Thoughts : Politics (911) : Differences, Truth and Terrorism

I refer to the report, “Truth and terror” (TODAY, Jan2).

What former United States President Bill Clinton said reflected the wisdom of an elder statesman. It is true that we all have “our little boxes”. It is true that there is great danger in clinging on to our views in an extreme manner.

However, I take issue with Mr. Clinton on one important area. It is imperative to clearly state what “differences” we are talking about. Many differences among people need to be pondered over and sorted out, not merely frowned upon and bypassed.

We should not always accept differences among people just because they “make our lives interesting”. Diversity in preferences and tastes among human beings ought to be tolerated. But many differences go beyond that. Not all differences are of such little significance that we ought to just tolerate the differing viewpoints.

In fact, many differences can mean life or death to many.

Many Arabs and Muslims think America and the Western world are “oppressive” towards them.

Many innocent lives have been lost – far more than on Sept 11 – in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Afghanistan in recent months and years.

The “oppressiveness” of America and the western world is a “life or death” issue to many Arabs and Muslims. This difference in the way either party views things is definitely not a difference that ought to be tolerated. We cannot be too naive or simplistic in our thinking.

We need to devote more time to work differences out and not just overlook them and focus on our commonality. Belittling the different views that terrorists hold strongly is not the way to solve the terrorist problem. Seeking to understand these differences should be the way forward.”


Below is the longer unedited article written by me. The above letter was the edited version published by the newspaper.

In a recent lecture by former American president Bill Clinton titled “The Struggle for the Soul of the 21st Century”, he reflected on terrorism, truth and differences. He said:

The terrorists…thought they had the truth, and because they had the whole truth, anyone who didn’t share it was a legitimate target. They thought the differences they had with us, political and religious, were all that mattered and served to make their targets less than human.

Most of us believed that our differences are important and make our lives interesting, but that our common humanity matters more. The clash between these two views over this simple question more than any other single issue will define the shape and soul of this new century.

In his speech, Clinton saw the main issue of 2002 as whether our differences were more important than our common humanity. The September 11 terrorism showed what could happen when certain people placed their differences with others above their common humanity with every person in the world. More tragedies of such could happen in 2002 if more and more people focused on their differences, rather than their commonality.

To go through life more easily, people usually organise life into different boxes/categories – by religion, by gender, by politics or by colour. Clinton says of these little boxes of ours:

Our little boxes are important to us…but somewhere along the way we finally come to understand that our life is more than all these little boxes we are in. And the fanatics of the world, they love their boxes and hate yours.

Clinton’s proposal of an answer to this problem is simply to not be too rigid in one’s thinking and consider “our little boxes” so important to us that we use violent means against those who think differently from us. We all have “differences”, but we should regard our common humanity more.

What Clinton said reflected the wisdom of an elder statesman. It is true that we all have “our little boxes”. It is true that there is a great danger in clinging on to our views in an extreme manner. It is true that the moment we start to regard our differences above things we have in common as human beings, an undesirable attitude of pride may develop in us which can be destructive.

However, I have to take issue with Clinton on one important area. It is imperative to clearly state what “differences” we are talking about. Many differences among people need to be pondered over and sorted out, not merely frowned upon and bypassed.

It is very easy for us to sound wise by brushing aside important issues and questions by simply pointing out the evil of focusing on our differences and the good of cherishing our commonality. But in reality, it can be more of a foolish and dangerous act to do such – as it reflects our simplistic and reductionistic thinking.

To state it simply, it is not true that we should aslways accept differences among people as they “make our lives interesting.” Diversity in preferences and tastes and the such among human beings ought to be tolerated. But many differences go beyond that. Not all differences are of such small significance that we ought to just tolerate the differing viewpoint.

In fact, many differences concern views and opinions cherished that mean “life or death” to many.

For example, how would you feel if someone you know differs in his thinking in how he should treat a friend of yours. You believe that this person ought not to hurt your friend despite what your friend has done to him. He thinks differently. He wants to kill your friend.

Are differences of the above type differences we ought to accept because they “make our lives interesting?” Surely not!

When it comes to terrorism and the September 11 issues, a clash of opinion is indeed central to what has happened and will continue to happen in future. Many Arabs and Muslims see America and the Western world oppressive towards them – for example, in America’s support of Israel against the Palestinians. Many innoncent lives have been lost – far, far more than on September 11 – in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan in recent months and years. America’s and the Western world’s oppressiveness is a “life or death” issue to many Arabs and Muslims. This difference in the way each view things is definitely not a difference that ought to be tolerated as it “make(s) our lives interesting.”

It’s the difference between life and death, security and oppression. And we need to see certain differences this way and not be too naive or simplistic in our thinking. We need to devote more time to work out these differences and not just overlook them and focus on our commonality. Belitting the different views that terrorists hold strongly to is not the way to solve the terrorist problem. Seeking to understand these differences should be the way forward.

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