The news last week of suicide bombings at hotels in Indonesia was unsettling. The knowledge that places you have stayed, or had a meal or a meeting in have become the targets of suicide bombers gives rise to a strange, uncomfortable sensation. The scenes of death and destruction at the Marriots in Jakarta and Islamabad, and, not long before, the Taj in Mumbai, the Pearl Continental in Peshawar, even if recorded on the other side of the world, strike a chord disturbingly close to home.
One of those people leaving on a stretcher could easily have been me.
Or, perhaps, you.
These incidents were not the first, and are unlikely to be the last of their kind. And in the short term, it will remain difficult, if not impossible to secure or defend almost everything, almost anywhere against the type of attack in which the perpetrator is prepared to give his or her own life in order to carry out the mission.
Even if authorities could suppress such action, the option would hold little appeal. The economic and political costs – something akin to totalitarianism – would be horrendous, the cure worse than the disease.
A better response, at least in the immediate aftermath of such incidents, is to rely, patiently, on careful police and intelligence work to apprehend the criminals responsible, while maintaining the rights, liberties and freedoms which can make life, at least for some, rich and fulfilling.
This is not necessarily the most attractive option for decision-makers, and it is certainly less telegenic or newsworthy than the prospect of near-immediate retaliation through the despatch of Hellfire missile equipped predator drones to annhilate some distant compound or convoy. That said, it will almost always produce better results, and without the risk of collateral damage or the possibility of inflicting suffering upon innocents, as has so regularly been the case with the global war on terror or any of its more recently fashionable derrivatives, such as overseas contingency operations or stabilization.
Over the longer term, the prognosis could brighten. But that will require major changes to the way in which the global political economy is organized and functions. It is poverty and inequality that drive those unable to benefit from globalization towards radical alternatives, and a small minority, bereft of reasonable, viable alternatives through which to express their convictions, turn to political violence or religious extremism.
Underdevelopment and insecurity, after all, are not two solitudes. They are opposite sides of the same coin.
There is now a large corpus of research which indicates that the vast majority of those recruited to become human bombs are not insane, but alienated, angry and resentful, often over the occupation of their land by foreign troops. That condition of bitterness and desperation, may turn street vendors or agricultural labourers into true believers, or even zealots, but very few are crazy. Most elect to do what they do on the basis of rational choice – compensation for the surviving family members, the promise of martyrdom, the belief that they will be rewarded with a better life in heaven. And more than a few are educated and relatively prosperous, their disaffection rooted less in the immediate experience of oppression than in the kind of global empathy made possible by the creation of virtual communities over the internet.
Political space has become deterritorialized.
The enduring reality of suicide bombing, then, is that it is more a symptom than a cause of deeply rooted insecurity and persistent underdevelopment. As such, it can be interpreted as one among many possible illustrations that aid alone – the quintessential, donor interest serving, bandaid solution – won’t work in support of genuine development. When advanced countries use aid to generate employment for home country contractors, to dispose of surplus commodities, or to dump uncompetitive or dangerous industrial products, recipients end up with road graders rusting in jungles, sacks of wheat rotting in rat-infested wartehouses and skim milk powder used to whitewash mud walls in places where most of the population is lactose intolerant.
Whether or not these sorts of outcomes represent the exception or the rule, they serve to give international cooperation a bad name, and are the antithesis of sustainable, equitable development, which is human need centred and long term. Characterized by broad citizen access to representative political institutions, economic opportunities, and social services, this kind of development, elaborated in previous posts and elsewhere, implicates those involved in the design of their own destiny.
The literature on globalization is rife with references to “interdependence”, but the reality resembles more a complex, multiple-layered pattern of dominance and dependence which is replicated in many places and among and between individuals and groups, cities, countries and regions. It is not something limited to the so-called economic south.