Posing crucial questions about the root causes of organized terror during the hours and days immediately following the tragic events of September 11 was, perhaps, inevitable.
But given the vast scale of this catastrophe, the timing was scarcely appropriate. The debate might be relevant, but grossly disrespectful of the need to move through the emotional layers of pain, anger, denial, and mourning that accompany one of the saddest moments in life, the loss of a loved one.
Now, however, more than 100 days have passed since the unprecedented tragedies that levelled New York’s World Trade Center, paralysed the Pentagon, and left physical and psychic scars on the rural Pennsylvania countryside. Now is the time when we owe some serious reflection to the memory of countless thousands who’ve lost their lives throughout history due to organized terror. September 11, 2001, stands as a focal point for in-depth consideration of what gives rise to intentional terror in such horrendous proportions. We must do this, not only for the safety and security of all of us living here in Canada, but for the survival of the entire human race.
For years, the Canadian and U.S. governments have poured millions of research dollars into finding a cure for cancer and other devastating diseases. Both countries have also spent significant money to find out why most people serving life sentences here, or who wait on Death Row in the U.S., are uneducated, unskilled males from poor inner city areas, as well as victims of broken families, and abusers of drugs and alcohol, to name only a few common traits. Such research is deemed effective when it can help alert us to certain trends, either in disease pathology, or in societal behaviour.
The reasons why we must delve into the study of organized terror are just as necessary, and practical. To spend millions fighting the wrong disease symptoms or social issues, can lengthen recovery and cure, or delay needed improvement by decades.
The engineering profession in which I have spent all my adult life is also based on careful analysis and research, leading in turn to the design of very complex systems. Engineers, therefore, have not only the opportunity, but also a special responsibility to take an active part in ongoing post-September 11 discussions on the root causes of organized terror. Having mastered specialized forms of solution solving techniques, engineers instinctively use their accumulated training and experience to better understand the problems encountered and then help others to understand and solve them as well.
In the case of organized terror, we must first define what we mean by this term. Organized terror must be defined as the threat or use of violence and arms by an individual, armed group, or state, against an unarmed group or individual, for political, racial, religious, social or economic reasons .
We must also know that organized terror was, is, and will be practiced by individuals, groups and states and that one type is not necessary more civilized nor more acceptable than the others. Organized terror practiced by states is usually supported by a strong propaganda machine; the stronger the propaganda machine is, the more the organized terror — and it can go unnoticed for years.
We must also understand that the perception (and often, the actual reality) of extreme inequity and oppression in the world generates equally extreme emotions. Such emotion, while not the sole cause of organized terror such as that witnessed on September 11, greatly assists the development and spread of organized terror networks. It would be naive to expect that organized terror could be eliminated while such perceptions exist.
Sophisticated technology was, still is, and always will be used to impose rapid, violent “solutions” onto longstanding world problems. It is historically the chosen approach, not only of organized terror, but also of militarists — and sometimes it can be difficult to tell the two apart. Yet high-tech methods also can be used to address the causes of organized terror itself and they can be employed in constructive, non-violent ways.
First, however, we must condemn using technology itself to create global poverty, inequity and oppression. If the world’s “have not” peoples came to see benign, affordable and accessible technology as a means to alleviate their abject misery, poverty, disease, and oppression, this — more than anything else — could eliminate the perceived need for organized terror and the illusion that the violence engendered by organized terror could somehow achieve those same goals.
Developing-world poverty is a scandalous obscenity, and much of that poverty is geographically centered on predominantly Muslim nations. Sadly, such poverty is far more visible to its victims than to most of us, blessed as we are with the power and affluence of a Euro-North American lifestyle.
For more than a decade, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has drawn increasingly urgent attention to the growing inequity of wealth distribution in the world. The UNDP’s 2001 report finds that “the richest 10 per cent of the U.S. population [0.5 percent of the world’s population, or about 25 million] had a combined income greater than that of the poorest 43 percent of the world’s people (or, about 2 billion).” Those who point to overall global economic growth to justify increased commercialization fail to recognize that the gap the UNDP has illustrated between rich and poor is continuing to widen at an alarming rate.
Statistically, most of the world’s poorest people live in Muslim Africa, and central and southwest Asia. At the same time, these regions also contain some of the world’s largest oil reserves.
The resulting resource-driven inequities are clearly seen by the world’s poor. Those who feel their disempowerment most acutely have no trouble targeting the U.S. as the arch-villain of humankind. And America’s own actions have served historically to further such perceptions: one has only to consider Washington’s ongoing military and financial support for Israel (against the UN’s better judgment); the establishment of U.S. military bases in the Gulf area; and the unfortunate American habit of supporting corrupt and oppressive regimes out of economic self-interest.
The events of September 11 have told us in no uncertain terms that the global status quo cannot continue. Now is the time for our affluent and technology-rich northern hemisphere nations to make a greater investment than ever before in education and communication, both at home and abroad. Teacher training is a must, for there can be no effective education without highly trained and dedicated educators.
Here is where widespread digital technology, made cheaply available by rich nations, could be of incalculable help in bringing access to quality education within reach of every human being on earth.
Ironically, western-world spending on education at home is at its lowest level ever. Despite their vast resources and affluence, governments of most “have” countries are giving up on their public mandate to provide their own citizens with universal education and training. The responsibility for attaining a quality education is increasingly being left to individuals: only those who can afford it, get it. The same “survival of the fittest” attitude (or, social Darwinism) is translated into many western countries’ relationships with their have-not counterparts.
Canada even tries to use its immigration policy to encourage the university educated from the developing world to come here because it is cheaper than investing in university education for Canadians. This is shameful and must stop.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that the world’s numerous poor and oppressed so bitterly resent those who appear in their eyes to be conspicuously rich and powerful? Such resentment at our callous indifference to inequity can only serve to sustain desperate extremists and provide them with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of volunteers.
In such a hopeless climate, religion becomes the last refuge of motivation, not for spiritual reasons per se, but for sociopolitical ones. For religion, like technology, is inherently neutral: either can be used for good or evil. And if the outcome is evil it is the user’s (or, abuser’s) responsibility, not the fault of religion or technology itself.
Canadians, blessed with a comparatively peaceful, prosperous and enlightened society, have a major responsibility to the rest of the world. Along with other like-minded nations, we must seek to empower the poor — especially the so-called “poorest of the poor,” in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America — to help themselves. We have both the technological expertise and obligation to do so.
One of the first contributions we can make is to pay equitably for their natural resources. We can also become increasingly proactive in advancing the cause of world peace with justice. This includes working diligently toward the ending of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, as well as toward the rightful self-determination of such people as those of Kashmir and Chechnya.
Do we Canadians have what it takes? Can we set aside our self-interest and ingrained militarism long enough to really see the want of those around us? And once we do, will we have the fortitude to enact our better ideals and share the fruits of our advanced technologies with them? For the sake of future humanity, this engineer fervently hopes so.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.