Reflections on war, politics and society
The downing of flight MH17, most likely, by the pro-Russian rebels over skies of eastern Ukraine confronts us the risk of living in a globalised world. Anthony Giddens’ calls that Runaway World. The idea of risk is peculiarly a modern human conception.
Giddens says in his Reith Lectures 1999: “But here we come across something really interesting. Apart from some marginal contexts, in the Middle Ages there was no concept of risk. Nor, so far as I have been able to find out, was there in most other traditional cultures. The idea of risk appears to have taken hold in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was first coined by Western explorers as they set off on their voyages across the world. The word ‘risk’ seems to have come into English through Spanish or Portuguese, where it was used to refer to sailing into uncharted waters. Originally, in other words, it had an orientation to space. Later, it became transferred to time, as used in banking and investment - to mean calculation of the probable consequences of investment decisions for borrowers and lenders. It subsequently came to refer to a wide range of other situations of uncertainty. The notion of risk, I should point out, is inseparable from the ideas of probability and uncertainty. A person can’t be said to be running a risk where an outcome is 100% certain.”
The tragic demise of the passengers and flight staff onboard MH17 cannot be regarded as civilian casualties of the ongoing conflict in the eastern Ukraine region. Approximately 300 people flying 33,000 feet above the ground have nothing to do with this conflict. Undertaking an air travel is a risky business despite its remarkable safety record, precisely for the reason that there are “known unknown” risks in every sphere of modern life. With an ever-increasing efficacy and accuracy of technology, an error can cause huge catastrophe. Because in the end it is the human-judgement that is needed to come to a conclusion whether the aircraft was a military one or a passenger one.
Few years ago a US Air Force B-52 bomber flew across the central United States armed with six nuclear missiles, of course it was an “isolated mistake”.
The modern humanity’s challenge is that neither it can undo the global interconnectedness nor it can freeze the technological innovation. That means not only we face the ‘known unknown’ risks, also we face the ‘unknown unknown’ risks.
Relevant excerpts from Giddens’ Reith Lectures 1999.
“Traditional cultures didn’t have a concept of risk because they didn’t need one. Risk isn’t the same as hazard or danger. Risk refers to hazards that are actively assessed in relation to future possibilities. It only comes into wide usage in a society that is future-oriented – which sees the future precisely as a territory to be conquered or colonised. Risk presumes a society that actively tries to break away from its past - the prime characteristic indeed of modern industrial civilisation.”
“All previous cultures, including the great early civilisations of the world, such as Rome, or traditional China, have lived primarily in the past. They have used the ideas of fate, luck or the ‘will of the gods’ where we now tend to substitute risk. In traditional cultures, if someone meets with an accident, or conversely, prospers - well, it is just one of those things, or it is what the gods and spirits intended. Some cultures have denied the idea of chance happenings altogether. The Azande, an African tribe, believe that when a misfortune befalls someone it is the result of sorcery. If an individual falls ill, for example, it is because an enemy has been practising black magic.”
“Such views, of course, don’t disappear completely with modernisation. Magical notions, concepts of fate and cosmology still have a hold. But often they continue on as superstitions, in which people only half believe, and follow in a somewhat embarrassed way. They use them to back up decisions of a more calculative nature. Gamblers, and this includes gamblers on the stock exchange, mostly have rituals that psychologically paper over the uncertainties they must confront. The same applies to many risks that we can’t help running, since being alive at all is by definition a risky business. It isn’t in any way surprising, that people still consult astrologers, especially at vital points of their lives.”
We often decry the securitization of distant conflicts by our politicians and bureaucrats, but the reality is that we no longer live in a world where we can dismiss a distant conflict as a ‘quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing’.
It is increasingly clear that the Modi government is going to stay away from the impending UN investigation in Sri Lanka. When answering a question on Sri Lanka’s minister of external affairs GL Peiris’ meeting with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj on the 11th of July, Syed Akbaruddin, India’s external affairs ministry spokesperson said:
“As regards what you are saying is the outcome of the UN Resolution, you are aware that (a) we abstained on the Resolution but (b) we also voted against that specific paragraph which was wanting to send a team. So, our views are pretty clear on this. This is not about a country specific issue; this is a matter of principle that we have always held. And you are aware that we have articulated why we feel so in terms of our approach to human rights. We feel that international bodies need to address human rights through a cooperative framework, not a punitive approach. Therefore, we have explained this at great length. There is no change in our position on what we stand for in terms of our approach to human rights issues in various countries and specifically relating to Sri Lanka, as has been articulated previously at the appropriate forum in March.”
The UN investigatory team is budgeted to visit “Asia pacific region” for five days, in addition to its planned visit to Sri Lanka for 21 days. It is not clear whether visiting India, especially to South India, was part of the “Asia Pacific” visit.
Even if they have plans to visit India, it looks like the BJP government would deny the access for the UN team to visit Tamil Nadu in order to meet the Eelam Tamil refugees.
For a detailed analysis read this essay.