The Need to Ask “Why?”

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It’s disconcerting to read of so many people accusing Osama Bin Laden or whoever is responsible as being “insane” and “cowardly”. The frequent use of these words can easily become veiled attempts to avoid asking the important question “Why did the terrorists commit such an awful crime against humanity?” Let me explain.

First, the word “insane”. Understandably, it’s very easy, in the midst of emotions of utter anger and shock, to label these people as such. However, labelling the perpetrators “insane” is an easy way to avoid reflecting upon the reasons for their acts. After all, an insane person is one who acts without reason, or with a kind of reasoning that is so illogical that does not warrant our attention or response but only repulsion.

Once we have the mindset that such acts by these educated terrorists were mindless, foolish or an act of insanity or that the acts were from people who are mentally unstable, we have already judged their actions as incomprehensible. We have already declared that we need not search for underlying motives or reasons for their acts because the terrorism and murder were from people who were incapable of proper reasoning – perhaps brainwashed or better still, brainless. We can then happily condemn their acts without finding out the cause of their actions. What a way to escape the all-important question of “Why?”

But what if the terrorists were not brainwashed, mentally unsound, psychologically psychopathic? Certainly the knowledge that they were educated people should prompt us to think of them as people capable of logical reasoning. If so, perhaps we could learn a bit from these incidents by indulging ourselves for a moment in a bit of research to discover their reasons and motives for doing what they did.

What about the word “coward”? This is another label that causes us to refrain from asking the question “Why?” By calling the acts “cowardly” and by attributing them to “cowardly” people, we again avoid finding out the underlying reason and motive for these acts.

The word “cowardly” and its antonym “courageous” are morally neutral characteristics. To say one has performed a courageous act does not mean that the act is being condoned, but merely that the act is a reflection of the bravery of, or the “ability to disregard fear” (Oxford Dictionary) in, the person. The act in itself may or may not be moral.

Thus using “cowardly” to describe the suicide hijackers is surely a wrong use of the word. A person willing to sacrifice one’s life for a cause is anything but a coward.

Use of proper English is not the reason why I am pointing this out. Rather, I’m concerned that in our use of the word “coward” to describe the terrorists, we are refusing to realise that what they did was probably more of a courageous act (though morally repulsive) than a cowardly one. And knowing that people are more inclined to find out what inspired a courageous act than a cowardly one, to label the act as cowardly may diminish one’s interest in probing into the beliefs that so motivated them. Ultimately, we will fail to understand from their point of view why they did what they did.

Insane and cowardly – terrorists are neither. They are rational human beings like you and me who have taken certain injustice deeply to heart and who unfortunately choose inhumane ways to make a point and further their cause. To refuse to try to understand their reasons behind their actions is to insult them further and this will only serve towards making them strive harder to make their cause known. We need to give their cause a hearing. That doesn’t mean we will agree with it or with the actions with which they choose to further it – for to seek to explain is not to excuse. But it means we ought to treat them more like human beings capable of rational thought by devoting more time in seeking to answer the question “Why?”

We have two choices before us. We can continue to think of the terrorists as “insane” and “cowardly.” Or we can recognize them as educated people willing to brave death for their beliefs. If we take the latter course, we find ourselves on a journey to asking the all-important “Why?” question. We may then yet learn something out of this whole tragedy and will be, I believe, more effective in understanding and reducing terrorism in future.

Let me end with the wise words of John O. Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University, who wrote the following in an article entitled “Understanding Terrorism”:

Those who attempt to go beyond simplistic answers to understand the causes of terrorism run the risk of being accused of being apologists or supporters of the terrorists. However, the causes for which terrorists are willing to die have a great appeal to many people in the world. Trying to understand and explain that appeal is not advocacy; it is the first step in a long-term program for reducing terrorism in the world.

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