Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Continue PBS series: "Upping the Ante": what makes our "enemies" tick?

The third program in the PBS Series “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice” (website) is “The New Face of Terror: Upping the Ante”.

This 90 minute documentary (followed by discussion) looks at the psychology behind asymmetric actors, going back as far as “The Battle of Algiers” back around 1960. It covers the deaths of 11 Olympic athletes from Israel in 1972, playing out on global television (and confounding rather incompetent West German authorities – I had just been in the country early that August). It covers the 1983 Marine Barracks attack in Lebanon, and then the 1995 subway attack in Tokyo.

The film covers the history of Osama bin Laden only briefly, emphasizing the effect of the “Lion’s Den Operation” against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which it says was a military defeat but a psychological victory.

In covering Al Qeada’s strike in 1998 on embassies in two countries in Africa, it highlights the fact that Al Qaeda could strike in two distant locations simultaneously and was willing to kill so many natives (and women and children) just to get to a few Americans.

The film covers the rise of radical Islam in Britain, where one man says “there’s more to life than what you do for a living” while he does his prayers, and says that he would like to see Britain accept sharia law for Muslim citizens.

It covers a 17 year old Palestinian boy in Gaza (very timely now), who is angry because family members were killed, and then a Sri Lanka teen who joins “the Tigers”, a separatist group, because he says that the government killed his parents (a theme similar to the 1999 film “The Terrorist”, covered on this blog Dec 3, 2008).

The film points out that many terror cells are led by relatively well educated but psychologically disaffected men, but they recruit from young men with poor economic prospects and brainwash them with the idea that Paradise will be better than this life.

What causes this nihilism? It’s true that Islam has centuries old historical grievances (the film mentions the Crusades, almost with the brevity of CNN’s “Thousand Years of History” back at the end of 1999). But there is always a tendency for ideologies, once they become concerned about the connection between moral and justice, to focus on the topic of individual wrongdoing, which can include the failure to do one’s part in the world. There is a natural tendency for people who are put upon to want to see others made aware of the burdens they carry or sacrifices they believe they have to make. The radical Left in the United States was sometimes like this (and in Communist China the epitome of that kind of thinking was Mao’s Cultural Revolution). But particularly in Palestine there is another element at work: personal shame, at having territory and property expropriated by force by Israel. Shame can be a most unacceptable emotion, leading to the desire to see others share it.

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