Clem Sunter

The flags of wrath

2016-10-03 08:20

Clem Sunter

A recent study by experts has confirmed what many ordinary people thought all along: the human species is territorial and sociable until its territory is under attack. Then it becomes violent and will do anything to protect its territory including the killing and maiming of its attackers. It echoes the meaning often ascribed to Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest. We are one of the fiercest mammals in existence when threatened. It’s all or nothing at all. No middle ground.

The flags of wrath unfurling around the world show that our DNA has not changed in thousands of years. Only technology has evolved from bows and arrows to nuclear weapons and drones. I am sure that the last century, with its two world wars, qualifies as the one with the highest recorded number of deaths of human beings at the hands of other human beings in the history of mankind.

Optimists might counter that progress has been made because the figure has declined in percentage terms; but my response would be that most of the violent deaths of the last century were caused by the so-called developed nations. Colonialism, which is just another name for occupying somebody else’s territory, was widespread too.

This century has not started off much better, although one hundred years ago we would have been well into the furious battles of World War One. But the flags are rising everywhere that the situation could worsen very quickly and dramatically in the next decade.

The Syrian War is intractable with pictures of Aleppo looking every day more like the devastation wrought on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. The Russians and Americans support completely opposite sides in the conflict and no one is likely to back down or compromise until sheer force has produced a winner. A peaceful resolution would be a major exception to the rule.

Then you have all the other continual conflicts over territory in the Middle East which diplomats have been trying for years to defuse. Now Kashmir has raised its head again with clashes between India and Pakistan, both of whom have more than 100 nuclear bombs. All one can say is that fear of retaliation on the whole eclipses no-holds-barred aggression; so neither side is likely to go all the way. In other words, there seems to be a place for the concept of mutually assured destruction acting as a disincentive to a first strike. Certainly, it is not that we have become gentler.

Meanwhile, North Korea has conducted tests which reveal that it is close to producing serious nuclear weapons with rockets capable of delivering them far and wide. The territorial dispute with South Korea has never really gone away, so the danger is spiking and nobody knows what to do about it.

Obviously, the most fundamental fear recently has been the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the point where the West may one day face the prospect of a nuclear attack on one of its cities by a terrorist group. We all know that the latter would have no hesitation in using a nuclear weapon if it could obtain one on the market and deliver it to its targeted destination. Earnest attempts to stop proliferation are therefore being made, but will they work? The risk can never be entirely eliminated because money counts.

History indicates that the instinct to invade an enemy’s territory and cause as much havoc as possible has been as strong as the spirit to defend it by those who already live there. To a certain extent, the establishment of national borders, the formation of the United Nations and the evolution towards a global economy have offset the itch to fight to the death. But, as my examples show, the itch is still there to pursue complete victory over the enemy when a contested piece of land is at stake.

Moreover, the instinct to protect your own territory is showing up in other ways. This century is unique in that the number of people living on the planet is more than 7 billion while the area of habitable land has declined as a result of desertification and climate change. Add to this the growing shortage of water, besides which you have the corruption of governments and civil war in parts of the developing world. No wonder that the next great migration of the human species is taking place before our eyes.

These immigrants are not driven by any form of ill-will or aggression on their part. They merely want a better life for themselves and their families elsewhere. However, the rise of right-wing political candidates in America and Europe indicates that there is plenty of hostility to the concept of welcoming strangers into your territory. Social tensions have risen and this can easily convert into violence as witnessed by the isolated attacks on migrants in the UK.

Xenophobia is a real blight. Nevertheless, I doubt that the migratory wave to the developed world or other safe havens can be contained. There is always a way around walls, necessity being the mother of invention.

Even as a seasoned scenario planner, I do not know how the game is going to play out; or how we are going to cope with the territorial flag that is ingrained in our nature. We may have become more civilised on the surface, but lurking deep down is this primordial tendency to lash out when safeguarding the sovereignty of our home against perceived outsiders.

We have to accept that the world has never been paradise. It has always been a battle between the forces of good and evil or, more specifically, between selfishness and generosity. Thus, in trying to make the good prevail over the evil, we need to be realistic in our understanding of ourselves and the flags of potential wrath created by our DNA.

These flags must be permanently borne in mind when seeking a better future together. They cannot be ignored or wished away. Idealism has to be infused with pragmatism in order to make progress. To finish on a positive note, please remember that, according to the study, the human race does have a sociable side as well. Let’s appeal to it whenever we can!

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