I’m fairly certain that the most dangerous people in the world are those that nihilistically believe that their group–especially one they find essential to their identity–is under attack. Many relatively powerless people with such fears, rational or otherwise, resort to terrorism. Having no ability to defend their group through conventional warfare, they strike anything and everything they see as endangering their desired order of the world.
Some people who foster this type of fear are able to carry out traditional war, Hitler was. So was Abraham Lincoln in 1861, the American rebels in 1775, and the Israelis in 1967. There are literally hundreds of examples of wars that began with fear–likely as many examples as there are wars–so I’ll move on.
Additionally, many with such fears are able to systematically kill the “other” that’s they see as threatening them, this is something Hitler did, but so did Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, the Rwandan Hutus, and–depending on who you ask–the Turks during the First World War.
This is not to say that all the above examples came to exist only because of a fear that a group was under threat, certainly some of these examples were furthered as much by a greedy thirst for power as for legitimate fear about the future. But that doesn’t mean that aspiring despots don’t, at least, appeal to ideas of external threat from a people’s common enemy. This is, generally, the essential method they use to gain the power they need to become true despots. Anyone with even a faint notion of 1930s Germany knows that’s exactly what Hitler did–convinced the German people that their superior race was being mongrelized and would perish if they didn’t help him to expand their empire.
Further, some people acting against such an existential threat–real or imagined–may not comprehend the ideology they’re defending. Certainly some young Muslims are simply becoming terrorists because they feel that they are supposed to. This was also true of most Germans that became Nazis, something Hannah Arendt made clear to the world in Eichmann in Jerusalem, from which we inherit the idea of “the banality of evil.”
But I think most Islamic terrorists believe–or would at least claim to believe–that Israel and the West pose an existential threat to the Muslim way of life. Such a party line is what you’d expect to hear from any group “at war” with any other.
Spain’s Basque separatists, and the more moderate separatists in Quebec, also believe that their peculiar way of life–different from their surrounding country–would collapse were they not acting to defend it. This view is probably not accurate, but it doesn’t stop them from holding it.
And these aren’t the only groups seek territorial integrity for their way of life. The famous Irish Republican Army was established to defend the Irish way of life from the British incursion in the northern part of their island. Thankfully that struggle is essentially over, but many, including the Basques, the Chechens in Russia, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, continue to fight.
Separatists, terrorist groups, and nations can turns to some scary techniques when they feel their existence is threatened. Perhaps the most notable example of this is nuclear weaponry, but it is certainly not the only.
History has made clear that the only reason Albert Einstein pushed the Americans to develop nuclear weapons was his belief that the German Nazis were doing the same thing. The Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons because of the threat posed by the American warheads. Britain and France developed the technology for fear of the Soviet Union. China developed them for fear of the West, and perhaps the USSR. Israel possesses nuclear weapons because it is so profoundly insecure in the Middle East. India and Pakistan developed the warheads for fear of China, but mostly for fear of each other. North Korea has developed them for fear that China’s not committed to its protection. Iran is now seeking nuclear technology for fear of its neighbors–especially, but not exclusively, Israel.
I think it’s reasonable to claim that all terrorist organizations and nuclear powers developed in profound fear for their security. Genocides, too, seem to arise from the idea that one ethnic group is threatened by another.
Closer to home, some have argued that this systematic rhetoric of danger is essentially what George W. Bush has used, with varying degrees of success, since September 11, 2001. That he convinced Congress and the country that they faced an immediate and systematic threat from the mythical forces of “Islamofacism” which constitute the “Axis of Evil.” Whether or not this supposed threat ever existed, it could certainly be argued that it’s the primary reason the United States is still entrenched in Iraq.
Whether or not this was ever Bush’s goal, the idea that Bush effectively used terrorism to fight those he considered to be terrorists is, at best, bitterly ironic.
Perhaps then, if all disturbances to peace–war, genocide, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation–are caused by some variant of fear, world peace is as simple as convincing all people in all parts of the world that they have nothing to fear from external forces.
Unfortunately, I’m relatively certain that this is easier to say than to do.