Everywhere I look, I see the war against terrorism being fought on the wrong front. Whether it’s Afghanistan, Palestine or Northern Ireland, I see a tendency in the Western world for people to look to technology to solve the problem. I am a technologist, and in my work I daily delight in the fantastic things our technology can do. However, technology becomes dangerous when we see it as a way to solve disputes between people.
In our process of demonising terrorism, it is easy to miss the fact that most people on this planet think of themselves as good, within their own particular set of values – yes, even the most hardened terrorist. Indeed, the terrorist thinks of himself as especially good, since he is selflessly putting his cause before his own safety.
My system of values defines what I feel is important or unimportant, the limits of acceptable behaviour, and my religious beliefs. Disputes arise between people because, through history or economic circumstances, they have mutually incompatible value systems. Value systems are very deep-seated, and it is not unusual for them to be handed down and evolve within a society over many generations – they are not the sort of thing to change overnight through any action, no matter how extreme. Indeed, any action designed to “teach those guys a lesson” is likely to strengthen the very value system we have a problem with.
Despite this, and in the face of all the evidence, many of us think that our set of values is the only right one, and all we need to do to resolve the dispute, is to get the others to see it!
We can only fight the war against terrorism by understanding the set of values that drives such extreme actions. As these values seem so odious to us, this isn’t easy. Don’t get me wrong, and equate understanding with agreeing – I disapprove of the actions of terrorists as much as anyone. However it is only by understanding the value system that causes them that we can devise actions that, whilst remaining true to our values, will mean that the terrorist will start to reason, using his value system, that his terrorism against us is no longer necessary. If we do it right, he will find himself thinking, “Perhaps these guys aren’t all bad. Maybe I don’t need to blow myself and them up, after all.”
Provided we remain true to our own value system, this approach does not constitute weakness or slavish appeasement.
I don’t pretend to know what the solution is to any particular dispute, but I am sure that until we look at these difficulties in this way, as fast as we devise ways of preventing one form of terrorism, the terrorist will find another.
CH Moller, 11July 2002.