In Conversation with Robyn Williams
in conversation: interview on ABC Radio National, Australia
Robyn Williams: Tonight In Conversation is about young men as suicide bombers. Are they focused and trained militants, or mixed up kids trying to make a meaning out of nothingness? My guest is Professor Bill Durodie, who made something of a splash at the recent BA Festival, that’s British Association Festival of Science in Norwich in England. Now, he accepts that there are indeed hardened militants among the disaffected, but plenty of lost kids as well, not really connected to any set like Al Qaeda.
Bill Durodie: I think it’s fairly clear that there’s a spectrum of people in relation to terrorism. Some of them have indeed been to camps in Afghanistan and been trained, others are typically people in the Gaza Strip who have a personal grievance because of the tragic loss of a loved one and therefore they see it as some kind of revenge. But increasingly, particularly in the United Kingdom, we’ve seen essentially loners and small groups where it’s very hard to detect any organisational affiliation prior to their trying to, or actually, detonating some kind of device.
And in that regard, when we look into the background of these people what we find is on the whole, very well brought up, well educated, fee-paying public schools, universities like the London School of Economics and therefore no obvious signs of what some people presume to be the risk factors that shape a terrorist. They weren’t educated in a madrasa, there’s no evidence of great piety, of being well versed in the Koran, and many of them keep their grievances largely to themselves before they then commit suicide. Therefore it begs the question as to what it is that really shapes and drives these people? And the way I see it is that in some respects they are fantasists searching for some kind of identity amongst what’s going on out there in the world.
Robyn Williams: So something happens to them, they’ve got a kind of misalliance, some personal grievance, a sense of failure, a certain sense of something missing and then they become the sort of people who think nothing really of ending their lives and doing so on a spectacular basis. That seems to be an extraordinary transition though.
Bill Durodie: That’s true and obviously fortunately it’s not the majority of people that are like that. I think we need to be clear by the way that this sense of alienation and lacking in identity and searching for meaning affects most of us in contemporary society. Since the end of the Cold War there is no great political divide in the world between a socialist left and a free market right. And also, we’ve seen social networks fragmenting from families, communities, neighbourhoods. People don’t participate in general elections, we’re all a bit disconnected from the world that we live in, we no longer participate in the formal process of decision-making in society and our informal networks have all been severely eroded. And the consequence of that is in some ways we are a generation of people searching for meaning and identity.
Now within that generation of course not all of them will become radical nihilists and some will go into all sorts of bizarre hobbies to try and affirm who they are and what they do. Others will discover illness and stress within their lives and have fantasy illnesses that they shape their lives around. And a small minority, no doubt they have some connection of some kind, possibly to Islamic extremism or they see it as a ready model for them to identify with despite the fact that their parents weren’t particularly devout Muslims at all. They may end up in that kind of avenue but it is a tiny, tiny minority and how to identify those – really my suggestion is that you can’t – we just are going to have to learn to accept that we now live in a world – and we will continue to live in a world so long as we are unable to define what it’s for and where it’s heading – whereby a tiny minority of individuals will lash out in a form of extreme rage against a world that they feel totally disconnected from.
Robyn Williams: I’m reminded somewhat of a section in The Tipping Point, you know Gladwell’s book where he describes teenage violence being completely unknown on a particular Pacific Island. Then it happened twice and there was a huge outbreak – in other words it became almost a fashion and it seems from what you’re saying that because this sort of terrorism is so commonplace, people can opt for it because, well, it’s there, it’s really almost its own kind of recruiting drive. Is that fair?
Bill Durodie: I think that is fair. There’s a huge amount of copycat events occurring that we can see. You have to ask yourself where did the – for instance, bombers in London, in the summer of 2005 – get the idea of bombing the Underground from? Well actually if you look at the intervening years between 9/11 and then you’ll find a number of BBC drama documentaries about terrorist attacks on the London Underground. You could argue that the BBC has been radicalising individuals and fermenting terrorism, or at least glorifying it to some extent, if you were the Home Secretary and wanted to ban them.
Fortunately I think it is worth reminding people that this is a very, very rare occurrence. You know we are still more likely to suffer an unfortunate accident on the way to the airport in our cars than we are ever to encounter some kind of terrorist eventuality. And even those car accidents are few and far between. So the problem really is when we start reorganising our lives around these extreme, rare, and very unfortunate events. And I see another problem, by the way, that it’s not so much what is it that makes radical alienated youth, but the real crises is what’s got wrong with the adults in society and the elite? You know it’s their absence of any sense of purpose and vision for society, any direction that they’re providing society with that lends itself to people, you know young people, trying to look for that somewhere else.
Robyn Williams: Idealism really.
Bill Durodie: Well we all need some ideals and I think to some extent to live our lives by. In some ways we live a very empty life nowadays and I’m not saying that from a religious perspective necessarily, I think there’s a crises of secularism that needs to be explored and investigated. And it is possible for instance to shape a life around a positive sense of humanity and human achievements and where we’ve got to today, and wanting to go further. And the divide I see emerging in the world today is between people who are positive and ambitious in that sense, and others who are very nihilistic, very pessimistic, who suggest that humanity has destroyed the planet, is destroying itself, and to be honest is a plague that ought to be destroyed. And believe me there are senior academics that I could name who write that kind of stuff.
Robyn Williams: Go on, name them.
Bill Durodie: Well they would be easy for your listeners to find.
Robyn Williams: Indeed. Going back to what you’re saying about risk, I was fascinated the other day to hear something on the BBC concerning the fear of paedophiles; occasionally of course, it’s a real, real thing that there is a nasty man in a coat and there is a poor vulnerable child. However for every one of those – apparently now that everyone drives their kids to school, there are 300 fatal accidents – so for each one child that you’re saving from the paedophile, 300 are dying in car crashes.
Bill Durodie: I think that’s catastrophic and I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. In this country there is legislation about to go through Parliament in the autumn basically asking that any adult that works in any capacity with children will need to be vetted for their criminal records. And we’re not just talking teachers here, we’re not just talking music tutors, or athletics coaches, we’re talking cleaners in hospitals, canteen staff in schools, young adults who are helping teachers look after young children. To the point where you ask the question, well, how long is it going to be before a mother taking a few children to a football match on a Saturday has to be vetted because she’s taking children that aren’t her own?
I think it’s a very insidious culture and it’s not simply the cost to society that worries me in terms of economic cost. There are going to be continuous and pointless records being checked but it’s more the social cost – we are teaching our children that we do not trust one another as adults and I cannot think of a more perverse and corrosive message to be sending to society.
Robyn Williams: Going back to the terrorists and Heathrow, an airport I will avoid at all costs but sometimes I can’t, given the fact that there are now gigantic inspections of security and that the lipstick syndrome and the gel syndrome and all the rest of it. How do you assess the worth of that kind of elevation of security check?
Bill Durodie: It is the equivalent of putting a totem pole up in your village green hoping that it will ward away evil spirits. The reality is it’s largely pointless, people in the security world know that it’s largely pointless, they are doing it to be seen to be doing something because they have got a false impression of how the public would behave were something to go wrong. The presumption from officials is that if something goes wrong the public will never forgive them. However what we saw in London after the attacks last summer is that most members of the general public were determined to get to work the next day and the British government did not collapse.
So what we have now is a series of measures that hamper the airline industry, where we are effectively doing the terrorist job for them, which are entirely pointless. We know that determined individuals will be able to get through no matter how many checks are introduced. Indeed many of the checks have been introduced on the passenger side but there’s not half that level of security airside in terms of staff that service planes, or people that put catering onto planes. So there is always a weak link in the chain. We are going to have to get used to this and accept that as long as we live in a society that doesn’t know where it’s going, as I said earlier, there will be a few nihilists who will lash out against it. It’s sad, it’s annoying, we need to deal very hard with those people when we find them but at the same time we must not allow ourselves to reorganise society around them.
Robyn Williams: But it’s very much a legalistic society, someone always has to be to blame, you see this with doctors. I’m not talking about the grotesque medical maniac who is hurting people, I’m talking about genuine mistakes. There is always a legal redress – is that not yet another example where it’s always got to be someone’s fault and you need to avoid the case rather than look at the overall general good and say to people well, you’re going to have to put up with things in a modern society.
Bill Durodie: Well you used a phrase there that’s very important. You talked about the general good and the problem is that we now live in a society that no longer perceives itself as a society. Rather it’s just a mass of individuals looking after their own interests and obsessing about personal choice. They have been encouraged in this by various governments, not just you know left-leaning, but the right as well over a number of years. And what we have is a society that is essentially fragmented so it takes, of course it maintains the appearance of being a society, but at its root it’s just individuals looking after their own. And as soon as you’re looking after your own you get particularly obsessed with things to do with your private health, you get particularly obsessed with things to do with security because it’s No.1 that you’re looking after.
Actually in the past as a society we had a sense that some things were worth certain sacrifices and it’s that absence of meaning that means that people are reluctant to put up and tolerate any kind of suffering today. Victor Frankel the holocaust survivor who wrote a book Man’s Search for Meaning famously said it’s not suffering that kills people, it’s suffering without meaning. If you give people a reason for why they have to put up with things, why things might be difficult, then they will be more willing to accept the cost if they align themselves with a particular project. For instance like flying to the moon a generation or so ago. But today, if you’re unable to define a direction for society, if as a politician you’re hiding behind the security measures that you say are imposed upon you because of 9/11 rather than trying to define your agenda and what your vision for humanity is then you are helping to create that society. And in some regards you’re as much a terrorist as those who perpetrate the nihilist acts.
Robyn Williams: Now I’m sure you are consulted by various corporations and indeed government – how do they react when you say things like this?
Bill Durodie: Quite favourably although my suspicion is they then go to work the next day and nothing much changes. I’ve noticed over a range of issues recently that government officials are very keen to deny any responsibility for the measures they’ve been introducing steadily over the last decade. We recently had the case here of the director of the Health and Safety Commission saying that we had all become risk obsessed and that we should stop being so without any recognition of the role of the health and safety executive in shaping that. A few years ago Tessa Jowell the culture secretary said that it was time that we celebrated art for art’s sake, rather than making it instrumentalist and utilitarian in terms of realising corporate profits or social inclusion projects or other targets.
And again really it’s the department of culture, media and sports that were responsible for doing that. So we are now effectively in a society that’s operating like a ghost ship, where the people that are meant to be manning the tiller are all saying ‘Oh it wasn’t me guv, don’t blame me’ and they’re absent you know on duty. I find that quite disconcerting at one level but on the other hand it also offers an opportunity for those of us who can see through all of this and who are brave enough to put our heads above the parapet and say it’s time we started defining a new political project, for a new period in time. It’s time that we went away from all the limitations of left and right that existed in the past and tried to put humanism central and social progress central and try and begin to articulate a project around that. And if I may, I’m part of a small group of people in London who’ve begun exactly that kind of venture, we’ve called ourselves the Manifesto Club and you can find our website at www.manifestoclub.com
Robyn Williams: Given that you suggest that with some sort of hope of progress – I think Peter Medawar the Nobel Prize-winning scientist from Britain who actually shared the prize with the Australian MacFarlane Burnett – hope of progress would transform people’s views about what they should do, especially young people who would stop bombing perhaps and start doing something rather more constructive. But what would the Manifesto organisation stand for?
Bill Durodie: Well we’re very honest at this stage, our key at the moment is to identify some of the problems as we see them. We’re doing quite a large piece of work, which will be ready shortly, precisely on the issue of vetting people for working with children. And we’re trying to connect with other interested parties worldwide who can contribute something to this project. It’s a very open group at this stage and we’re wanting people to join and make some major contribution. I think one of the major things that disappoints me I suppose as a scientist over the last ten, twenty years is the extent to which people of a left wing tradition have disowned science and have suggested that rationality and enlightenment thinking is what has brought devastation and problems to humanity.
And I think that unless we recognise the extent to which the left (which once understood science to really offer opportunities to shake up power and prejudice and the control of elites) have become disillusioned and have affiliated themselves to environmentalists who actually, if you look into the roots of that movement, really come from the opposite end of the spectrum. I find that quite disappointing and I think together with a kind of fragmentation of society that’s happened over the last ten to twenty years these are the drivers of the contemporary culture. It’s time we started explaining that to people and getting them on board as part of a project to change things.
Robyn Williams: Changing things might involve an environmental solution and indeed building a different way of doing things.
Bill Durodie: I’m not against environmental solutions as long as they make sense, I think unfortunately because we live in a slightly cynical culture where people have grown accustomed to not trusting scientists, not trusting politicians and definitely not trusting corporates, there is a presumption that everything that these people do destroys the planet. Whereas in fact you know life is a bit more nuanced than that and it’s time we had some nuance argument.
Robyn Williams: And you may also have heard that nuanced argument on Lateline which has featured Bill Durodie more than once. He’s a senior lecturer at Cranfield University in England and that website again he mentioned just now is manifestoclub.com.
First published by ABC Radio National, Australia, 28 September 2006