Will Globalization make Hatred More Lethal?

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"Link found between hatred and killing" is not a headline that would sell many newspapers. But you might turn a few heads with "Link between hatred and killing changes in ominous way." Or—to put a finer point on it—"Ratio of killing to hatred slated to rise." This is one of the biggest stories of the last 30 years, and, probably, the next 30: the growing lethality of hatred.

Why has terrorism become public enemy number one? The most common answer—the rise of a brand of radical Islam that uses terror as its weapon—is true insofar as it goes. But the reason this weapon is so scary is that something deeper has changed: Technology now makes it possible for clusters of intensely hateful people to cause thousands, even millions, of deaths without using the political or military machinery of a state. Yes, the hateful people most likely to exploit this fact today are radical Muslims, but even if this threat subsides, the generic threat will remain: Hatred is more lethal than it used to be. And the underlying technological trends will persist over the next three decades, making it more lethal still.

Some of these trends are fairly obvious. Tools for making biological weapons—fermenters, centrifuges, gene sequencers—infiltrate the industrial and academic landscape as biotechnology evolves. And though the spread of weapons-grade nuclear material doesn’t have a similarly strong intrinsic impetus, regulation that would stop it has been lacking. Meanwhile, the emerging field of nanotechnology may introduce the inorganic equivalent of bioweapons: self-replicating, invisibly destructive microscopic machines.

But such obviously lethal technologies are only half the problem. There is also the insidious influence of information technology. Infotech, notably the Internet, makes recipes for weapons available to ever-wider circles. It is also a handy administrative aide for the terrorist on the go. A terrorist group can stay fluidly, elusively intact and then suddenly focus its energies to mount attacks.

What could be worse than a world in which technology is making grass-roots hatred more massively lethal? A world in which technology threatens to increase the amount of hatred as well.

The personal computer lets Al Qaeda cheaply generate polished recruiting videos, while the transmission of video gets easier, moving from videotape to DVD to streaming media. Among the emerging niches in the ultra-narrowcasting ecosystem of online video and audio: terro-vangelism. And the blogosphere, though potentially a medium for cross-cultural communication, tends to reinforce tribalism, as people settle into cocoons of the like-minded. (Witness the American Left and Right.)

Fifty years ago, a reasonable lodestone of foreign policy was to make sure all foreign governments either liked us or feared us. Today that won’t suffice, because foreign governments no longer mediate all major threats to national security. Essential elements of future security range from the tough international regulation of lethal technologies to a new kind of focus on human well-being around the world. To the extent that people—Muslim or non-Muslim—feel bitterly resentful, alienated, or exploited by America or by globalization, we’re all in trouble.

And maybe policy, though crucial, won’t be enough. Hatred and intolerance are moral, even spiritual, problems. Great moral and spiritual changes tend to emanate from somewhere other than legislatures. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few things you can confidently say about them. This part of the solution isn’t nearly as predictable as the problem.

Robert Wright, a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2000) and The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life (1994).



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