Terrorism and the Struggle for Competing Human Imagination

 (By Emmanuel Ojeifo)

I strongly believe that the rising phenomenon of the terrorist entrepreneur is something that nation-states must now take seriously. This is the most important concern posed to us from the two genetic variants of imagination that have emerged from the primordial swamps of globalisation. When the children of our nation are planning their funerals instead of their future, it is a sure sign that as a society we have lost our way. When our country excels in producing more martyrs-in-waiting and less dreamers-in-action, it is a symptom of a fundamental social dysfunction that has eaten deep into the fabric of our national life

“We need to think more seriously than ever about how we encourage people to focus on productive outcomes that advance and unite civilisation – peaceful imaginations that seek to minimize alienation and celebrate interdependence rather than self-sufficiency, inclusion rather than exclusion, openness, opportunity, and hope rather than limits, suspicion, and grievance.” –Thomas L. Friedman

IN his second book on globalisation titled, The World is Flat (2005), the three times Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, Thomas Friedman, again raises the intellectual bar higher in analysing the opportunity cost of globalisation. The main thrust of the book is to illustrate the wide opportunities that are now available for the world as a result of the amazing new possibilities “for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than at any previous time in the history of the world-using computers, e-mail, networks, teleconferencing, and dynamic new software.”

  Friedman argues that the world has been flattened by globalisation and that to survive and make progress, individuals, communities and countries have to be prepared to explore and take advantage of the new world of opportunities offered by technology. For him, the key word is “empowerment: “We are now connecting all the knowledge centres on the planet together into a single global network, which…could usher in an amazing era of prosperity and innovation.” While a globalised and shrunken world offers us this opportunity for individual and national growth, Friedman believes that those with sinister motives are also exploiting the same opportunities for more nefarious and evil motives.

   In the concluding part of the book, the author draws the attention of his readers to two critical iconic dates in human history: 11/9 (November 9th) and 9/11 (September 11th). While the first date introduces a denouement to the twentieth century, the second date connects with the beginning of the 21st century. On November 11, 1989 (11/9) the Berlin Wall came down, offering the world new opportunities as those hitherto imprisoned by political and dogmatic tyranny were offered freedom and prosperity. The dismantling of the Berlin Wall on 11/9 signalled a new hope in the resilience of the human spirit, for the pursuit of liberty and happiness. This grand optimism was brought about by people who dared to imagine a different, more open world, one where every human being would be free to realise his or her full potential, and who then summoned the courage to act on that imagination.

  However, on September 11, 2001 (9/11), the world woke up to the horror of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The terrorist attack by Osama Bin Laden and his sympathetic Al-Qaeda acolytes showed us the maximum effect of violence that a hateful group of men could foist upon the world after spending several years imagining how to kill as many people as possible. In the intellectual conversation that ensued after 9/11, world leaders became deeply concerned about the roots of terrorism and the ideologies that fuel it. According to the 2012 report of the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), the educational component of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), titled, Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria, terrorism is a complex, non-monolithic and highly contextual phenomenon that engages competing definitions of the term, not only among scholars but among policymakers and government agencies as well. “But one thing holds constant—terrorist attacks do not occur in a vacuum, but are instead a product of complex interactions between individuals, organisations, and environments.” (JSOU Report, May 2012, p.4).

  In any case, we must praise Friedman for his gripping analysis of the two competing forms of imagination – the creative imagination signalled by the 11/9 date and the destructive imagination signalled by the 9/11 date, and how they are constantly interacting to either produce a “clash of civilisations” or to promote the “dialogue of civilisations.” One brought down a wall and opened the windows of the world – both the operating system and the kind we look through. It unlocked half the planet and made the citizens there our potential partners and competitors. Another brought down the World Trade Centre, putting up new invisible and concrete walls among people at a time when we thought the creative imagination has come to stay. Ironically, up till today, our lives are continually being shaped, moulded and defined by these two dates and, by extension, these two forms of imagination. There has never been a time in history when the character of human imagination was not at work.

  In Nigeria, what we have seen so far in the tragic exploits of the Boko Haram merchants of death is that sad portrait of destructive imagination that 9/11 represents. Because we now live in a flat world, so many of the inputs and tools of collaboration are becoming commodities available to everyone. They are all out there for anyone to grasp. In the past, when we lived in a more centralised and more vertically organised world, where nation-states had a near total monopoly on power, individual imagination was a big problem when the leader of a superpower state – a Mao, a Stalin or a Hitler – became warped in mentality and ideology. But in today’s rapidly shrinking and fast-integrated world, when individuals can easily access all the tools of collaboration and super-empower themselves, or their small cells, individuals do not need to control a country to threaten large numbers of other people. This is true of Boko Haram. Although we do not know how many members make up the sect, no one can claim ignorance of the mayhem this band of fanatics has invoked upon the entire nation.

  Fareed Zakaria, one of America’s most important commentators on global politics, has termed this phenomenon by which people like Abubakar Shekau and his disciples are able to gather information and pool resources together in order to provoke mayhem, the “democratisation of violence.” In his fascinating book, The Future of Freedom (2003), Zakaria argues that today’s information technology revolution is producing thousands of outlets (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube) for free self-expression, with everyone connected and no one in control. He summarises the magnitude of surprising impact this sort of democratisation will have for human communities in the following words: “Today, if you want to find sources for anthrax, recipes for poison, or methods to weaponise chemicals, all you need is a good search engine.”

  I strongly believe that the rising phenomenon of the terrorist entrepreneur is something that nation-states must now take seriously. This is the most important concern posed to us from the two genetic variants of imagination that have emerged from the primordial swamps of globalisation. When the children of our nation are planning their funerals instead of their future, it is a sure sign that as a society we have lost our way. When our country excels in producing more martyrs-in-waiting and less dreamers-in-action, it is a symptom of a fundamental social dysfunction that has eaten deep into the fabric of our national life. We cannot ignore the fact that a constellation of critical political, religious, ethnic and socio-economic factors is at the heart of the ideologies that fuel terrorism.

  Such grievances can include a broad range of political issues like incompetent, authoritarian, or corrupt governments, unequal distribution of power, as well as economic issues like widespread poverty, unemployment, or an overall lack of political or socioeconomic opportunities. Terrorism is most often fueled by individuals and groups who are very dissatisfied with the status quo, and have come to believe in the need to use violence because they see no other way to facilitate change. In essence, they draw on what Harvard psychologist John Mack described as a reservoir of misery, hurt, helplessness, and rage from which the foot soldiers of terrorism can be recruited. In countries where massive corruption persists, resources, privileges and advantages are reserved for a select group of the people or ruling elite. While this erodes the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens, it creates the erroneous impression that government exists to rule rather than to serve, which further creates a fertile environment in which state power is seen as a means of access to wealth.

  Thinking about how we address these critical issues in order to help engender and stimulate positive imaginations in people, especially young people, should be of the utmost importance for our nation’s leaders. Government must work assiduously to produce contexts where young people can succeed, can achieve their full potential on a level playing field, can get validation and respect from achievements in this world, and not from martyrdom to get into the next world.

   According to Friedman: “This is not all that complicated: Give young people a context where they can translate a positive imagination into reality, give them a context in which someone with a grievance can have it adjudicated in a court of law without having to bribe the judge with a goat, give them a context in which they can pursue an entrepreneurial idea and become the richest or the most creative or most respected people in their own country, no matter what their background, give them a context in which any complaint or idea can be published in the newspaper, give them a context in which anyone can run for office-and guess what? They usually don’t want to blow up the world. They usually want to be part of it.”

  In this light, our nation’s leaders must critically examine what leads a citizen to the thrill of creative discovery and what leads another citizen to the joys of destruction. Generally speaking, imagination is the product of two shaping forces. One is the narratives that people are nurtured on, the stories and myths they and their religious and national leaders tell themselves and how those narratives feed their imaginations one way or another. The other is the context in which people grow up, which has a huge impact on shaping how they see the world and others.

   We have to admit that in our nation, narratives are largely built on perceived historic ethnic, political and religious prejudices, which sow the seeds of hostility and enmity in the hearts of young people, especially when they are indoctrinated to believe that a particular ethnic or religious group is responsible for their predicaments. With this kind of poisoned narrative passing on from the adult generation to the younger generation, many young people grow up seeing the world through the bipartite prism of relational antagonism and the prejudiced standpoint of mutual enmity.

   Today, more than ever, we need to press further on the creative form of imagination to counteract the spread of destructive imagination. That is the only way we can save our society and our country. We really do have to find ways to affect the imagination of those who would use the tools of collaboration to destroy the world that has invented those tools. My belief is that we need both imagination and inspiration to survive in today’s world. The flattening of the world has presented us with new opportunities, new challenges and new partners but also, alas, new dangers.

   It is imperative that we find the right balance among all of these. It is imperative that we be the best citizens that we can be- because in a flat world, if you don’t visit a bad neighbourhood, it might visit you. And it is imperative that while we remain vigilant to the new threats, we do not let them paralyze us. Again, we have to make sure that we get the best of our own imagination, and never let our imaginations get the best of us. The more people with the imagination of 11/9, the better chance we have of staving off another 9/11.

• Ojeifo, a blogger, sent this piece from Abuja.

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