June 28, 2005

Politics and the Fear Factor-2

In the previous post, I said that I perceived a difference in the way that people in Sri Lanka and in the US reacted to political violence. There the reaction was to try and get back to normal patterns of behavior as soon as possible while here the reaction seemed to be to dwell on the violence unceasingly (how many times per week do we hear references to 9/11?) and to keep people in a state of fear.

I think that it is the behavior in the US that is exceptional and not that in Sri Lanka. I recall that when Lebanon was going through its extended period of civil war, the people there too would try to get back to normal too.

As I said in the last post, the average level of political deaths per year over the past thirty years in Sri Lanka equals that which occurred on 9/11. And since the country is small in size (about two thirds the size of Ohio, with a population of around 20 million), this means that violent acts are likely to have been directly experienced by many people. For example, an important government official was ambushed and gunned down in broad daylight right in front of my mother's house in Colombo. And almost any person can tell you stories of personal losses or near misses from the violence. So the calmness with which they go about their daily business is quite remarkable.

I remember my previous trip to Sri Lanka in 2001. A week before our departure from the US, the LTTE carried out a daring attack on Colombo airport, bombing four planes on the tarmac and attacking the main terminal building, resulting in a prolonged gun battle with government troops. We went ahead with our trip anyway, and upon arrival in Colombo, as our plane taxied up to the terminal, we saw the charred remains of the bombed aircraft by the side of the tarmac. There were bullet holes in the glass windows and walls of the terminal too. But except for the presence of armed security personnel, the other people in the terminal seemed as relaxed as if nothing had happened just a week earlier.

Even during the two weeks I was there this month, the government was on the verge of collapse, A Buddhist priest was on a hunger strike, demonstrations were being held in the heart of the capital city with riots squads called out to quell the mobs, and yet life in the areas not immediately affected by the events proceeded normally.

Why is this?

This has nothing to do with personal courage. I find it absurd to think that people in different countries differ significantly in the amount of personal qualities (like courage) that they possess.

My theory is that it is the very ubiquitousness of violence in some countries that makes the people there deal with it so seemingly calmly. People cannot live for extended periods of time in fear and uncertainty. Doing so would drive you crazy, so people recalibrate their expectations, treating as normal what other people might see as exceptional. People quickly come to realize that unless you happen to be very unlucky and are in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, you will be ok. So why worry about it? You might as well worry about being killed or injured in a car accident. In fact, if you are an ordinary citizen, the odds of the latter are probably higher than being killed by political violence.

Is this sort of insouciance a good thing? I don't know. It seems sad that the way to become immune to political violence is to be inoculated by steady doses of it.

I feel that my own experiences of endemic violence living in Sri Lanka have given me a higher threshold for worry and so I am bemused when people in the US get hot and bothered by 'threats' that are really quite small. (Remember the 'dirty bomb' scare?). After all, the chance that an act of political violence will directly affect any given person in the US is vanishingly small. While people and government leaders should think about how to deal with political violence as a political issue, it seems to me a little bizarre for the average citizen to worry about it in terms of personal safety.

This should be especially true here since people in the US lived through the cold war with the Soviet Union, where the threat of danger to each person was real, significant, and palpable because of the vast array of nuclear weapons on both sides. I am surprised that the much smaller threats posed by the actions of small political groups like Al-Qaeda can now strike so much fear in people.

When we take away the risk of the use of many nuclear weapons over a wide area (something that only a technologically advanced state can do), what we are left with is the threat of localized attacks. Despite all the scares over biological or chemical weapons, they are ultimately effective only as tactical or battlefield weapons, and are difficult to use over large areas of land or for big populations. Nuclear weapons (and many of them) are the only real weapons of mass destruction.

But fear of being the victim of a political act of violence can be a useful political weapon and it is this issue that I will examine in the next posting.


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Mano, I am wondering if media is as pervasive in Sri Lanka as it is in the US. I know my grandparents, for example, spend most of their day watching television inside. My grandmother is getting old to the point here mind isn't what it used to be. When I visit, I find her repeating "you have to be careful because I heard on TV, you have to be careful because I heard on TV, you have to be careful because I heard on TV..."

The media (which includes even us, here with our blogs) like to dramatize things to make the story more interesting. I am wondering how much this dramatization afffects the larger consumers of it, with regard to your current topic, and if citizens in Sri Lanka consume less of such media?

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on June 28, 2005 10:16 AM

Can fear be used politcally? Is the Pope Catholic?

Sorry... I'll wait to read your next installment. But I'm thinking of a certain shrub-named politician whose main political ad for his reelection campaign was a bunch of wolves prowling in the woods with a voice-over that could be summed up as "Be afraid. Be very afraid. Vote for me."

Posted by Marie Vibbert on June 28, 2005 12:10 PM

Yes, the media is pervasive but the media model is closer to the UK than the US. What I mean by that is that the media is all national, not local. The literacy rates are extremely high (92%) and people tend to be avid consumers of news. Also, there are multiple sources of newspapers, radio, and TV, and they tend to have a specific and partisan point of view and do not try to give the air of "objectivity" that you find in the US.

So the anti-government media are likely to play up trouble and uncertainty while the pro-government media tend to give the impression of everything being business as usual.

Hence people are conscious of the media bias and tend to factor it in in interpreting the news they get.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 28, 2005 02:32 PM

Welcome back!

I think the media concept is somewhat valid in that our society probably takes its vicarious experiences far too personally, but the reach of media is rather extensive these days, so perhaps it has more to do with our reaction to it and our government's involvement in it, than our viewing of it.

Folks in the UK have suffered bombing at the hands of the IRA, Spain from others, and few in either place are at a loss for news. But I think as Mano suggests they've developed higher thresholds for this sort of experience. One must adjust to carry on--if everyone panicked then the situation could become untenable. Perhaps this is the wisdom of experience. "I've lived through this and survived, so I will live through other things and survive as well."

I think we can see this on an individual basis as well as in a societal basis. Those who have suffered major losses or traumas often face other challenging situations with less anxiety than those who have not experienced such losses. Through time and experience one develops a sense of perspective. Hopefully that perspective is in keeping with reality.

I remember the first time I flew after 9/11. It was only a month later, and it was wierd seeing soldiers in American airports (though they are common place elsewhere) but it worked out just fine. I wasn't actually concerned that someone would blow up my plane.

Frankly I felt much wierder walking into PBL for the first time after May 9, 2003. I hadn't been in the building that day, but I knew people who were. While the SWAT team was scouring the building for Biswanath Halder, a group of us watched from the Barking Spider as the "Mother vehicle" moved up and down Ford. (We couldn't get to our cars becasue of the barricades, but mostly I think we felt a need to be together)

That day we lost an incredible student, Norman Wallace, but the community rallied together. Law enforcement worked safely and efficiently and the administration worked to create a healing atmosphere. I know the scale is different, but imagine how different things could be if our government had taken a similar attitude with 9/11 instead of continously suggesting that the world is out to get us.

Posted by Heidi Cool on June 28, 2005 02:35 PM

Welcome back!

This is off topic, and many would argue that it's just nitpicking, but I was very surprised to see you use the phrase:

"My theory is that ..."

Especially considering the topic of many of your previous posts (most notably Intelligent Design). It always saddens me to see "theory" used so loosely. I know that's the most common usage of the word, but it's always felt to me like it's been hijacked, and that we should be trying to reclaim the definition (to be more in line with the scientific usage of the word), so that someday we might not have to keep hearing people spout "it's only a theory."

But I've been trying to do this for years, and nobody seems very receptive to the idea at all.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on June 28, 2005 04:19 PM


I understand what you are talking about and it is not nit-picking but deals with both tactical and philosphical issues. I have struggled with this question myself and have given up on the idea that the meanings of words can be strictly defined and enforced.

It would be convenient and undoubtedly lead to greater clarity if words like "theory" had single, well-defined meanings but that horse is out of the barn and cannot be put back.

On the tactical side, can we ever really preserve the meanings of words? One of the charms of the English language is its very fluidity and democratic nature, the fact that users get to decide meanings. So I think that it would be futile to patrol the meanings of words.

The philosphical question is whether words can ever be understood apart from their context. I don't think so. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that people realize that words must be understood in context, so that the "theory" that is used in the context of scientific ideas is known to have a meaning different from the same word used in everyday life.

So if I say something like "I have a theory about how Einstein arrived at his theory of relativity", I would expect people to realize that the two uses of the same word have quite different meanings. In the long run, such a goal may be easier to attain than having single meanings for words.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 28, 2005 05:38 PM