Violent extremism may or may not be lethal. Lethal extremism may or may not be violent.
In hindsight I might more descriptively have titled this article “Extremism and Terror”.
We encounter the word “extremism” a lot these days. In the U.S., President Donald Trump uses the word a lot. In his recent speech in Saudi Arabia he spoke strongly about the need to rid places of worship, communities, the Holy Land, and even the Earth itself, of terrorists and extremists. (Perhaps there is more than a little extremism and terrorism in this speech itself?) Terrorism and extremism most definitely are blights upon the Earth today. In the world today, as in President Trump’s speech, they are frequently found going hand in hand.
Terrorism, as it is most widely recognized today, is an intentional action designed to inflict terror upon a “target population”. That is pretty much how I have found it in dictionary definitions. Unless one has totally ignored world news the past couple decades or longer, we all know what violent terrorism is. And, whether we watch the news or not, most, if not all, of us know what terror is. Just so we’re on “the same page”, here are some excerpts from the definition of “terror” given by Merriam-Webster online:
“1 : a state of intense fear
2 b: a frightening aspect
c : a cause of anxiety : worry”
Most of us have experienced terror for one reason or another during our lives. Maybe we’ve even gone to watch certain movies or taken part in other activities to feel it. However, as an ongoing aspect of our day to day lives, terror is not something to be desired or sought. While in a single dose it may provide an exhilarating thrill, as a steady diet it is stressful and, unless one can free oneself from it’s hold (as one can in a movie situation simply by getting up and walking out), the anxiety and stress accompanying terror can wear us down, become debilitating. Ultimately the physiological effects resulting from the anxiety and stress which accompany terror, if experienced long term, can diminish the quality and the quantity of our lives. In fact, terror itself, not just the violence perpetrated in an act of terrorism, carries it’s own lethality. (See the link at the end of this article.)
Extremism, in and of itself, while today’s media usually has it associated with terror and violence, isn’t always the purveyor of harm or even unpleasantness. For example, someone may be extreme in their view that all school textbooks should contain information which is true and accurate to the best of our knowledge. While extreme, that pursuit isn’t going to cause harm for it’s target population. Quite the contrary. So maybe “extremism”, in and of itself, is getting something of a bad rap in the world today?
Merriam-Webster online defines extremism as:
“1 : the quality or state of being extreme
2 : advocacy of extreme measures or views : radicalism”
However, in recent world news the word “extremist” is most often used referring to people who hold extreme ideas about religion. Further, in the news the past few years, the words extremist or extremism are often (always?) linked with the words “violent” and/or “religious”. Violent religious extremism is frequently put forward as a cause of many, if not most, of the world’s ills right now. It is a fact that people; men, women and children, are being harmed and are being killed in places where “violent religious extremism” is taking place.
Looking at the phenomenon a little closer, what exactly is it that the religious extremists (violent or otherwise) are extreme about? It is, in every case, their ideas; concepts, values. In the case of religious extremism those ideas relate to religion. In cases of religious extremism, I think it’s fair to say those concepts and values are being accorded primacy above all else. Upholding, following, those concepts and values is being seen and acted upon as being more important than the well-being, even the lives, of others. That is where lethality enters into situations where extremism is present: when an idea takes on such value that it becomes more important than life itself, that of others or possibly even one’s own.
It seems humankind, in general, does not like nor respect the act of putting one’s ideas, no matter how deeply held, before the well-being and lives of others. Sometimes we may find honor in being willing to put one’s own life on the line for an idea, a value. However, being willing to put someone else’s life or well-being on the line for that idea or value just doesn’t carry the same merit.
At least throughout the past couple millenia, history and now current events, are showing us that religious extremism can result in lethality. However, extremism isn’t limited to religion. Extremism can be found in other aspects of human thinking, human cultures around the world. As so much suffering in the world right now is being ascribed to religious extremism, I think it is fair to ask: are there any other forms of extremism which either historically or currently are showing themselves to be as capable of inflicting pain and suffering upon the people of the world? As it happens, there is at least one. If there is any other form of extremism which has shown itself to be as capable of violence and/or lethality as religious extremism through the ages, it is extremism in the pursuit of wealth. Economic extremism.
Economic extremism can take three forms, they are:
- Extremism around a particular economic system. Extreme exponents of both capitalism and communism have left some significant body counts in their wake.
- The extreme pursuit of less. Asceticism most definitely has the potential to be lethal, but only to the person pursuing it. I have nothing to fear if my neighbor decides to pursue a life of asceticism. Realistically, if I live in an area characterized by even a moderate level of life’s comforts, they probably won’t be my neighbor for long if they are extreme in their pursuit.
- The extreme pursuit of more. This expression of extremism, as much as any other form of extremism known to human kind, including religious extremism, can result in and has resulted in violence, terror, and/or lethality.
Just as the pursuit of religiosity, carried to extremes, has led individuals and entire cultures to engage in cruel, brutal and murderous behavior toward other human beings, the pursuit of material wealth, carried to extremes, has done likewise. It is pretty clear that an extreme desire for wealth can lead a person to give that desire the same primacy that religious extremists give the religiosity they cherish. Off hand, without having all the data on how many people have been wounded, maimed, and/or killed by religious or economic extremists in all of recorded history, I think it would be very hard to make a reasonable estimate on whether religious extremism or economic extremism has resulted in more casualties.
It is also true that sometimes religious and economic extremism go hand in hand.
In understanding the relationship between extremism, terror and lethality, it is important to keep in mind that debilitation, terror and death are not always the results of violence. Violence is the act of giving someone else more of something: force, brutality, injuries, lethal trauma. Debilitation, terror and death can and are just as easily, though not necessarily as quickly, caused by giving someone else less of something: food, water, shelter, medical care, even education. Revisiting the topic of terror and terrorism briefly, sometimes terror is the result of the prospect of unfulfilled needs: unfulfilled needs for food, water, shelter, medical care. In this way, again, we find extremism and terror going hand in hand. It is the latter method, the method of giving or allowing less which is the primary method of lethality accompanying economic extremism. No matter how many people have been killed by violence occurring through the extreme efforts of tyrants to acquire more wealth, more people have perished as a result of being on the wrong side of an extreme economic imbalance.
If a man or woman can be happy with the wealth produced by their own hands, we have no problems. The problems enter in when men and women desire the wealth produced by the hands of others. The greater the desire for wealth, the more people it requires to produce it. When inordinate amounts of that wealth are being directed to a ridiculously small number of people there is no question that the people actually producing the wealth are being deprived of an equitable share of the wealth they contributed to producing. That is a signature of economic extremism, and there is lethality occurring as a result.
The methods, the ploys used in the expression of economic extremism, as with religious extremism, are many and I’m not going to try to go into those at this time. Suffice to say that whenever, in this world of plenty, we see people languishing in poverty we can be certain that there is economic extremism at the root of it.
If humankind is ever going to realize it’s full potential, if healthy, viable, sustainable, communities are ever going to exist, we are going to have to transcend religious and economic extremism.