Countering violent extremism

Countering violent extremism

Urgent calls are being made to increase funds to counter violent extremism. In the wake of so many atrocities this is understandable. But violent extremism is not solved by having money thrown at it. Certainly more resources are needed to improve intelligence, provide weaponry and train those whose job it is to handle potential or actual emergencies. In the short term we have no other ways of handling rising, incomprehensible, anger.

Violent extremism is a consequence of excesses, chief among which is excessively high expectations. It is as though aspirations, those laudable desires to improve oneself and other people, have become rights. Abuse of democracy is one cause of excessive expectation. Listen to the promises made by both parties to the forthcoming US Presidential Election and you will instinctively lower them, calling them hyperbole. Many, including but not exclusively young people, won’t have the experience or education to do that. They believe them.

So expectations get raised and when they are not met anger follows. Anger can be specific, perhaps about the unfairness of wealth distribution or a deprived childhood, or it can be general, possibly about feeling cheated by one or other societal group. When anger becomes despair it can manifest in a suicidal atrocity that, with all its finality, leaves a mark where none would otherwise have existed.

Demanding attention is another cause of violent extremism. With so much noise caused by seven billion people and with such overwhelming communications as a consequence of the internet it is difficult, bordering on impossible, for any one individual to attract attention. We all need attention, or think we do, and if all else fails a horrendous terrorist attack gets it.

Short-term the answer to these seemingly escalating events has to be better security. But, as is becoming increasingly evident, we cannot secure everyone all the time. Since terrorist acts are often directed at an uninvolved and innocent target, predicting the next victim is impossible. In any event, strident mass security quickly loses the sympathy of the public and makes us hostile to the police and other law enforcers. More security is self-defeating.

It took four generations to transform the civilised world from “a man’s word is his bond” to “I want it now”. The process was one of neglect by religions to see the dangers ahead and adapt, failure of educators – that is, all of us – to understand the importance of society, exaggerated capitalism as a panacea for all ills, and a misunderstanding that excess produces happiness. From an aggressive response of a boss to his subordinate to the outrageous noise battering everyone’s brains, we have allowed excess to ruin humanity.

The road forward from such a situation is hard but not impossible. It involves convincingly teaching, practicing and rewarding civilised behaviour. That in turn requires us to ask of each action, each decision, “for how long does this answer matter?” Choosing the long view over the short-term starts by modifying instant gratification. Decisions that have significance for the longer term must be seen to matter more than those that are purely ephemeral.

And the rewards to be attributed to this better behaviour? They should not be material rewards because if they are they send the wrong message. So the most difficult lesson we now need to teach is the reward of being satisfied that individually we are doing our best. It will not be a quick fix but it is long overdue time to begin.

The mirror shows us the only person we really have to live with.