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.