The Age of the Ill

One of the questions we have probably been facing for the last couple of days, and will carry on facing in the future, is: what are the motivations behind terrorists’ attacks? What drives these people, what makes them blow themselves up and kill dozens of innocent people at the same time? Of course, the phenomenom of terrorism is extremely complex, so complex that it can never be explained by only a few psychosociological theories or a few pages of combined arguments. But, among many other reasons and influences, there is certainly one thing that can explain why people in our current world are facing such dramatic, tragic needs – and that is a global crisis.

It is a global crisis, because we can not limit terrorism to a certain area or region, such as the Middle East. Terrorism comes from all over the world, because terrorists do not belong to a single ethnic or religious group. If it was a regional, local phenomenom, situated for instance in the Middle East, maybe then we could say that it was connected to a crisis of Islam, but when there are Westerners from all over Europe and even outside Europe (USA, for example) that join the ranks of terrorist groups, then we can no longer speak of a localized crisis – we must speak of a global crisis. Now, you can ask yourselves: but what kind of crisis is this? Where has it originated?

The answer is: this is a sickness, a disease that has long been stewing in the stewpan of our world and of our global society. It is none other than a crisis of values. What do people have to guide their lives these days? What kind of future prospects do they own? Throughout History, there have always been values and ideals to wield proudly and faithfully, to build one’s principles and moral code with. Yes, there have been waves of ascent and descent in the defending of these values, but it has been a common, recurrent reality. Look at the Japanese. Their ancient culture of honor and wisdom and integrity, passed on from generation to generation, has resulted in a people that still holds, in many cases, some basic, distinguishing values. Everybody knows how corteous and respectful the Japanese mostly are, how they value good manners and solemnity. I remember, for example, watching the Japanese playing in the World Cup and noticing how they did not commit any act of misconduct, or how the Japanese football fans cleaned the benches before leaving the stadium. Another good example is how, in Japanese schools, there are usually no janitors; students themselves clean their classrooms and the school buildings before going home – this is a lesson of sharing and respect. Of course, one could argue that the Japanese are not an entirely peaceful people – they have participated in WWII, for instance, with their famous Kamikaze and they have committed some brutal actions. And, indeed, the same teachings that resulted from a mix between Bushido, Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, were the basis of the Samurai way of life, and Samurais were warriors – people who lived for war, who lived to kill and to die. But, still, it is undeniable that the Japanese are, in many ways, a people that highly values principles such as honor, respect, integrity…

In the West, the masses live in a repetitive routine that gives them no great joy to look forward to. As youngsters, individuals look at their future and read their guidelines: you will go to school to study and to learn; after school, you will get a house and you will get a job to pay your rent; you will get a car and you will have to work harder to pay for gas, alongside your rent; you will buy something else and have to work harder to pay for even more possessions. And so it goes, in an endless cycle that drives so many of us to stress-related illnesses. In fact, it is a known fact than more than 90% of current diseases – either psychological or physical, or sometimes both – are derived from stress and from a stressful way of life. So, in the end, what do we live for? We live to earn more, to buy more, to consume more, and in this process we become materialistic and individualists. Individualists because the capitalist system we live in is a competitive system. The masses are constantly competing amidst themselves to have more, to own more, to buy more. All this competition is comparing us with each other, establishing patterns that distinguish us, pushing us away from each other…

Eventually, we find ourselves living in a world where the keywords are consumerism, consumption, materialism, competition, individualism, stress… And if we know that this is what we should expect of the future, why should we even look forward to it? Take children and teenagers who love to play videogames and computer games and reading fantasy fiction, for example. What is is that keeps drawing them to these distractions? Is it not precisely because they are distractions? Because they allow them to escape to a world where they feel inspired to fight for a cause, where they feel inspired to live an adventurous life, where they feel inspired to stand against the evil villains by holding strongly to their values of honor and truth and glory? Then, they go back to the real world and realise that it is a lot more boring than these fantastic, epic lives they are so fascinated with: in the real world, you will must likely work until you die, and you will most likely work in something you do not particularly love. Even if you do earn enough money to buy everything you may want, it is still very likely that you will get to the end of your life and realise that you have somehow not fulfilled yourself… Simply because human beings cannot be fulfilled by materialistic possessions.

There is a spiritual dimension in each of us that requires us to live in a way that fulfills our dreams, our expectations, our desires. There is a part of us, a crucial part of us, that needs to be inspired to live a greater, a better life – that needs to find a purpose in life. If we drift through life without a purpose, what will we ever hang on to? There will always be something missing – the meaning of life, the reason why we are alive, why we were born. And to find a purpose in life is, essentially, to find a cause worth fighting for, a cause worth dedicating yourself to. But what causes do the masses have, today, in our world, in our societies, to truly and wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to?

In a world where people are not fulfilling themselves, individuals become deeply sick. This is a fact, proven by other facts such as the undeniable statistics on stress-related illnesses. It is true; people are living sick lives, developing neuroses, sometimes psychoses, or simply becoming entrapped in such a stressful, repetitive, boring life that they do not even realise how bad they feel with themselves. Everybody knows that a vulnerable, weak individual becomes easy prey to predators. This happens all the time in the animal kingdom: a sick animal, a crippled animal, will most likely be caught by predators. The same happens in our societies: these sick individuals that are so desperately fighting for a purpose in life, fighting for an escape from this prison we live in, become easy prey to the manipulation of some people who know exactly what it takes to persuade them. These are the religious fundamentalists (Islamic or not; look at any kind of cult or sect) who tell their recruits: “Come and join us; we are a group of equals, we are all brothers fighting for a sacred, common cause. We are defending what is right and we are willing to give our lives for this cause, because we know that we will be accepted in Paradise for fighting for this cause”. This kind of speech may seem mad and delusional to many of us, most of us I hope. But it is very alluring and persuasive to people who are feeling powerless, meaningless, without anything to live for. They are told there is a group of people (a terrorist group, in this case) where all are brothers and all dedicate themselves to a cause that is greater than any individual; a sacred, holy cause that gives them the opportunity to literally fight for something and that, in the end, will give them straight access into a joyous, free afterlife.

I heard of a Belgian teenage girl who, one or two years ago, escaped to Syria out of the blue. She ran away from her mother, she ran away from her home, her country, everything she’d ever known, probably convinced by unknown people who she met online. I heard of teenagers, young men and women from different European countries who also ran away from their homes and their families to join the terrorist ranks: boys who wanted to become soldiers, who wanted to wield guns and to fight in the “Holy War”; girls who wanted to become the wives of these brave soldiers. They are all deceing themselves, of course. When they get there, reality is very different. Girls are enslaved, raped and forced to marry older men. Boys are sent to war and die. But it doesn’t matter so much what happens to them when they get there (please do not confuse these words with disrespect and indifference toward their loved ones and themselves). The crucial issue here is asking and knowing why they left. And this is one of the explanations.

Naturally, when you take this into consideration, it becomes much clearer that the phenomenom of terrorism is far from being solved – and will be. If terrorism is only a symptom of a much greater crisis, a global crisis, a civilizational crisis, how do we solve it? How do we make things better? How do we cure the disease of an entire civilization? It seems obvious that the answer includes changing everything; every parameter or paradigm we have been guiding ourselves by for the last decades; every goal that we have been considering the most important to achieve in our lives; every value (or lack of it) that we have been defending (or not defending). Our world needs a deep, nuclear change if we are ever going to overcome this challenge. Terrorism is only a reflection of a much bigger problem, of a much deeper problem, something that has been evolving for the last decades, for the last few hundreds of years, and that is now starting to show its scariest, most vicious manifestations.

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Facing Terror With Peace

Another question that is probably arising in our minds right now is: how do we fight this evolving threat of terrorism? There is no doubt that terrorism must be fought. It doesn’t matter whether we support war or loathe its very concept; war still exists. For as much as we’d like to make it disappear, there are others in this world who worship it and live for it – these terrorist attacks are proof of that. So, we can make two statements: 1) War exists in our world, and it will probably keep existing for a long time. 2) How do we react to this reality?

This is a very important question. Considering that war exists, do we support violence to end violence, or do we turn our back entirely away from violence in response to violence? Do we choose relatiation – an eye for an eye – or do we choose peace? Like Mahatma Gandhi has said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind“.  Anybody with a logical mind can understand this: violence will only generate more violence. And taking that into consideration, the logical answer would be to end all kinds of violence and to react to violence with peace. To drive out darkness with light.

But what if there is an enemy that does not let us live in peace? What do we do then? This is, I think, one of our biggest challenges in the current world and in face of this current threat of terrorism: how can we react to violence with peace when there are people out there who are so committed to their disturbed cause that they will only ever cause more violence? Can there be a peaceful end to a brutal sickness such as this fundamentalism? Can we stop ISIS or any other terrorist groups with peaceful measures?

Thinking about this question makes me deeply sad. It makes me sad because I am one of those people (many people, I believe, because there are still many good people in this world, many people who choose light over darkness) who believes that peace is the true way, that peace is the better way. There are many people in this world who know that violence will only bring more violence. But what power do we have to end it? As individuals, or even as a minority group, what actual power do we have to stop this maddening violence, these endless wars? There is a feeling of impotence, of powerlessness, that haunts us and saddens us; we live in a violent world, we do not wish to live in a violent world, but what powers do we have to change that?

There are those who would say that change starts within. And I couldn’t agree more with that. Be the change you want to see. If we want to see people in this world living accordingly to the right values, to the right ideals, then the only thing we can do is to begin with ourselves. There is only a certain number of other people we can reach, or only a certain dimension in which we can reach them. So we must start with ourselves. But this scenario of random violence, of unforeseen and inexplicable brutality, poses a challenge that I do not know the answer to: can we still maintain peace when there are those around us who just won’t let us?

I don’t have the answer for this question, but I believe it is probably one of the biggest, most important questions we must face in the future. Is it, perhaps, too late to react to violence only through peace?

 

 

 

 

The New Era of Terror: the Invisible Enemies

In the aftermath of what is now being called the worst terrorist attack in France in modern times, I wonder. We have spent yesterday night watching the live footage and hearing the reporters describing this horrifying Friday 13th – a true night of terror. As I watched the news, I realised that the more than one hundred people who died yesterday in the Bataclan died while I was watching TV. As my father and I were sitting silently in the living room, watching the events unfold, feeling sad and worried and afraid for all those people in Paris, we were also feeling afraid for the future of our world. And as I heard the explosions and the bursts of gunfire, and as I watched bloodstained people being taken to the ambulances on stretchers, I wondered.

First of all, I wondered what is going to happen to Europe, what is going to happen to our entire world in the face of this new invisible enemy that haunts us: terrorism. Terrorism is, indeed, the act of spreading terror among all. It stems from the randomness and unpredictability: where are they going to strike, when are they going to strike? Terrorists attack without being expected: they unexpectedly strike in a place and time nobody could have guessed. That is why terrorism is so effective: because it destroys any sense of safety, it makes people feel unsafe and threatened wherever they are. And can you imagine what that will eventually create? A widespread sense of fear, a widespread sense of insecurity. The main goal of terrorism is to build a state of panic that will overpower its targets – to paralyze Europe, the West, whatever it is, with panic and fear and terror. What can you do? How can you fight back against an enemy you do not see, whose identity you do not know, whose location you do not know? What is, perhaps, even more terrifying about these attackers is that they are fully prepared to die for their cause. They often do not wish to negotiate or to run away from the Police, unless they still have more missions to undertake: they are ready to die, and they will take as many with them as they possibly can.

There are many questions on our minds today, as there will be in the times to come, but what is probably one of the biggest questions is: how are we going to fight this growing threat? How are we going to fight and defeat this Era of Terror?

This leads us to my second point. As I was watching the course of events yesterday, my father and I were talking about all that is going to come out of this horrible night. Who is going to suffer the most after yesterday night? The families of the injured and the dead, of course, the survivors who will have to deal with psychological traumas, of course, the very people of France who are now going to live with the fear of seeing this happen again. But what about Muslims? What about all the Muslim civilians who are going to be looked at sideways? What about all those Muslims that will be going down the street and be looked at suspiciously because Westerners (European or American) no longer know who to trust? The problem of terrorism is that it is closely associated with a face, a stereotype, an identity: Arabs and Muslims. The acts of these Islamic fundamentalists will only victimize their own people.

But here comes the question. Are Muslims their people? Muslim people from all around the world claim that they have no relation with these terrorists, and I believe them. Would we enjoy being tied to Ku Klux Klan members just because we’re white westerners? The acts of a few mentally disturbed sadists do not speak for the millions of innocents who are being stigmatized – and are only going to be more stigmatized – after these events. Muslims are NOT the same as these Islamic fundamentalists. They too are suffering at their hands, maybe even more than us, especially in terms of numbers. How many Muslim innocents can you imagine being arrested or killed, here or particularly in the Middle East, at the unwinding of this violent war?

France has already stated that these terrorist attacks are being officially considered an Act of War. And I do agree with that. But who are they going to strike against when they react to this act of war? How many innocent people are going to die in the middle of this war? How are we going to fight this invisible threat? Again we face this question.

There are at least two other consequences that we can only guess. 1) The refugee crisis in Europe. Are our borders going to remain opened to the migrants running away from their ravaged homes? Not that we were being very welcoming before this happened, but what is going to happen now? Watching the debates yesterday, I heard a strategic intelligence specialist yesterday saying how it is more than likely that ISIS will use this mass of people to infiltrate their own operatives in Europe. That is a public threat of theirs. How are we going to react to this threat? I am entirely supportive of welcoming these refugees, as I have always been, but there is no denying that fear now lies in our hearts: what if there are terrorists amidst the refugees coming into Europe? People will use this argument to stop more migrants from crossing our borders.

If you want to refute this argument, use this: has this attack not taken place yesterday? Have these terrorists not managed to kill more than a hundred people in the middle of Paris anyways? They do not need to come to Europe disguised as refugees. They can do it otherwise, they do it otherwise; who knows if they are not French? We know of the many Europeans who have gone to Syria and Yemen and Afghanistan to be transformed into these soldiers of death, we know of all the westerners that have been recruited by ISIS. I remember the fact that Belgium had to increase their border control because of the number of young Belgians who were trying to go to Syria to fight “the Holy War”. This happened in many countries, this is still happening today. Terrorists are reaching us through social networks, they are reaching us through undercover means. This crisis is much bigger than a group of terrorists infiltrating the thousands of refugees that are pleading to cross our borders.

But after having referred to all the Westerners who were/are being recruited by ISIS, another question arises: what are the motivations behind these people’s actions? What makes them so willing to die for “this greater cause”, to die “in the name of Allah”? And what makes them willing to kill so many innocent people as they do? What makes them wage such a terrible, violent war? What makes them take part in this “Holy War”?

The answer is – our civilization is in crisis. Terrorism, this new form of war, this new form of fighting, is in fact a reflection of the extremely serious, extremely worrying Crisis of Values that we are living. This civilization crisis derives from our way of living. We live in a manipulated system of deep consumption, consumerism and materialism. We live to consume: to consume more and more and more. Our materialistic way of life means that we have sacrificed sacred ideals in order to obtain more riches, to become wealthier, to have more, more, more. But people can not fulfill themselves through consumption and materialism. Humanity has always needed to live for a cause, to dedicate their lives to a cause. We need ideals to inspire us, we need values to guide us. And what values are these that guide us nowadays? What causes are we truly committed to? The truth is, most people in our society no longer have something greater than themselves to live for. They live in their same old routines, they are suppressed in stress and boredom. What are their lives going to be? Are they going to work nonstop until they die? What are they going to do to give their lives a meaning? What is the meaning of their lives?

It has been explained sociologically, anthropologically. These terrorists, these soldiers of death, these people who are recruited by these fundamentalist groups, they are joining a cause that is greater than themselves. They are told that, by killing others and killing themselves, they are offering themselves to God, they are fighting a “Holy War”, they are taking part in a cause that far surpasses them. It gives meaning to their lives; it gives a purpose to their lives. This may seem absolutely mad, but that doesn’t make it less true. We have to understand that we live in a deeply sick society. Our society is sick. Most people no longer have any ideals, any values, any causes to live by, and so they become vulnerable to the manipulation of others, to the vicious persuasion to belong to a group that lives by a cause.

When you finally understand this, it becomes clear that this problem is far, far away from being solved. If the source of the problem is a civilizational crisis, if it is not a palpable crisis, a material crisis (like an economic crisis, or even a political crisis, where you can see what is wrong and can name practical solutions to solve it) but a spiritual, a psychological, a social crisis… then we will have to work much harder to solve it.

Nobody can guess what is going to happen in the future to come – but one thing is certain: if we do not change our way of living, if we do not change the pillars of our own society, if we do not change the values that guide our everyday life… this Era of Terror will only become much worse. Much worse.

The One-Way Mirror

I was studying Political Science a couple of days ago when I read a paragraph about Democracy vs. Non-Democracy which stated that the majority of States on a global level are non-democratic regimes, and that they frequently include the highest population rates around the world. This was not exactly news for me but, sometimes, reading a certain known fact on a book or an article makes it suddenly and disturbingly clear for you. It is as if you had seen the same information before behind a frosted glass or a dirty window and, all of a sudden, you’re seeing it through the cleanest glass or water surface. And it hits you with massive strength.

There are no airbags when it counts to realising that we live in a world where the majority of States does not recognise its citizens their basic, fundamental human rights. It is so easy for us to imagine a simple, carefree life in a safe, free society – that comfort and liberty have been there since the date of our birth. We have never been stopped from saying or writing what we think, we have never been stopped from having driving lessons because we are women, we have never been stopped from going to school because our Government does not want us to have an education. It is hard to step out of one’s shoes and imagine life “on the other side” – but I see it as a big box divided by a central glass window. It is not any glass window; it is a one-way mirror, like those you find in interrogation rooms. A one-way mirror is partially reflective and partially transparent; when you light one side and keep the other in the dark, it allows viewing from the darkened side but not from the other side. And so I picture all these people that live on one side of the box, a chock-full of men and women and children who are looking at the other half through the one-way mirror, watching individuals on the other side living their lives freely and carelessly. On their side, however, things do not work the same way – and the people who live in the first half, the so-called better half, simply do not see them.

This is bull**** of course, if you feel like swearing a little. Everyday we see and hear news on TV about how someone else has been blown up by a bomb somewhere in the Middle East, or how war is going on in Syria, or how a fatal disease is once again making its way through Sub-Saharan Africa, or how an ethnic minority is once again being slaughtered in Burma. We see and hear and, yet, it is as if we are blind and deaf. We carry on eating supper and living our free, careless lives. So, in a way, it is as if there is a one-way mirror separating the North from the South. But it is worse than that, because this mirror is imaginary: it is in all our heads; in each of us.

Nevertheless, being immune to any effect these news might have on us – there is still a breach in our blidness and deafness. That is the trivializing of violence. Hannah Arendt spoke of the “banality of evil”, and coining the term from my own personal perspective, I can only say that this is probably a good definition of the society we live in. We have become so used to violence that we are no longer shocked by watching children on TV being trained by ISIL to become future assassins. There are numerous theories on why this happens: violent videogames, violent TV series, violent books, violent wars, violent attacks, too much talk about terrorism and death and violence. Truth is, we are being pumped violence and death and bloody images and sceneries from a very young age. We grow up hearing about it, we grow up seeing it, in a way that, by the time we should actually be motivated to do something to fight it, we are simply insensitive to its gory effects.

This is a tendency we must fight. The moment we stop feeling shocked with the sight of children being given AK-47s and taught how to kill, is the moment we cease to be deeply, spiritually motivated to act – in such a way that we will no longer have the urgent, unavoidable need to do something to stop it. If you look at these children on TV and do not feel your stomach clench or your guts wrap in a sudden nausea; if you do not feel tears coming to your eyes or if you simply do not have this nuclear, instinctive red flag that tells you there is something wrong with that picture… then you have banalized evil inside you. And there is nothing more dangerous than that. “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”. Or like Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.

It is time to de-banalize evil, to turn it back into the monster it is. We all love the Joker, but villains in real life are not in any way lovable. They are not actors performing behind a TV screen; evil must not be seen as a temporary distraction, it mustn’t be seen as entertainment. Let’s make it a monster again, let us feel shocked and scared and sad and uncomfortable about it. It is the only way to ensure that, when we see news like this, when we darken the other side of the mirror and finally watch what is happening on “the other side”, we will finally realise that one part of the box cannot live in a dream while the other part is living in a nightmare.

Let us destroy the wall that divides us. And let us face the monster as it is: evil, as a force to be reckoned with, as a fight to be fought, as a challenge to be overcome. Only light can drive out darkness. Let’s destroy the one-way mirror.