Reacting to terrorism in a democracy | Daily News


Reacting to terrorism in a democracy

Security checks in Colombo. Picture by Hirantha Gunathilleke
Security checks in Colombo. Picture by Hirantha Gunathilleke

There is no one right way to react to terror. There is a wrong way.- Anne Applebaum

The senseless attacks on Easter Sunday sowed confusion and bewilderment-few could rationalise the objectives. As the extent of the tragedy became clear it gave way to horror, anger, sadness, fear, revulsion. These emotions are perfectly normal and, as columnist Anne Applebaum argues, equally right. But she warns that if these powerful emotions are politicised or used to fuel popular hysteria they cease to be neutral or natural and will ultimately make the situation worse.

Lashing out at the communities or groups from which the attackers were drawn will only ignite a cycle of violence. The US reacted to the bombing of the twin towers by launching a ‘war on terror’ invading Afghanistan and Iraq. A long chain of events eventually ended in train bombs in Madrid (2004), London (2005) a plethora of attacks elsewhere and the creation of ISIS which may have sponsored the attacks last Sunday.

A harsh security response that curtails civil liberties in favour of security may also backfire. Sri Lanka passed the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1979 but terrorism was not prevented; it only grew in strength. Was it the routine use of torture that led the LTTE to adopt the cyanide capsule? To die, rather than be taken alive? In carrying the cyanide capsule, every Tiger was potentially on a suicide mission. Did this pave the way for the cult of the suicide bomber? The LTTE was formed in 1976 but the first suicide bombing only took place in 1987.

The LTTE killed 13 soldiers in July 1983. Judged by later events, it was a small one, but at the time it was their biggest attack. The anti-Tamil violence that followed started a spiral that ended in a full blown civil war killing hundreds of thousands. Could this entire cycle been prevented? What if the Bandaranaike-Chelvanyakam Pact had been implemented in 1957? Or if July 1983, engineered by the UNP, had been stopped?

Was the local Islamic group that is suspected in the outrage itself originate as a reaction to a chain of anti-Muslim violence that started in 2013? These are painful questions but unless we address causes, rather than symptoms the violence will never end. Democratic societies are best placed to foster tolerance, which is the ultimate guarantor of security. Civic education is needed: to guard against populist politics and to root out the sources of hatred.

If democracy is to survive in Sri Lanka it must be sustained by an active citizenry; but to engage meaningfully requires knowledge, skills and the disposition to participate in civic life. But the habits of the mind, as well as "habits of the heart," the dispositions that inform the democratic ethos, are not inherited but must be learned. This is the purpose of civic education.

Traditional civic education covers the themes of procedural democracy: principles, procedures, laws, good governance and the role, responsibility and rights of citizens. This alone is not enough.

Moral or ethical questions

The education must also cover liberal values because in practice procedural democracy, while the best available system, has a drawback: it is not a good way to resolve moral or ethical questions. Democracy is built on majority views, but this may mean that alternative views on issues that are in the minority, controversial, novel, or particularly complex may be ignored. This is the problem of majoritarianism or the tyranny of the masses.

“Democracy guarantees a system of government in accordance with the wishes and plans of the majority. But it cannot prevent majorities from falling victim to erroneous ideas and from adopting inappropriate policies which not only fail to realize the ends aimed at but result in disaster”.

Therefore we must define democracy not merely in terms of procedures but as a mode of living founded on values: inclusiveness, pluralism, fairness, cooperation, dialogue and non-violent resolution of conflict. It is important to transmit to younger generations a host of democratic values such as tolerance and respect for diversity, concern with the rights and welfare of others, freedom and justice.

These values are in perfect concord with the Buddhist values of Karuna, Maitri and Ahimsa. Parents may impart these values to children but all too often their practice is restricted to family and friends. It must be extended to strangers, especially those that look, sound or live differently.

The war has ended but the relationship between communities is still tainted by suspicion, fear, and a lack of trust. The recent attacks have fueled suspicion and mistrust of the Muslims. Half the population, women, face routine discrimination, harassment and violence.

Most people are comfortable interacting with people, behaviours, and ideas that they are familiar with but react with fear and apprehension when faced with the unfamiliar. Misunderstanding causes us to respond aggressively to perceived threats to the status quo or stability, even where none exist.

The recent hostility to Muslims is founded on ignorance, misunderstanding and fear. Sri Lanka has been independent for 70 years but spent over 30 of those years in conflict. If the post-conflict era is to lead to lasting social peace, we must transform the unfamiliar into the familiar.

How should civic education take place?

Is there something to be drawn from the German experience?

After 1945, antisemitism in West Germany did not die out. Studies carried out between 1946-52 showed a third of the population to be strongly antisemitic while another third was antisemitic.

“This social climate began to change noticeably only after the newly restored synagogue in Cologne was defaced with swastikas and the slogan “Juden raus” (Jews get out) on Christmas Eve 1959. This event unleashed a countrywide wave of antisemitic actions. Over 700 incidents were recorded.”

This provoked public revulsion: “Although most German citizens were to a certain extent still accustomed to such slogans and to the sight of a desecrated synagogue, the act captured public attention and resonated strongly. Ministers condemned it on the radio, and the still fledgling television stations broadcast special reports (sic) about the incident”

Democratic political parties, trade unions, media representatives and the churches joined in a public repudiation of antisemitism. The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno argued powerfully against the desire in the German society of the 1950s to “close the books on the past and, if possible, even remove it from memory.” The potential for a relapse into catastrophe was all too real, according to Adorno.

Ordinary, decent Sri Lankans prefer to avoid discussing things that are controversial but will this not lead us into the same trap that Adorno warned the German people against? He underlined the need to confront the persistence of fascist structures within postwar democracy. If we fail to deal with problems they will resurface?

Political education in Germany is founded on the conviction that Democracy cannot be taken for granted no matter how strong the democratic system seems to be and enshrines the following principles:

1. Prohibition of manipulation (no indoctrination)

2. Need of controversy and diversity (discussion of controversial political positions)

3. Adapted to the skills and competence level of participants and focus on empowerment and initialising political or civic activity; not just teaching facts.

In 2015 the so called “Frankfurter Declaration” added some principles to the guidelines of the Beutelsbacher Konsens. These additional precepts are addressing the evolving environment of political education the age of information society:

1. Political Education has to be about current political questions and phenomena

2. Controversy should get space but there should also be a focus on common solutions for political conflicts

3. Context specific and differentiated understanding of political statements

4. Political judgement is mainly based on facts but also on emotions and individual circumstances of life

5. Learning means acting, so people need to get involved with political practice to understand democracy

Germany went through a process of soul-seeking, confronted its past and invested in civic education to prevent a repetition. Sri Lanka removed civic education from schools in the 1970’s but fortunately it was reintroduced in 2007 for grades 10-11 and extended to grades 6-10 from 2015.

The teaching guide for civics is quite encouraging-the principal areas outlined above (except gender) are included. Unfortunately it seems limited to only classroom instruction and there remains the question of how well it will be taught. A rote-memorisation approach will not foster the critical thinking, media literacy and values necessary.

Other aspects of the syllabus, particularly history are a cause for concern. For example, on the contents of history textbooks, Wettimuny references Sasanka Perera.

“the legend of battles between ancient kingdoms documented in the Mahavamsa promotes Sinhalese-Tamil antagonism, and suggests ‘a long and bloody tradition’ between the two races. Thus the reproduction of this version of the past in the Sinhala Grade 6 history syllabus is highly problematic. It claims that the Sinhalese King Dutugemunu defeated the Tamil, ‘foreign’ ruler Elara in a war to protect Buddhism, to ‘reunite the country’ and ‘liberate the country from foreign rule’ By contrast, the Tamil Grade 6 history syllabus cites Elara as a leader that ruled ‘with justice’.”

Children sitting in linguistically segregated classes who learn diametrically incompatible versions of history which emphasize historical injustice and continuing victimisation from irreconcilable textbooks will not be well prepared to receive lessons in tolerance in a civics class.

To have a lasting impact it must change attitudes so it must include practical aspects, involving cultural, extra-curricular activities as well as exercises and classroom lessons. The aim is that differences in viewpoint and culture are to be cherished and appreciated rather than judged and feared.

As the Dalai Lama pointed out: “Coexistence takes effort, but we should work to make this century an era of peace and non-violence. We need a human approach to solving problems between us. We need to talk instead of fighting, engaging in meaningful dialogue based on mutual respect. Anger is rooted in having a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We need instead to respect others as members of humanity like us.”

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