled for July 2011), Turkey’s ruling AKP may still have no appetite for measures of rapprochement. Moreover, the AKP recently achieved constitutional amendments limiting the power of the military in Turkish politics. The military is not averse to seizing power again, however (it was only earlier this year 20 senior officers were charged with plotting a coup), and in all likelihood the generals will want Erdoğan to stay truculent. If it is unwilling to compromise, the Turkish state might instead push to continue the war.

The war option

One lesson that could be drawn from last year’s utter defeat of the Tamil Tigers is that separatist-terrorist groups can be defeated if they are corralled and crushed militarily. But the Sri Lankan army cornered the Tigers by pushing them onto a beach at the north of the island. The PKK, by contrast, live somewhere in the formidable mountains in southeast Turkey and northwest Iraq. Without, say, extensive helicopter warfare, locating and beating the PKK is next to impossible.

Before the unilateral ceasefire, the PKK successfully committed raids in Turkish territory, killing more than 80 Turkish soldiers this year and blowing up the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Iraq’s largest crude oil export lines. Can they be trusted never to attack again? And barely a month before the ceasefire, Erdoğan had declared “they will drown in their own blood.” Is there any reason to think he has softened since then?

Turkey wants to be accepted by Western Europe, and it wants to destroy the PKK. Though the politics of the recognition of the PKK mean that many EU states and possibly the EU institutions themselves would not look kindly on destroying the group, that could change. Politics tends to have a short memory: destroy the PKK now, turn the attention of the state’s security policy to other things and within a few years, the only criticism will continue to get will be from powerless European Kurds who cling to faith in an independent Kurdistan. Considering that it customarily gets criticised for taking action against the PKK, the Turkish state might do well to end the conflict now, by fair means or foul, and restart reconciliation with estranged Turkish Kurds.

Ahmet Türk, a politician of Kurdish origin, warns against continuing the war. “If the army operations continue and the ceasefire is ignored,” he says, “it will not only cause grave harm to Kurds but to the whole Turkish public.” We have seen how angry the conflict makes Turkish nationalists and how Kurds have suffered from the PKK. This ceasefire, if that is what it is, is an opportunity to stop the pointless killing.

Counterterrorism: the fundamentals

This post is a review of the book Counterterrorism by Ron Crelinsten. Any quotes should be attributed to him unless otherwise stated.

Terrorism is communication. The selection of victims, the actions and their spectacular nature all have communicative functions. It uses violence against one group (the victims) to coerce another group (the audience). Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, either non-state actors who cannot put a guerrilla movement together, or a state that cannot spread the rule of law where it likes. It is singularly economical: “kill one, frighten 10,000”. To truly understand terrorist acts, we must view them in the context in which they occurred and listen to what message they send.

The 1990s brought terrorism into the world’s living room in a process that culminated on 9/11. Since 9/11, two basic schools have thought have emerged among the public, known pejoratively by the supposedly different eras they reflect. “September 10th thinking” holds that terrorism should be about domestic law enforcement. The right laws and the right policing can prevent and punish terrorism just as they do with other crimes. “September 12th thinking” defines counterterrorism purely in military terms, believing we are at war with an implacable foe that cannot be reasoned with or deterred, wants to kill us all and might take generations to defeat. If we have to suspend human rights to achieve victory, such thinkers maintain, it is worth it.

Both of these lines of argument are based on straw men, or painting one’s opponent’s argument as simplistic and then defeating it. More importantly, like the “liberal”-“conservative” divide, they limit how we perceive the problems in question and narrow our options in addressing them. Discourse following 9/11 was often polarised into such ideological camps without recognising the complexity of terrorism.

More robust and useful extensions of these patterns of thought are the criminal justice and war models of coercive counterterrorism, Prof. Crelinsten’s second chapter. In the criminal justice model, terrorism is a crime. It is punished without special anti-terror legislation that suspends suspects’ rights. This model has similar benefits to regular law enforcement: deterrence, incapacitation, stigmatising the criminal, and so on. On the other hand, if there is no law (nulla crimen, nulla poena sine lege), insufficient evidence, a compromised trial or unwillingness to extradite (for instance, EU members are not allowed to extradite criminals to countries where they might be tortured), the suspect goes free. It also does not address the root causes of the crime.

When the criminal justice system is badly used, in an unfair or unjust manner, or when criminal justice procedures become politicized, such as in political prosecutions or show trials, or are compromised, such as when amnesties and early release are given to people convicted of murder, then it can inflame grievances, trigger counter-grievances, or create the impression that violence is the only way to achieve anything. In such cases, a criminal justice approach to counterterrorism can prove counterproductive. In short, other approaches are necessary to address the grievances that charismatic leaders and ideologues use to mobilize recruits, supporters and sympathizers.

Proactive counterterrorism means preventing terrorists from acting. The norm in the criminal justice paradigm is reactive policing, solving crimes and arresting people after they are suspected of one. The proactive approach deals with detection, intelligence gathering and blocking terrorist financing. In this chapter, as in later ones, Dr Crelinsten warns of the dangers of intrusive measures that violate norms of privacy, racial profiling, incarceration without charge and torture.

Moreover, the either-or mentality–either you preemptively tap phones, incarcerate suspects without trial and invade rogue states or you get attacked–limits discourse and the imagination of alternatives. To September 10th thinkers, who hold the law paramount and who fear too much government, Dr Crelinsten says enhanced powers should be tried if they are considered essential. Nonetheless, they need to be accompanied by oversight of counterterrorist agencies and sunset clauses for laws that are only for emergencies. To September 12th thinkers, who advocate preemption at the cost of liberty, he urges the sensible use of intelligence that must be reliable and made available to oversight committees, not cherry-picked and politicised as it was in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Persuasive counterterrorism, like terrorism itself, is communicative. Its function is to dissuade potential or actual terrorists from carrying out their missions. Propaganda, appealing to hearts and minds, incentives to abandon violence and disincentives to engage in it are in this category. One form of preventive communication was nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction, or MAD. The message was, our retaliation will be so massive that both of us will be destroyed.

Persuasive counterterrorism can take four basic forms. The first is offensive external psychological operations (psyops). The terrorist organisation and its supporters are targeted (external), as counterterrorists assure the terrorists that their actions are pointless. Public demonstrations, media coverage that ignores the terrorist message and widely-viewed successful conviction and punishment of terrorists are examples. In 1998, the Real IRA killed 29 people in a bomb attack. The result was that leaders worked even harder to achieve peace at the negotiating table. It could also mean penetrating terrorist organisations and spreading disinformation.

The second form of persuasive counterterrorism is defensive external psyops, or preventing undesired perceptions among terrorists’ constituencies. Promising terrorist recruits that they can return to their group, or rehabilitation and reintegration, can prevent them from acquiring a fixation on violence or martyrdom and help them throw it off. The US State Department openly engages in dialogue on Arabic online forums, frequently to receptive audiences. Too often, people who are “radicalised” are exposed to very few perspectives on what they are angry about. Cross-cultural exchanges can thus soften attitudes on all sides.

Offensive internal psyops aims at preventing excessive fear or other behaviours among the counterterrorists’ public. The US government and media are guilty of fomenting fear through their words and confusion through the disconnect between the values they claim to espouse and their actions. What they could be doing is downplaying the real impact of terrorism (after all, even in the 9/11 attacks, only 0.001% of Americans were killed) and simultaneously condemning terrorism. I believe successfully breaking up terrorist plots and punishing conspirators through effective legal means would also constitute offensive internal psyops, as people would see that the justice system is effective, and that circumvention of rights and wild eyed wars on terror are not necessary.

Finally, you guessed it, defensive internal psyops are defensive measures that prevent undesired behaviours among the public. A terrorist attack is a symbol of the terrorists’ ability to strike anywhere, at any time, in spite of the security forces. Dr Crelinsten says governments need to establish trusting relationships with the public through sharing information that is not politicised. Officials must speak realistically about what they know. The media should provide coverage of terrorist groups’ perspectives without accusing them of being in bed with terrorists.

Defensive counterterrorism assumes that a terrorist attack will happen, so we must minimise the risk and the damage of such an attack. Target hardening means making potential targets harder to attack, say by surrounding VIPs or major sports events with armed guards, or by reinforcing cockpit doors on airplanes. Of course, target hardening is not perfect. Terrorists, like counterterrorists, learn and innovate. Moreover, it is subject to politicisation and the taint of inefficient government that claims that any price is worth saving just one life, when there could be much cheaper ways of saving it.

Critical infrastructure protection (CIP), attempting to secure energy, water, oil supplies (especially in Nigeria and Iraq), urban transport (especially since the Madrid and London bombings), is part of defensive counterterrorism. As the list grows (add to the above banks, electric plants, nuclear facilities (even hospitals have nuclear material), government buildings, computer systems and national monuments), so do the questions. How can we possibly protect all these potential targets at the same time? Who will pay for it? Is it worth it? In the US, funds for CIP were handed out by region, which meant that cities like New York and Washington received similar levels of funding as rural regions terrorists have no interest in (which to me is evidence that anything the government touches becomes a pork barrel slush fund). An integrated approach would mean prevention, preparedness, quick and effective response, and mitigation of adverse effects. Such methods would, of course, be part of a long-term solution.

While claiming their detractors need to think outside of the proverbial box, September 12 thinkers have created a new box in which they have trapped themselves: the “new terrorism”. There are many kinds of terrorism and many different contexts in which they occur. Lumping them all in together has given governments round the world the green light to go Colin Powell on groups as diverse as Chechen rebels and the Tamil Tigers while claiming they were all part of a global conspiracy.

If we want to end terrorism in the long term, we need to understand the causes. A 2003 conference of leading terrorism experts in Oslo came to a consensus, summed up in the book Root Causes of Terrorism: myths, reality and ways forward and available in concise form in this PPT. Poverty, religion and insanity are not root causes of terrorism, whereas repression, foreign occupation, racial or religious discrimination, charismatic demagogues and rapid leaps into modernity are major causes. Moreover, far from one or two of those preconditions leading inevitably to radicalisation, the panel concluded, “terrorism is better understood as emerging from a process of interaction between different parties”.

Despite our inability to find clear causes of terrorism, it is probably inadvisable to continue to spend billions of dollars attempting to pound terrorism into the ground as a long-term tactic. Pakistan has received US$10b in aid since 2002, and less than 10% of it has gone toward education, health and democratic reform. Most of the rest has gone to the military. Surely, the Pakistani military is not naive enough to think it can buy its citizens’ loyalty this way. Not only is attacking villages that may contain terrorists not likely to reduce the number and determination of terrorists, but the corruption that helps radicalise people can be seen as a form of western imperialism through corrupt local officials. As a result, Pakistan has seen hundreds of terrorist incidents since 9/11 and the number is rising

The long-term counterterrorist solution Dr Crelinsten discusses that I agree most with is building cross-cultural relations. Many of the worst problems in the world are due to a failure to respect and understand people outside our own exclusive groups, and exchange across groups (particularly at the grassroots, rather than the elite level, to my way of thinking) reverses this situation. One weakness of the thrust of such talks is that “the current fashion of focusing on Islamist terrorism and Salafist-jihadist extremism” has led to the privileging of religious leaders over secular ones. For instance, 80% of Muslims in Melbourne do not attend mosques. When religious leaders are called upon to speak on behalf of Muslims, the majority feel excluded. Moreover, sources of identity beside religious ones are marginalised when they should be emphasised. When people’s religion, nation or race is their single source of identity, or even just the dominant one, they are likely to respond violently to any slight against it. Appealing to other sides of a personality waters down the danger of one aspect’s dominating.

Education is also a major battleground in the fight against extremism. Education should teach respect and understanding of our differences, the ability to communicate across cultures and deal with misunderstandings, the ability to understand culture (I am convinced Sayyid Qutb became a radical because of his superficial understanding of American culture) and critical thinking in the face of propaganda and prejudice. Schools should also teach history in balanced ways that do not obscure a country or other group’s crimes or highlight those of others. All these measures can be more effective than a military approach to terrorism.

I found Ron Crelinsten’s Counterterrorism an excellent, comprehensive book on the theory of its subject. Its analysis is calm and clear and should be required reading for policymakers in the field.

Imbalances and violence

It is common nowadays to cite inequality between rich and poor as a reason for much of the violence in the world. Why would that be? I used to brush aside such questions with the answer “envy”. Surely, just because someone has more than I, there is no reason I should steal or kill for it. However, as we learn about the psychology of conflict, a clearer picture emerges.

Wealth inequality around the world

The UK Mental Health Foundation cites studies that have found that living in an unequal society causes psychological and physiological changes. Inequality leads in some to a constant “fight or flight” reaction and perpetual stress. It can lead to violence directly through increased crime (including homicide), and can also create the conditions in which violence festers: less trust, disintegrating families and communities, poor scholastic and work performance and mental illness. The US and the UK, the most unequal societies in the rich world, show the deepest symptoms.

Humans are endowed with the power of sympathy, which means we feel moved to help those who appear less fortunate than ourselves. On the other hand, we also possess schadenfreude, which is taking pleasure in others’ misery. Seeing the misfortune of others who do not threaten our self-worth is a boost to our own self-esteem. The combination of sympathy and schadenfreude seems to make us want to be equal with others (or perhaps a little better), and that equalising our fates brings us pleasure, whether we are helping others rise or watching them fall.

Thus, an imbalance of wealth begets violence. A different imbalance that could lead to conflict, something slowly being recognised by the cognoscenti, is the preponderance of unwed males who cannot find a peaceful outlet for their unnatural predicament. Men in China and India outnumber women by millions. In both societies parents prefer to have boys than girls, and because of infanticide and sex-selective abortion, they do. Economists project there will be thirty to forty million more males than females of marriage age in both of those countries by 2020. Others estimate 60m to 100m women worldwide are missing, meaning that, because they are more likely to be aborted, killed, neglected to death or abandoned, there are far fewer females than males. Unwed young men who cannot have sex, who cannot find mates (called “bare branches” in China), become frustrated and angry. As militaries and other violent groups know, teenage males are extremely susceptible to indoctrination, to blaming others, to channeling their frustrations toward condoned violence, easily legitimised through appeals to god, country or fraternity. Such young men are ideal vehicles for terrorism and war.

There is no doubt that other unequal situations can lead to violence. Apartheid South Africa (violence has not abated in South Africa since then because unequal rights have given way to unequal wealth), just like in many African societies today that privilege one ethnic group over another, are conflict prone because of inequalities of rights. Other psychological studies have demonstrated that humans have a desire for justice that is so strong they are willing to give up what little they have to make things fair and punish those they consider acting unfairly. Anywhere we perceive undue favour for an identifiable person or group, humans might turn to vigilante justice to level the playing field.

In the book Lost Horizon by James Hilton, a thoughtful British diplomat and his companions crash their plane in the mystical Shangri-la, a monastery inhabited by Tibetan monks. The monks’ overriding value is moderation. The novel juxtaposes the diplomat with a restive young man who cannot see value in the monks’ ways of life and thinks only of escaping to the outer world. It also juxtaposes the monks’ peaceful and sustainable approach to the world with a brewing world conflict (presciently, as the book was written in 1933). Moderation in wealth, desire and emotion can lead to peace within oneself and peace in a community. Imbalances and inequalities are everyone’s concern.