A cure for terror: It begins with each of us

October 13, 2008 at 1:03 pm Leave a comment

We cannot often choose our circumstances, but we can choose how to respond to them: that is our real freedom.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, from Only you can uproot the terror menance, TOI, October 2, 2008.

Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) was trying to convey the path to true happiness when he wrote the above sentence. It could, however, apply to almost every facet of our lives especially in how we deal with war & conflict in our own backyards.

The idea of dealing with terror on an individual level might seem strange and far-fetched to many. After all what could one person do to make even the slightest difference when a blanketing cloud of terror surrounds the globe? It is my belief that the roots of terror lie among each of us. No, we are not all killers but we create killers. Our flaws and weaknesses could give rise to feelings of anger, hatred, fear and resentment within othersople. This could eventually lead to the latter person or group becoming a terrorist.

Discrimination is one such individual flaw. If a person has been discriminated and mistreated on account of his background, he is bound to have pent-up anger and hatred. His pride and ego have been damaged. He has most likely been living in a state of fear most of his life simply because he was born a certain way – into a lower caste family or a Muslim home or with a darker skin color. A chance meeting with a radical thinker or a terrorist that marks the beginning of one’s fatal career in terrorism is just a coincidence.

We should individually act to reduce (better yet: remove) such discrimination. TNH has pointed out that each of us have seeds of hope, love, forgiveness and compassion as well as those of fear, anger, violence and despair, We need to examine which of these seeds we have been nurturing within us and in those around us?

While growing up in Nepal, I was ubiquitously exposed to caste discrimination. It was deeply entrenched in the society and in the heads of my grandparents, my mom and her sisters. Even today my mom’s biggest fear is that I will marry an untouchable. When she found out that once I visited the house of a Chyame family and had tea there, her words were: “We do not eat or drink at their homes. You should limit your association with them to just being acquaintances.” Some might say that it’s a miracle I did not grow up to be a caste-ist like my mom. I attribute this miracle to the ‘peace education’ I received informally from priests and monks whilst growing up.

The phrase ‘peace education’ is very reminiscent of hippie values. I got the phrase from TNH as well. According to him, peace education is when two opposing parties/individuals deeply listen to each other and communicate in a respectable manner. Though he was talking about ‘peace education’ in context of peace negotiations between rivaling nations and political/religious groups, there is an inherent need to bring peace education to the masses at an early period in life. I distinctly remember a Christian father, a Hindu pundit and a Buddhist monk who collectively encouraged my interfaith Sunday group to ‘listen’ to those in suffering because at times that could be enough. Even before I knew about ‘peace education’, I was listening to the stories of untouchables – their sufferings and helplessness. And it helped open-up my mind.

At that period in time it did not seem plausible that a disciminated people would pick up guns and go on a killing spree. But as the oppression prolonged, it eventually happened. For instance, take the Madhesi minority in Southern Nepal. They were discriminated by being tagged as Bhaiyas and the only opportunity offered to them was selling fruits and vegetables out of their rickety-old bicycles. Most of them were not even seen as belonging to Nepal though they were born and raised there. Eventually the oppressed group formed several rebel factions such as the Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum demanding formation of an autonomous region within Nepal and representation in the government. Resorting to violence was their chosen method to convey the ‘seriousness’ of their demands.

It was not as if none of the Madhesis had been complaining against their mistreatment asking (not demanding0 for greater rights and better opportunities. But the general public turned a deaf ear towards them and remained indifferent. If the Madhesis raised their voice, they were reprimanded – sometimes by means of force – and ‘shown their place in society’. The majority population had ‘flawed’ views & beliefs about their superiority. Their ‘weakness’ to step out of the comfort zone watered the seeds of anger and violence within the Madhesis. Over time a terror group was born.

Most terrorists coming out of developing or under-developed nations were not ‘born evil’ with satanic intents to destroy the world. Such mentally ill people are few and far between. They are also more likely to be used as ‘disposable pawns’ (such as suicide bombers) rather than become influential members within terror organizations. Most terrorists who lead terror squads and mastermind various attacks are very likely to have been victims of discrimination due to inequality.

Think about why Islamic terror groups coming out of the Middle East and regions around Afghanistan/Pakistan want to destroy the developed western world? After all, the West has not even been in contact with these terrorist groups to discriminate against them. The reason for their immense hatred towards the developed world lies in unfulfilled promises of globalization that led to discrimination due to inequality.

The developed world has been consuming a heck of a lot of oil that comes from the Middle East. This translates to a lot of money being pumped into the economies of these oil producing nations. But the money has failed to do anything to uplift the masses who linger at the bottom of the income pyramid. Quite a few oil barons from oil-rich nations, on the other hand, have become billionaires parading around in imported cars, wearing imported designer clothes and smoking imported cigars all the while looking down on their fellow citizens who cannot afford such luxuries. These wealthy citizens (and their governments) have done next to nothing towards closing the inequality gap.

When the poor and hungry in such places, facing discrimination from their own people, compare their destitute with the opulence of the oil-mongers, several natural human emotions crawl through their skins: such as rage, anger and jealousy. These emotions are directed towards the imported commodities (rather than the rich snobs of their nations) and hence towards the developed nations from where they come. In other words, the soon-to-be terrorist hates America because he cannot afford the Nike Air Jordan shoes and the ipod Touch that represents America in his eyes. While those who can afford them in his country, treat him with contempt.

(Unregulated globalization could be blamed in this scenario for increase in inequality but it is not to blame for the rise in terrorism which is due to the underlying social discrimination already prevalent in the society that is being manifested in a new way.)

So what could one do individually to prevent the creation of a Madhesi terror group or to lessen the feelings of hatred among the not-so-priviledged in our own society? To begin with, we can start treating each other as equal human beings. Just because someone is uneducated or comes from a backward community, it does not mean he or she deserves to be treated in a demeaning way. Some of us (especially in developing nations) may be able to afford imported apparel, laptops and other such goods. Does that mean we are better than those who cannot afford them? Let’s not look at the maids and street vendors with condescending eyes. It does not take much (and definitely does not lower our ego or pride) to treat them with the respect they deserve as humans. After all, they too work hard to feed their bellies. We would be doing humanity a service by encouraging (also maybe helping and guiding) them to achieve more in life.

All this begins with each of us. Once you change yourself it is easier to influence others. We can keep on bombing all locations identified as terrorist-breeders – be it Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan – till they are all wiped off the World Map. Or in a desperate (but glaringly futile) effort we can follow the Mumbai way and ban all plastic bags because obviously terrorists will be helpless in trying to find something to carry the bombs in! But the discriminated, under-privileged person will somehow manage to find a new place and a new way to release his anger and frustration. To end the violence perpetrated by terrorists, we need to bring about a change within us and in those around us. To paraphrase TNH: Water the positive seeds of hope, brotherhood and compassion within yourself, and then in others.

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Entry filed under: On Global Conflict. Tags: , , , , , , .

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