Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Why War and Terrorism Won't Go Away, until Politics and Institutional Religion Go Away

(From the archives - December 31st, 2004).

As we go about our daily lives, we rarely encounter conflict. Most people we meet in the street, or in the pub, or while out walking, greet us civilly – and often cheerily. Those we trade with – those we serve, and those who serve us – do not do violence to us. And the vast majority of them don't try to use trickery against us, either.

Yet, when we turn on the news, most of it is about conflict. We see the latest atrocities from Iraq or elsewhere. We hear of the latest assaults on our liberties, which dishonest politicians are making in the name of protecting us against terrorism.

Obviously, something is badly wrong here. How can it be, that in a world in which so many good people live their lives peacefully and honestly, there is so much conflict? How can it be that, for well more than half a century, there has not been a single year free from war?

To address these questions, I want to begin by looking a long way back. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors lived in sedentary tribes. These societies were mostly peaceful. Power and prestige were acquired by the mere fact of survival into relative old age. And I think I can make a good guess at how the tribal elders of those days reached their decisions and resolved their disputes. I think that long-ago time must have been an age of consensus.

Then, something changed inside the minds of some of the stronger and more intelligent men. They began to desire power – power over others. They did not want to wait to become elders; they wanted power now. They began to develop their skills in combat and in leading people. They started wars to expand their power. They began to cultivate violence and deceit; for, in war, violence and deceit are considered virtues. The old age of consensus turned into a new age, an age of conflict. The peaceful tribe turned into the warlike state.

From that time, almost to the present, conflict has been the dominant theme of human history. Two organizations – state and church – have flourished, that are characteristic of an age of conflict. The state with its institutional violence and theft, and the church with its mental manipulation and mumbo-jumbo. In an age of conflict, the way for individuals to acquire power and prestige is by orchestration of violence, or by trickery, or both.

Then, some five hundred years ago, came the Renaissance. Again, something changed inside many people's minds. People became more individual, more dynamic, more innovative. The change was gradual from the point of view of individual lives, but it was quick compared with the centuries preceding it.

And it was followed by after-shocks. The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the 19th-century entrepreneurial spirit, the 20th-century technology revolution. Each helped to make those it affected more individual, more dynamic, more civilized, or all three. Gradually, people became better able to create and to innovate. With, as consequence, a great increase in our ability to master our planet. And, on the other hand, in our ability to destroy it.

But the organization of human societies has not kept pace with these changes. In the West, the much-touted political system called democracy has failed to deliver the benefits it promised. Indeed, it is breaking itself apart. The factional nature of democratic politics, and the imposition of bad policies, are destroying the very sense of "we" that democracy took its legitimacy from. And in other parts of the world, people still suffer under forms of political government that pre-date the Enlightenment and the Renaissance.

There is huge tension here. As individuals, we honest, productive, civilized human beings have outgrown the age of conflict. Yet our social and political structures are still rooted in that age. They not only permit, but actively reward, violent aggression and deceit. No wonder there is so much trouble in the world today!

One form of trouble much in the news is terrorism. But terrorism is nothing new. In 1605, for example, Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the English parliament. And the English still celebrate him to this day! There were also many terrorist assassinations carried out by Anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Modern terrorism, though, has introduced a new feature. This is the, usually random, targeting of people who are merely going about their daily business. Such terrorism dates from about 1968, and its earliest examples were airliner hi-jackings. Since then, the terrorists have added other forms of atrocity, such as bombs in public places.

Why do terrorists do what they do? One thing, shared by just about all terrorist movements, is a grievance. It is well said that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

For example, consider the Chechens. In the 1940s, Stalin had them forcibly transported to central Asia, and they were not allowed back to their homes until 1957. You can imagine why they hate the Russians, even more so since the invasion of the mid 1990s. And why some of them are prepared to take ruthless actions if they think they will aid their cause of independence.

Or consider the Palestinians. Think how they must have felt about having a new, hostile state, Israel, imposed in what they thought of as their territory. However much sympathy Jews deserved after the Holocaust, what happened was hard on the Palestinians. You can imagine that they, and their friends, will have little love for those that did those things – including the British and the Americans. No wonder some of them become terrorists.

These are examples of what I call the Fundamental Problem of Politics. In politics, if your interests are not being taken account of, there is only one way to get your views heard. And that is to start getting really nasty to people. There are many examples of this, not all as extreme as outright terrorism. Such as, the halting – for a little while – of the spiralling rise in British fuel taxes, by the disruptive protest of September 2000.

The Fundamental Problem has a flip side, too. In politics, those who are never nasty to others are likely to end up as victims. In politics, nice guys, and nice gals, come last.

There is a second feature, common to many terrorist groups. That is, that they have a religious component as well as a political. In Northern Ireland, for example, terrorism has arisen out of a long history of hatred between Catholics and Protestants. But a high proportion of terrorists today, including the perpetrators of September 11th, are Muslims. So much so, that some scaremongers have tried to raise the spectre of an army of Muslim militants trying to forcibly convert the entire world to Islam through terrorist acts.

So far, I have talked of aggressions carried out by groups specifically set up for a terrorist purpose. There is, however, another class of agencies of violent conflict in the world. Namely, political governments. And they are very effective at killing people. In the 20th century, they caused the deaths of 115 million people in wars, and another 170 million through government action outside wars. Mao Tse-Tung with 40 million and Stalin with 20 million were the leaders in the Megadeath League. And Hitler weighed in with about 12 million.

Let's put the numbers in perspective. For a terrorist group to match Mao's body count, it would have to carry out a September-11th sized atrocity every day for approaching 30 years. Compared to political governments, terrorists are small fry in the killing stakes.

Ah, say the scaremongers, but what if Islamic terrorists got their hands on a nuclear bomb? Or biological weapons? I, for one, cannot conceive of terrorists getting hold of such weapons without the active co-operation of a political government. Such co-operation would be seen as an act of war. And even the stupidest president or general ought to be able to foresee the inevitable and extreme retaliation. So I don't think it's too likely to happen.

Terrorism is bad. No-one should condone it. And certainly it is prudent to take sensible precautions against terrorists. But political governments, particularly in the USA since September 11th, have gone way further than is sensible. Secret FBI and police searches of homes and offices. Secret wiretaps, secret investigations of financial, medical and travel records. Freezing of assets without notice or appeal. "No-fly" lists that ban people from travelling. Extra barriers for tourists entering the USA. And there's lots more to come.

Meanwhile in Britain, the emphasis is slightly different, but the idea is the same. Detention without trial – though this was recently ruled illegal by the law lords. Special courts without juries. ID cards. More police powers. Curtailment of the right to protest.

I think there is a pattern in all this. It is not that an anti-terrorist agenda is, as side-effect, damaging civil liberties. Rather, it is that the politicians have an agenda that includes destroying liberty, and terrorism offers a good excuse to further it. This also helps to explain the scaremongering about nuclear weapons, and about militants trying to convert the world by force to Islam. If people are frightened, goes the logic, they are less inclined to resist the destruction of their freedoms.

But people are starting to get wise to what is going on. In the USA, courts have begun to strike down parts of the "PATRIOT" act as unconstitutional. And one of the British law lords referred to detention without trial in the following words. "The real threat to the life of the nation… comes not from terrorism, but from laws such as these.”

Politicians make out that they are doing these things in the name of security. But they obviously can't mean our security. For, in stomping on civil liberties, they also open up more and more opportunities for their goons to arbitrarily harass innocent people. That doesn't make us any more secure, does it? Pull the other one, politicos.

And then there is the war in Iraq. I think something shattered when Bush and Blair invaded Iraq. Never again could anyone try to claim that democracies don't start wars. Furthermore, their stated reason for the war – Saddam's weapons of mass destruction – has bounced back to hit them in the face. There were no such weapons.

And I have been very encouraged by the reaction in Britain to the war. For people in general are strongly opposed to it. I have heard figures as high as 70% against it. Yet the politicians, apart from a few loony lefties, seem to have been almost unanimously in favour of the war.

I think there is a new factor coming into play. Something deep down in us is starting to speak to us. And what it is telling us is that politics, war and terrorism, violence and deceit, are no longer appropriate ways for human beings to behave. We have reached a point in the development of our capabilities, where we need a better way of organizing ourselves. I myself am coming to feel this more and more strongly, and I think I am by no means alone. But the politicians, wrapped in their cocoons of lies and spin, don't want to know.

Here is reason for hope. The age of conflict, says something deep inside us, is due to end. Just as, all those years ago, consensus reached the end of its usefulness and was replaced by the more dynamic conflict, so now conflict itself is reaching the end of its road.

What will replace conflict? I believe I can make a good guess. The next age, I think, will be more dynamic yet. It will be an age of and for the human individual. It will be an age of competition, of competence. No longer will power and prestige be acquired through violence and deceit. Instead, individuals will gain them, in an atmosphere of peace, honesty and justice, by making themselves better than others. The power and prestige will go to those who do things better, do things quicker, do things cheaper, do what others can't. The Fundamental Problem will be solved. The good guys and gals will come first, not last.

I will leave to your imagination how much better a world an age of competence would bring, compared with the conflict we have now. But I will make some predictions. The politicians and the terrorists will be seen to have been on the same side – trying to perpetuate the age of conflict. Aggressive violence and deceit will be seen as things of the past, as will the moral Neanderthals that made use of them. Politics, and those that can't survive without it, will be consigned to the scrap-heap of history where they belong.

People will lose the old, top-down allegiances based on nationality and political or religious groupings, and will gain new bottom-up ones, based on common interests and co-operation. War will no longer be possible, since anyone displaying warlike behaviour will simply be frozen out of society. And all rationale for terrorism will fade away, as the happiness of the age of competence heals the grievances of the age of conflict.

Furthermore, I think that institutional religions will die away – with a yawn. They just won't mean anything much any more. And the idea, that anyone could ever have tried to foist their particular brand of religion on anyone else, will come to seem repugnant.

Last, I come to the sixty-four zillion dollar question. How do we get from here to there?

Over to you, dear reader. It's your turn to contribute your ideas.

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