Terrorism, modernity and cultural intolerance

Terrorism is the latest and unexpected source of insecurity, fear and risk. It is unexpected because it does not depend on the liquefaction of society or on the crisis of the modern state, but is somehow linked to modernity, and can be explained by Eisenstadt’s theory of multiple modernities. According to this hypothesis, these evolve at different speeds and take on different connotations depending on where they are.

While Western modernity, the modernity we live in and which belongs to our experience, has developed since the French Revolution through a painful process of democratisation and the separation between politics and religion, the other modernities, in other parts of the globe, have developed in a different way, as a consequence of historical, economic and cultural conditions that are different from Western ones. They are characterised as having other objectives and statutes.

As long as these modernities remained within their own countries, developing independently and with no opportunity to compare theirs with Western modernity, a certain balance could be maintained. However, when globalisation opened up borders, giving rise to communication between countries in every part of the world, comparisons were obviously made. This triggered off threatening conflicts, especially by those modernities that, by nature of their cultural evolution, consider tolerance unacceptable, question the democratic principles of the West, and maintain the indissolubility of the relationship between religion and politics, that Europe had established since the sixteenth century.

The multiple modernities are irreconcilable. Their co-existence makes the conflict irreparable, especially where there is fierce pressure from fundamentalists who demand affirmation and the absolute recognition of their culture through aggression and violence.

In the years of the end of modernity, in this long farewell that separates us from a still unfathomable future, we are also forced to endure the fear of terrorism: a fear that is incomprehensible because it is not attributable to any shared behaviour, if not for the simple fact of existing and of being, by pure chance, where an attack has taken place. Its randomness and despairing manifestation, even through self-annihilation (suicide bombers who blow themselves up in a crowd), make us fear to undertake every journey, to be in a crowd, to do the ordinary, everyday things we do in town, because terrorism can strike without any warning – in the streets, on a plane or a ship, or where we go on holiday.

Its unpredictability undermines even that minimum sense of security left to us by modernity on the wane. The blind and uncontrollable fear that the Greeks called Phobos, and that had been removed from our culture, has now returned to the fore. We must find a new name for this ancient fear and give it a place in our language: naming it, bringing it out from within our unconscious, making it evident and making it a social reality with which to live, is perhaps the only way to overcome it.

The feeling that evil will prevail and that consequently mankind must now live with fear more than in the past could be a result of the developments in communications. Learning of disasters, acts of terrorism and violence at every moment of the day thanks to the news, to the images and reports, gives us the impression that evil is on the increase everywhere, and that there is no shelter or safety in any part of the world. Faced with an excess of data, an overloading of information, an incessant succession of it, the other possible reaction is just as negative: insensitivity. To increase attention and rouse public indignation, and then unleash fear, terrorism raises the bar and carries out deeds on an increasingly more devastating and inhuman level.

In this escalation of fear, terrorism seeks to sow panic among people, close off all secure areas, multiply the feeling of danger and enable it to take hold of us, and extend it to every moment of everyday life. The circle of insecurity – natural and moral disasters, the inefficiency of public defences, private violence and terrorism – closes around a society of fear, in which it is no longer desirable to live.