Attention, War and Peace
Notes on Terror and Terrorism, Part 3: Consequences
On a longer time scale, the effect of September 11 in focussing the world's attention has been great, and far different from what its perpetrators probably intended, but so far ultimately in a direction that they and their compatriots might have approved.
While attention first shifted to Afghanistan and specifically to the plight of its people under the reign of the Taliban al Qaeda's clients, allies and protectors? what has happened subsequently is quite different. By creating what appeared to be the world's biggest terrorist attack, al Qaeda saw to it that the US and much of the world's attention would shift to the victims, and to ourselves, the prospective victims, initiating a huge round of protective actions, as well as the memorializing and almost sanctifying of the direct victims.
But the fact that terrorism itself in all its horror became the focus allowed the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon quickly to justify its own very sharp reactions to terrorist bombings in Israel, suicide bombings that were after all most closely related in both form and content to al Qaeda's suicidal actions, most of which have also been bombings. But if Sharon?s step focussed world attention on Israeli bombing victims, it also focussed attention, at first from the Arab world, and then from much of the rest of the world, on Palestinian victims of Israeli reprisals.
Many Europeans now regard Arafat as a courageous leader and Sharon as nearly a Hitler, both of which are exaggerated and one-sided judgements. But more important, September 11 now magnifies the world attention devoted to the entire Israel-Palestine issue, and that heightened focus actually means that both sides are now limited in the scope of warlike activities they can undertake. A hot war, by dint of the very intensity of exposure it gets, is cooled down.
The truth about any kind of use of terror, whether by formal armies or informal terrorists is that these days much of the attention generated by their actions goes to the victims. So it was in the United States after 9/11. The New York Times ran a series attempting to profile each of the more than three thousand victims, and the series still runs occasionally. While the hijackers are seen as one dimensional and evil, their victims are presented full of life?life unfairly cut short. And the country as a whole focusses its attention largely on our own needs to stay alive, rather than on anything the terrroists might have wanted to convey by their act. That works elsewhere as well, wherever the media are allowed. So the victims of Palestinian suicide bombers are brought back to life in a way, enlarging our sympathy with them, but so then are the innocent Palestinian victims of the Israeli incursion into the West Bank, or even the innocent Afghani victims of the US military.
A ny time a victim of just about anything can be seen close up, our human sympathies seem almost automatically to go to them, our attention is far more riveted on them than on the victimizers with their bombs and guns. No country, no power, not even the US, can forget for long the attention that goes to the suffering victims of its actions, and therefore is forced to limit such actions, no matter the reason.
In the Israel-Palestine conflict, supporters of the two sides focus their respective attention very differently, seeing the world according to their sympathies in starkly opposite terms. Yet they are looking at the same events, no matter how disparate their analysis of them. The Israelis and their supporters, including most Americans, see any military actions mostly as necessary steps to suppress unspeakable terrorists. The Arab side and its European and other supporters instead see a quasi-colonial operation designed to prevent the Palestinians from protesting conditions imposed on them by their Israeli overlords. Yet many on each side know full well that both sides are looking a the same event though with different sympathies, and so there must somehow be a meeting of minds possible between their views. They will also see that this meeting point of duelling views must valorize attention to the stance of the victim over attention to the terror evoked by weapons. Thus each side can become afraid,not of the strength of its enemy?s arms, but of the strength of its enemy's exploiting the viciousness of its own actions against it.
Even as the actual memory of September 11, along with all the fears and nightmares begin to fade, and as the Afghanistan victory begins to fade into an ambiguous military moment, as domestic issues come once again to dominate in the US, with President Bush anxiously trying to buoy up his popularity as wartime president, as conviction grows that Osama bin Laden may be no more, the world including the US nonetheless is forced to pay attention the Arab outlook, if not its fundamentalist Islamic views. In fact, Islamic fundamentalism itself begins to seem to be a political stance that can be abandoned or displaced by other politics that acknowledges Arab or other Moslem pain.
Despite the viciousness of September 11, and the overly warlike go-it alone response of the Bush administration, the events did unite the world more than it has been before, focussing more of world attention more completely on the series of aftershocks, in such a way that warlike actions of any side actually become harder to carry off than before.
How can terrorism be stopped, then? The answer seems plain. Not by force, for long. Not by ending poverty, though that might sometimes help. No, terrorism might be ended only by enough attention going to the victims, not only of previous terror attacks, but of all the malign forces of modern life. Attention must be available to anyone who feels wronged and hurt. Terrorism is rare where there is democracy, precisely because in these conditions other methods of being heard seem evident to most. But much of the world, though certainly impacted by the advanced countries, are largely cut off from their attention, and often from the attention of those around them. Changing this is by far the best hope.
It will not be easy. Tom Friedman in the New York Times recently reported that in Indonesia anything read on the Internet is widely regarded as necessarily true. From that he concludes that the Internet, instead of uniting the world, will make divisions worse. His conclusion ignores the fact that few in Indonesia actually have much experience with the net. When and if using it becomes a commonplace as it is here, when people are individually able to get attention through it, then its arbitrariness with regards to truth will be evident. Then the Internet will be one powerful tool for different parties to hear and see each others grievances, so as to react with sympathy. Perhaps with that and similar tools we will all find ourselves giving enough attention to the victimized and humiliated that they will not feel the need anymore to force themselves into our consciousness via destruction. Those of us lucky enough to be able to choose where our attention goes can help by making that choice accordingly and pointing any audience we may have that way too.http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/13/13298/1.html
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