As horror unfolded in Mumbai,
the most pressing question in my mind was not who was responsible for this act, but rather what forces of hatred were so compelling to make a group of young males seal their fates and those of so many innocent civilians with such impunity.
To prevent such terrors from occurring in the future, it is most important to know the processes that can make maniacs out of men. Often we are afraid to ask the ‘why’ question because the response can be framed as an ostensible justification of violence or appear to be a rationalisation of terror. That is certainly not my goal. Rather, I am more interested in understanding the process by which the perceived enemy can be so dehumanised that all sensibilities of pain and suffering on the victim and the criminal are etherised. How can thinking human beings become so devoid of any human empathy and become random killing machines?
According to the World Health Organisation, every year on average, more than 1.6 million individuals are victims of direct homicide worldwide. Most of this violence does not have political roots but is rather a complex result of impulsive emotional reactions fuelled by anger, greed or grievance. There is some research to suggest that underlying biological factors exist that than can predispose certain individuals to be apathetic towards other humans. Clearly gender plays a role as well since more than 80 percent of all violent crimes are carried out by men. However, violent crimes carried out by women are increasing at twice the rate of men in North America. This phenomenon is also exemplified by the rise of female suicide bombers in Iraq, which raises questions about gender determinism in violence.
Might it be that women previously did not have the access to weapons to counter the physical dominance of men? More research is needed on this as well.
We also need to differentiate between premeditated murder and impulsive violence in this regard. Psychopaths who engage in predatory violence have clearly been shown to have certain neural pathologies that prevent empathic behaviour and hence predispose them to violence. For these individuals there is no “treatment”, and perhaps indefinite incarceration or the death penalty (depending on one’s ethical outlook on the sanctity of life) is most justifiable.
For impulsive violence the situation is more complex. There are still some key hormonal imbalances that can be triggered by genetic predisposition to such behaviour as noted by research carried out by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg at the US National Institutes of Health. However, there is not enough research on the mind of a terrorist to fully understand their neural pathologies and whether or not we can potentially identify high-risk individuals that may be more easily indoctrinated by the rhetoric of terrorism.
What is clear is that there are clear social processes which leave neural imprints in these individuals that can lead them to act without remorse and we can at least try to understand how such hatred is amplified.
As a conflict analyst, I am also most troubled by how hatred can be far more prevalent in the general public even if all the individuals who harbour such hatred may not have the drivers to lead them to act upon that hatred. The enablers and sympathisers of terrorists can be influenced by such structural aspects of hatred in the same way and can act as a political base for violence. Sadly, there is also a chance that this hatred can take the form of mass-hysteria that results in large-scale mob violence as was evident during the Rwandan genocide.
But all this still begs the question of what leads to this level of hatred. First and foremost, absolutist ideologies fuel hatred of this kind. Any doctrine that suggests that some individuals are inherently superior while others are inherently inferior can act as a potent dehumanising agent. While most modernist interpretations of religions worldwide have repudiated such doctrines, there are still many residual elements of literalist scriptural interpretation that survive in most faith traditions to justify absolutist exclusionary ideologies. This is true of the Laws of Manu in Hinduism as well as certain de-contextualised Ahadith in Islam.
The attack on the Jewish centre in Mumbai is perhaps the most troubling example of how absolutist ideologies can fuel such hate-filled violence. While the vast majority of Muslims reject violence, the misinterpretation of one particular Quranic verse about “not taking Jews and Christians as friends”, (Surah 5, Verse 51), leads to a general atmosphere of hostility, which is further fuelled by media access to such interpretations.
While progressive Muslim Imams such as Hamza Yusuf point out that the verse was specifically aimed at military alliances of the time, it is very easy for a radical mind to use it to justify exclusionary behaviour. It is high time for all imams worldwide to stop misusing this verse and other contextual injunctions to foment hatred towards other faiths.
The next contributing factor that can tip intense hatred into violence is the moral equivalence of conflict across space and time. When civilians are killed in military strikes, the lack of intent becomes irrelevant to the radicalised mind. Collateral damage and random murder are unfortunately made morally equivalent. This is where there is perhaps a role for greater reform in the West as well. If there is to be a credible non-equivalence between such collateral damage and random violence, clear judicial processes and actions to deal with negligence need to be considered as well as more public compensation to the families of victims.
In addition, the strategy for military intervention must also be revisited. Drones may save American lives but they are also likely to inflict far more collateral damage than a specialised commando operation to target a particular terrorist (as was the case in the arrest of Abu Zubaidah or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan in which no civilians were killed). Each life, whether it is that of a young Afghan child or an American soldier, must be given the same sanctity and respect.
The ultimate causes of hatred are likely to have many social and biological factors that deserve further scientific study. However, if we can start off by addressing two proximate factors — absolutist ideologies and the moral equivalence of murder — we will make a major step in trying to move towards curbing what Arundhati Roy has so poignantly called “the boundless, infinitely inventive art of human hatred”.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of
environmental planning and Asian studies at the University of Vermont. His new book, Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs, will be published by Oxford University Press in January 2009. www.saleemali.net