The bomb hurler and why he is burning Bangladesh
by Nadine Shaanta Murshid for AlalODulal.org
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. If you look too deeply into the abyss, the abyss will look into you. -Nietzsche
The elections are over. But not a lot has changed. The blockades continue. And most common images associated with the country are still that of burning cars, burning buses, or burning people. Violence is being used to thwart violence. Violence is being used to seek revenge. Violence is being used to oppress. Violence is being used as a wager.
The public response to violence has been oddly inconsistent, going by news reports from national dailies and updates on social media. On one hand, there is outrage at the escalating violence that has already claimed many lives; on the other, there is a dismissive attitude towards it based on which groups are at the receiving end of violence and their own group membership, tacit or otherwise. Then there is a third, group: complacent and indifferent, with one foot already in another country, ready to flee if the need arises. These responses allude to an implicit acceptance of violence in certain situations — violence that they have found a way to justify to suit their own convictions, and thereby internalize and normalize as they dismiss violence against perceived “outgroups”. In doing so, they knowingly or unknowingly empower the State to use violence thus losing their right to condemn it later when it is used against the “ingroup”. The failure to understand that the same code of violence can be used against them, that tables can quickly turn, people end up nurturing a cycle of violence that allow for the subjugation of their own ideas, opinions, actions and reactions, principles, peoples, groups, and individuals. By lauding police brutality they sanction the State’s use of force, while silencing their own voices. Similarly, by campaigning against hartals they work towards uprooting the only tool of protest that they – the people –have, without realizing that the opposition parties have hijacked this democratic right to protest by subsuming hartals as a tool of oppression by using extreme violence, rather than a tool of rightful protest or dissent that should belong to the people.
Let us assume that it does not matter, for the sake of argument, who is behind these raging infernos – the killings, the destruction of public property, the spread of fear. It does not matter who is funding the making of the bombs, the firearms. It does not matter why this is the choice of protest, or what the demands are. What is the most troubling is, to me, the motivation of the individual who hurls bombs at buses filled with people. What makes me cringe is the thought that he stands and watches them burn, perhaps proud of his handiwork.
Who is that man? How did the universe create such evil?
And then Susan Neiman speaks to me. “Evil is not merely the opposite of good but inimical to it. True evil aims at destroying moral distinctions themselves. One way to do so is to make victims into accomplices.” Think about it, she silently implores.
That man – and others like him – have been bought. Such people have been brainwashed to believe in an ideology that makes the use of violence acceptable, an ideology that is all pervasive, more compelling than the people themselves. This ideology, bolstered by poverty and hatred of ‘others’, allow them to perform the most heinous acts without questions or qualms. These ideologues – puppeteers par excellence – know how to use people against people. Indeed, they are the ones who have nothing to lose – materially or otherwise, because all is already lost; and they readily turn into accomplices.
Neiman’s conceptualization of evil makes sense to the extent that we can shift blame away from that individual who hurled the bomb at the bus in which a teenager was sleeping to those who have enslaved him with their ideology. It makes sense, then, to imagine that these are the work of a networked group of people, the brainchild of a particular group who has the power to wield violence via power, money; via instigation and propagation of violence itself. Jamaat-Shibir comes to mind, as does the world-as-one-Islamic-Caliphate utopia that they believe in, a belief that justifies the killing of kaafirs, non-believers. So do the student wings of the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that have been involved in violent activities of their own. Not to be ignored is the state’s use of force, perhaps stemming from the notion that states are not functional if they are unable to control the use of violence by potential terror groups, or to suppress forms of violence that threaten to disrupt normal life such as the violence inflicted by Jamaat in recent months, and even to maintain existing social power relationships.
Terrorism or extreme violence?
Scholars such as Willem Schinkel (2009) conceptualize terrorism as a process of influencing the state through “indirect instrumentalism” where terrorists, in the absence of direct power to influence the government, target third parties. As Stern puts it, it is “an act or threat of violence against non-combatants, with the objective of intimidating or otherwise influencing an audience or audiences” (Stern, 1999, p. 30, 2003). The focus on non-combatants and third parties is key; as is the implicit notion of randomness that is key to creating chaos, fear, intimidation – randomness in terms of time, place, and action. The activity could be anything, anywhere, anytime; and that sounds much like what we are currently seeing in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has been witnessing extreme violence on a daily basis to the extent that her citizens are numbed by the death tolls; the concept of burning human beings alive has become normalized, as has everyday violence. The effect that witnessing this kind of violence has on mental health is well documented; many are likely to experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the coming days if they are not doing so already, children who are privy to what is going on around them will grow up thinking violence is an acceptable form of response to situations that are unacceptable to them. Some of these children might even find violent picketing as an acceptable form of employment for themselves in the future.
For such actions to be labeled “terrorism” they must be premeditated and have intent, carried out by a subnational group as posited by scholars such as Enders and Sandler: “the premeditated use or threat of use of extranormal violence or brutality by subnational groups to obtain a political, religious, or ideological objective through intimidation of a huge audience, usually not directly involved with the policy making that the terrorists seek to influence” (Enders and Sandler, 2002, pp. 145–146). And there is intent. Very simply: BNP wants to nullify the elections, Jamaat wants to purge the nation of kaafirs, while protesting the war crimes tribunal in general and the hanging of Quader Mollah in particular, and the AL wants to remain in power. So, are they all terrorists? Or are they carrying out terror activities as a means to an end? That is for the people to decide.
But what cannot argue is that the forcible entry into houses, the slitting of throats, the beating of minority groups are much like other acts of terror around the world today; those who commit these acts do so because they are ordered to do so, because that is what they have been made to believe as the right thing to do, because they do not have the capacity to object to or question their authorities, because they are mired in that system and there is no way out.
But, what about their moral impulses or Adam Smith’s “moral sentiment”?
Evolutionary scientists argue that moral impulse is a product of natural selection, many of our moral impulses remain today because they served a purpose; one of those moral impulses is cooperation. As such, people are inclined to getting along with one another because they are endowed with the ability to empathize and feel compassion; they have the ability to differentiate between good and bad. With this moral gene intact, how is it that people engage in strife? Joshua Greene, in his book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them makes the argument that we are able to function in homogeneous groups but are unable to make compromises with another group because we do not agree on what a moral society should look like; we can cooperate, but not universally. Added to that is the layer that Wright (2013) adds: “you forget your sins (or never recognize them in the first place) and remember your grievances,” thus making it that much more difficult to cooperate with heterogeneous groups.
In Muslim majority Bangladesh where most people are Bengali (i.e. the population is homogeneous) politics have played the divisive role to create heterogeneous groups; people are primarily aligned with the AL or the BNP, while other political parties align with these parties based on shared values and expected returns. Based on AL/BNP’s ideas of what a “moral society” should constitute, their supporters and student wings have fought many a street battle, and their party heads have indulged in at least one awkward telephone conversation and many heated “debates” in parliament. Their differences are not about to change. This inability of each party to engage with the other in a healthy, civil manner is reminiscent of Greene’s notion of heterogeneous groups’ inability to cooperate with each other.
But that sounds like an excuse. We are not hunters-gatherers living together in small groups. We have evolved from that. We have learned modes and skills of communication, we have acquired intelligence, including emotional intelligence, and we have learned how to conduct ourselves “civilly,” how to deal with conflict. Which means we are not doomed to be wrought with violence because our forefathers did not know how to deal with differences, ideological differences and differences in values cannot keep people at war because we are equipped with the skills to negotiate them. The reason why the evidence around the world leans more heavily in one direction – the direction of “war” vs. “peace” – is not because we do not have the ability to cooperate, but because these conflicts benefit some people. People who sit on top of the ‘food chain’, power brokers who keep the masses busy fighting each other while they amass wealth and more power.
The man who hurled the bomb
Back to the bomb hurler again: what is his profile? If somehow we could take away the poverty, the buying and selling of souls, the engagement with the “wrong” people, would he have been a different person? Would he have refrained from hurling the bomb?
Or, if we control for socioeconomic factors, environmental effects, peer pressure, bad company (and so on), will we find that he lacks empathy and that allows him to hurl bombs at people in buses, without affect, without an emotional response? Simon Baron-Cohen analyzes this notion of cruelty-due-to-empathy-deficit to say: low levels of empathy is indeed connected to committing acts of cruelty, identifying groups with empathy-deficits: narcissists, sociopaths, and individuals with borderline personality disorder. He argues that they lack cognitive empathy and/or affective empathy; the cognitive part deals with understanding other people’s states of mind, and the affective component is the emotional reaction to somebody else’s state of mind, which makes acts of cruelty “easy”.
But not all violent acts are committed by individuals with mental health conditions. Cohen’s explanation is that people with less serious empathy disorders can have temporary lapses of empathy during which they can procure the ability to commit acts that they otherwise would not. So, Cohen would argue that the bomb hurler, during the time of the hurling of the bomb, was at the least experiencing a lapse of empathy. More specifically, it could be that he was experiencing cognitive empathy but not affective empathy, which means, he may have been aware of the distress in others, but he was emotionally unmoved by it which allows him to commit that act of violence. A known example of this would be Anders Behring Breivik who shot 69 Norwegian Labour activists in 2011 and argued during his trial that he had the ability to feel empathy but used a “meditation technique” to thwart those feelings. He said: “If you are going to be capable of executing such a bloody and horrendous operation you need to work on your mind, your psyche, for years.” (More here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/aug/24/anders-behring-breivik-profile-oslo)
As social scientists we can appreciate the causal link between acts of cruelty and lack of empathy, but to ascribe all of the world’s cruelty to psychiatric disorders is to assume that a complex mix of environmental risk factors, genetic risk factors, social learning, other afflictions and malaises of the human mind – greed, hunger for power, need for control, misguided ideologies, religious extremism, to name a few – have not afflicted mankind, have not affected the actions of people, particularly people in power and the people they have control over. We can empathize with people with mental health issues who have committed acts of terror, but we cannot stigmatize the mental health conditions by asking the entire discipline of psychiatry to bear the brunt of the world’s evil.
We need to look above and beyond psychiatry – without negating its role – and how normalization of violence may play a role in the use of violence; there is considerable evidence of the importance of the intergenerational transmission of violence suggesting that witnessing violence including inter-parental violence during childhood is associated with a greater likelihood that they either perpetrate or experience violence themselves. The basis of this concept comes from Bandura’s studies examining aggression used by children, positing that violence is a socially learned behavior (Bandura, 1971, 1973, 1986). It is suggested that children develop violence as a habitual response to conflict through observational learning. As such, violence modeled between parents “provides scripts for violent behaviors” and “teaches the appropriateness and consequences of such behavior in an intimate relationship to children through direct and vicarious reinforcement of rewards and punishments” (Bandura, 1973; Black, Sussman & Unger, 2010, p.1024). However, not all children who witness violence as children use violence as adults. This is because children are able to distinguish between positive and negative outcomes, such that, if they find that violence is an effective way of conflict resolution or a means of gaining control, they are more likely to use violence instead of other methods of conflict resolution such as negotiation, verbal reasoning, self-calming tactics, and active listening (Black et al., 2010).
In assessing antecedents of violence, we also need to look at how evil can be created by positions and roles that individuals hold and/or are given. An example of that is the well known Stanford Prison Experiment by Zimbardo in which participants with no prior mental health issues internalized their roles as prisoners and guards to which they were randomly assigned “so completely that the ‘guards’ became cruel and sadistic, and half the ‘prisoners’ suffered such severe distress that they had to be released from the study early” (Mintz, 2008). The remaining prisoners gave in to the degrading demands made on them by the guards but became “zombie-like” and “listless” as the guards unleashed what can only be termed evil on the prisoners (Mintz, 2008). As such, Zimbardo, by conducting this experiment, created a recipe for evil: an imbalance of power relations, anonymity (deindividuation), demonization of victims, severe stress, oversight of abusive practices, absence of self-reflection, and a bit of boredom, thrown into unhygienic living conditions in a turbulent environment. This lethal mix made the guards of the experiment become who they became, much like the guards who committed the Abu Graib prison atrocities in Iraq.
So when we think of the bomb hurler let us ask ourselves these questions: is it possible that he grew up in a violent environment and learned violent scripts from his surroundings? Is it imaginable that witnessing and perhaps even experiencing violence has made violence normative for him? Can we picture him thinking about violence as a part of life? Can we almost hear him say that if he doesn’t inflict violence, it will be inflicted on him? Can we imagine him being turned evil by others in the way Zimbardo identified? Indeed. We will never know the absolute truth, but all and any of the aforementioned factors may as well apply to him.
The moment when he hurled it
Let us think about that very moment when he hurled that bomb at the bus. He was perhaps thinking whether his handler would be happy enough with his work to give him another job, maybe he was thinking about his mother at home safe and away from the scene of action, maybe he was pleasured by the fall of the “enemy”, maybe he felt a sense of power for the first time in his life, maybe he felt he had control, maybe it was just another act of violence, maybe he wasn’t thinking at all. Or maybe this is his war and he’s fighting the good cause, as he has been brainwashed to believe. And like two Pakistan Army officials from 1971 that Yasmin Saikia interviewed, Amin and Alam, he perhaps has a banal approach to violence, as Arendt (1963) would say; he is doing his “duty,” not thinking about it (p.220). Much like them, he perhaps has no choice within the institution in which he operates and has been “persuaded to join the horrific activities” to the extent that he does not even accept that his actions are wrong, or worse, pretends that his actions did not kill innocent people, because he is killing the enemy.
“Terror is meant to strike us dumb. Finding words with which to face it is an act of reconstruction” (Neiman, 2012). But reconstruction does not provide closure when acts of terror start to look like ‘‘new terrorism’’ with maximum destruction and marked religious underpinnings.
Bandura, A. (1971) Social Learning Theory of Aggression. In J. F. Knutson (Ed.), Control of Aggression: Implications from Basic Research (pp. 201-250). Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.
Bandura, A. (1973) Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Bandura, A. (1986) The Social Learning Perspective: Mechanisms of aggression. In H. Toch (Ed.), Psychology of Crime and Criminal Justice (pp. 198-236). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Black, Sussman & Unger (2010) A further look at the intergenerational transmission of violence: witnessing interparental violence in emerging adulthood. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 6, 1022-42.
Arendt, H. (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin
Mintz, A. (2008) Understanding evil and educating heroes. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42 (1).
Baron-Cohen, S. (2012) The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Basic Books
Neiman, S. (2012). Evil in Modem Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Oxford University Press.
Saikia, Y. (2011) Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh – Remembering 1971, Duke University Press
Zimbardo, P. (2007) The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York, Random House, 2007.