ViewPoints: Political science professor Dipak Gupta shares an op-ed about the aftermath of 9/11.
A decade has passed since the world came to a standstill and watched in horror the scenes of carnage brought about in the name of Islam. The violence that targets the innocent in the name of a higher cause has continued to rock the world. As a result, mass killings have become staples of daily news programs.
In all of these cases, we see the angry faces of the assassins, who proclaim revenge for past wrongs. Yet when it comes to killing of those against whom we do not have personal grievances, it is the fear that motivates us. When we fear a loss of status, position of privilege, or religious, cultural and racial distinctiveness, we react violently against whom we perceive to be their cause.
It was this fear of the emergence of the African-Americans as a social, political and economic force that gave birth to the KKK at the time of Reconstruction in the American South. The Nazi hatred of the Jews was built upon the existential fear of losing everything German. The mutual fear between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland created the decades-long “troubles,” which claimed hundreds of lives.
These days, a movement can begin quickly and spread with alarming speed.
Listen to any sermon by the likes of Osama bin Laden and you will hear the same message of Islam being under threat of extinction. Such fears motivated Anders Breivik in Norway and Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City. They believed that their world was in peril and what they did in defense of their country, culture and religion simply had to be done. It is this primal fear of the “others” which caused havoc in past and, if history is any guide, it will continue to do so in the future.
Irrational as it may seem, this fear is inherently linked to the very essence of what makes us humans. When we see these acts of mindless carnage, some argue that these are random acts carried out by specific individuals. Yet research points out that these are the results of some very specific causes, which are often reinforced by a changing world. Throughout history, times of profound change have produced mass violence.
Today the world is convulsing with economic and demographic changes. For nearly a decade, a persistent global recession had kept us tightly in its grip. The resulting anxiety, similar to events in the past, has generated conditions for violence. Another extremely important factor leading to stress is the fear of losing a dominant status in the society. The rapid increases in demographic shifts are fueling anger and suspicion in nearly every corner of the world, especially in the developed nations.
The rise of Western cultural values is similarly rocking the more traditional parts of the Islamic world. There is no question that values of individual freedom are inimical to a fundamentalist view of every religion, including Islam. As technology and scientific knowledge permeates every society, it is natural for the religious literalists to fear the worst.
However, ideas — good or evil — do not spread spontaneously. They require leadership, often backed by deep pockets of financial support. When messages of threat from an overarching enemy resonate with a large number of people, a movement of violence is born.
In the past it took time for ideas to crystallize, germinate and disseminate. The Internet, however, is changing this basic equation of the global spread of ideas. These days, a movement can begin quickly and spread with alarming speed. As we applaud the so-called “Arab Spring” — popular uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East — we should remember that it is a double-edged sword. In fact, through the Internet, Andres Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, also drew inspiration from right-wing fanatics from all over the world. As a result, it is easy to see why the coming years portend to have messages of fear and hope, which are likely to destabilize the world with rapid regularity.
As we remember the somber day, we must ponder what we can do about this ominous trend. How can we separate the good from the harmful without trampling on the free flow of ideas on which rests the very essence of our Western civilization? Similar to many profound questions in life, there is no simple answer. However, wherever the answer lies, it must begin with the right questions aimed at understanding how destructive ideas spread around the world and how we can overcome our instinct to follow the Pied Pipers of primal fear.
Dipak Gupta is a professor emeritus at San Diego State University. He is part of an SDSU research team sponsored by the National Science Foundation to examine how ideas spread globally through the Internet.
This op-ed was originally published on SignonSanDiego.com on Friday, Sept. 9.