Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 October 2005
Issue No. 764
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Terror and historical determinism

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed discusses terror and the challenge of death

An incontrovertible truth is that human beings are bound someday to die. A no less incontrovertible truth is that human beings are bound to have been born on some previous date if they are to die and leave behind them traces of life. Another truth is that human society (in the absence of war) has not witnessed, throughout its history, systematic killing as has been the case with the inauguration of the third millennium. More precisely, since 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Since that date, systematic killing has taken place in the form of terrorism. Moreover, it is a very specific type of terrorism, based on suicide, to make sure that maximum harm is inflicted, whatever the price.

What do we mean when we say that terrorism assumes the form of "historical determinism"? We mean that terrorism, as it brings about widespread extermination, is unable to predict one thing, in particular, namely, when and where some specific individual can be struck.

To clarify what I mean, let us consider the following. We Homo Sapiens, are creatures which belong to a solar system. One day, and at a specific point in outer space, equilibrium will be disrupted between the gravity of the sun and that of the earth: the same might apply for many other planets in the Milky Way, and even beyond, where stars exist in the billions. When this occurs, we will not be able to resist death.

Unless progress in the fields of science and technology reaches the point which makes it possible for the human species to move out of planet Earth, and emigrate to some safe planet elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy, we come up against a dilemma. Faced with such an extraordinary challenge, is it possible to learn more about the conditions of change that the human species can go through as it traverses galaxies -- not as individuals, but rather as space entities gratified with intelligence, as well as with the ability of adapting to outer space, whose secrets we are just beginning to discover.

It is now possible to state that lengthening life has become a possibility. In the Middle Ages, life expectancy of an individual did not surpass four decades, now, in developed countries, it easily reaches an average of six or seven. But are the changes quantitative only, or also qualitative?

Let us assume, for a moment, that the universe with all its galaxies -- which count in the billions as we now know -- constituted one cell in a superbody of an incredibly large size, billions of times the figures we are accustomed to deal with or, taking things further, in the brain of that superbody which, also assumingly, has reached an advanced stage of intelligence and complexity. Can it not be postulated that this superbody is the basic unit of a world within which, we, in our capacity as the human species, are a miniature element? Thus, two categories of worlds would alternate, as we move from the infinite small to the infinite big, one within the other: one which is the universe as we know it, which we come to know through our senses, and one which embodies the logos, the rules of the game, according to which the whole system operates.

At the present stage of our knowledge, we are most probably not equipped with all that we need to know, to understand how this entire mechanism works. But it is worth remembering what an outstanding thinker once said, namely, that humanity only raises the questions that it is in the position to solve. So far, it would seem, the mind-brain dichotomy has revealed very little of its secrets.

Humanity can also play a role in shortening life, not only in lengthening it, mainly by damaging our ecological environment through precipitating erosion, activating pollution, provoking water shortage, global warming, and other natural disasters.

Most of these phenomena happen inadvertently, but not all. Terrorism is the most obvious manifestation of deliberate damage- making, and especially when it resorts to weapons of mass destruction. Once these weapons are discovered, it is not expected that they will ever be totally relinquished. Why?

Because states find themselves bound by agreements and commitments which compel them not to possess given types of forbidden weapons. But there is no guarantee that terrorists, outside the state system, would stick to such engagements once they acquire such weapons. The optimal solution is for them to give up such weapons voluntarily, but there is no such thing as the 'worst' solution. A still worse solution can always be invented.

It can always be argued that if there is a bottleneck in this matter, there is no reason to believe that no solution will ever be discovered. Someday, some instrument could be invented which could destroy weapons of mass destruction without itself being a weapon of mass destruction. This is still a target very difficult to reach, as made clear by the obstacles still preventing the elimination of the minefields which continue to pollute many ex-World War II battlefields.

Despite all of this, there are still means to guarantee some form of immortality, not materialised in subjective (say utopian) dreams of living forever, but by accomplishing acts that serve humanity so well that they would be remembered for a very long time to come. Such is the ideal way of challenging death.

But we must remember that humans only die once, while building the future is a continuous process. Is there any compulsion that made it 'necessary' for 9/11 to succeed? Had it failed, would the event have taken the proportions it had? This raises questions worthy of further analysis beyond the realm of the issue of predictability and determinism.

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