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More reflections on terrorism and the value of life

More reflections on terrorism and the value of life
Published 17 Jun 2016 

Responding to my reflections on the Orlando terrorist attack, Sam Roggeveen asks a powerful question: does society value human life more now than in previous times?

In support of the affirmative, Roggeveen points to the enormous material and well-being advances of humankind over recent decades. And indeed the fact that people, on aggregate, are living longer and healthier is incontestable.

To my mind, however, this substitutes outcomes with intentions. Human welfare has improved as a result of advances in systems and technology that better service the needs of humanity. The motivations for these advances are usually profit, whereas political ideologies that have aimed at improving collective welfare have often achieved the exact opposite. Indeed some of the most significant breakthroughs result from the desire to exterminate human life more efficiently and on an industrial scale, such as the splitting of the atom and the development of rocketry.

And while war overall has been on a decline, the human capacity to inflict violence has immeasurably increased, to the point where human civilisation itself can be threatened. Indeed the fear of one person murdering 50 others in a single act of violence is a relatively new concern, one that certainly did not exist before explosives. There is also no reason to believe that belligerents in future hegemonic conflicts will concern themselves overmuch with the preservation of human life, if disregarding it services the core interests of the warring powers. Equally, there is no obvious era where the value of human life was ignored; even the Athenians didn’t have the heart to massacre Mytilene’s male population during the Peloponnesian War. The point being that while times have changed, human nature has remained largely constant through the ages. [fold]

And to that end, humans are tolerant of the familiar. The Columbine High School shooting in 1999 led to national soul searching, and yet the mass murder of younger children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 resulted only in reaffirmation of well-rehearsed gridlock. Twenty years ago, gun massacres were truly shocking, now they’re a statistic.

Roggeveen asks why would terrorists persist in the same tactics if the impact on our psyche is reduced?

The first answer is that they don’t; they innovate. It seems a lifetime ago now, but suicide bombing in Iraq was unknown prior to 2004. And while the death toll from such attacks remains high, it’s the cruel executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff shot in high definition that had a profound impact on public perception more recently.

The second answer is that it’s not the safety of humans generally that gives terrorism its potency. If that were so, then westerners would be just as concerned with terrorist attacks that occur in the Middle East as those unfolding in Paris, Brussels and Orlando. The fact is we care more for ourselves, our families and those with whom we culturally identify. To the extent that terrorists can instill fears for our own safety, such tactics remain effective.

Ultimately Roggeveen’s question is a philosophical one that is beyond my wisdom to fully answer. The point of my piece, however, was not to suggest that that the value of human life in society has reduced per se, merely that our collective desensitisation to terrorist violence diminishes our own humanity, just as it does those who perpetrate these hateful acts.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images




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