Friday, May 24, 2013

Confronting Radical Extremism, or The Curse of Interesting Times

Unfortunately, life is not all black and white, but varying shades of gray...with all shadings of color thrown in for people who aren't color blind. This holds true whether we’re dealing with the temper tantrums of our kids, the petty squabbles that infect most workplaces, or the life-and-death struggles that confront us around the world.

Many people seek to divide the world into pigeon-holes of “us” and “them.” This approach often finds spectacular success in the world of politics --- as well as any other form or marketing --- where the success of the “pitchman” often depends on striking resonant chords with his audience. But when we turn from the pettiness of our personal lives to the dangerous world around us, and “us” versus “them” seems to become a question of survival, our emotional reactions often trap us into a false dichotomy of choices: either waging total war, reflecting our instinct for survival, or a passive idealism that stems from our hopes for a better world than the one we find around us. Unfortunately, both approaches have flaws that prevent them from attaining our goals; and in the context of our current troubles with Muslim extremists throughout the world, we’ve seen both approaches lead us to grief.

Since survival is our most visceral instinct, any world defined by “us” and them” will lead us to seek “them” as the enemy; and a group feeling itself under attack will do whatever it takes to respond to the threat. It may be tempting to think in terms of all-out war, or expelling any member of "their" group to protect ourselves, but the modern world is more complex than the jungle our ancestors inhabited. In the end that approach betrays our ideals, and is something that will bring shame to us in the long run.

In the 1800s, we responded to raids on our settlements by some Indian tribes by (a) targeting all Indians, and (b) forcing them into the 19th Century equivalent of concentration camps. Ayone who has forgotten this sordid chapter of our past, need only read about our treatment of Black Kettle, including the massacre of the women and children of his tribe at Sand Creek, and the later massacre what was left of his tribe on the Washita River by Custer and his men to see what happens when you target whole groups, rather than those who mean you harm.

I don't think that the current schism between peaceful and radical elements of Islam is terribly different than the same schism between different elements of Christianity a few centuries ago. The only differences seem to be that one is occurring now while the other occurred in the dim, distant past, and that the West passed through the rationality of the Enlightenment Era, while the Middle East is still struggling to catch up.

I suppose we could simply treat them all as enemies, and wipe them from the face of the Earth. History, however, wouldn't be kind to us --- although, like the rabid Indian fighters of 150 years ago, we won't be around to hear it. And I don't think any of us would really want to be a part of that kind of war of extermination.

I think our "response", if it's to be that of civilized men and women, has to be to recognize that life is imperfect, and that while some people are evil, others are not. So, we resist evil --- and move to wipe it out where we can --- and try to do our best not to descend into barbarism. That's been the challenge facing Man ever since we evolved as a species, and we probably won't ever get it right. That doesn't mean we simply surrender to our coarser instincts and emotions; it means we learn from the past, try not to make the same mistakes, and keep trying.

Of course, this won't eliminate the problem: given the Era we're living through, we'll probably keep facing extremists, and hate-inspired killings and attacks will still go on. But if we wiped the Muslim world off the face of the Earth, we'd still face the same problems. We'd still have hatred; there would still be extremists who think that they have all the answers --- and that anyone who disagrees with them needs to be dealt with severely; and we'd still have lunatics massacring and killing innocents. It's part of the curse of the human race: as imperfect creatures, we're left to grope our way through life. But responding to lunatics by engaging in blood feuds is a tribal response, and will leave us at each others' throats forever. It may well be that our limitations as a species will eventually lead us back to that kind of life --- the life of the jungle --- but I'm not willing to give up my hopes for us yet. And it suggests that our proper course is to keep trying to distinguish our enemies from our potential friends...helping those with "civilized" instincts and behaviors resist and cope with the lunatics in their midst...and hoping that eventually we'll be able to overcome our barbaric instincts.

In the book The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond explores the difference between the modern, Western world and the tribal world that we came from. Among his insights is that while we've made remarkable strides, and our societies have evolved to perform what our ancestors would have regarded as miracles, we're basically the same people we've always been...but that what works for small-scale societies often doesn't work well for larger ones. I don't think we should allow what our emotional response would be to having someone we love murdered by fanatics guide us, since those responses would probably involve tearing the offenders limb from limb; while personal vengeance might work in a tribal setting, we need to have cooler heads, taking a longer view, deciding what to do. Otherwise, we never escape the cycle of violence, and we're left with no more than one of our feet sticking out of the jungle.

In the end, I think the approaches of both Bush and Obama were simplistic and naive: Bush's was naive in conception, and clumsy in execution; Obama's strives to take a broader perspective, but mistakes idealism for sophistication, and has been crippled by a lack of understanding of the real world around us. In the end, I think a targeted approach --- in identifying both the enemy, and our friends --- will prove more productive than lashing out blindly. But it will be neither easy nor pretty...since there are no easy answers, and all the pretty rhetoric in the world is no match for determined evil. And it's likely to take a century or so, before the current wave of fanaticism plays itself out...unless we simply decide to conquer the world and exterminate anyone who opposes us. But then, that will be even uglier, and leave us with a whole raft of other problems to deal with.

So, welcome to the 21st Century. It's likely to give renewed meaning to the ancient Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times."

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a retired public prosecutor from Michigan, writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the Guardians of Peace-tm science fiction adventure series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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