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A man flees the scene of a suicide blast in Lahore in this 2009 file photo. (MOHSIN RAZA/Mohsin Raza/Reuters)
A man flees the scene of a suicide blast in Lahore in this 2009 file photo. (MOHSIN RAZA/Mohsin Raza/Reuters)

Democracy and its Discontents

Can the liberal arts cure jihadists? Add to ...

The great truth of democracy, at least when it's working well, isn't about the levels of turnout at the polling stations or the noise from the opposition benches when someone who calls himself the leader gets carried away with his own sense of power. What's much more fundamental to the 2,500-year-old experiment of people trying to rule themselves can be found in its basic sense of humanity - the ability, as University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in Not for Profit, "to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects."

We don't do this instinctively - it takes training. Animals might be collective by nature, but they are hierarchical in their attitudes toward self-preservation and exceedingly narrow in their range of sympathetic feelings. Authoritarian cultures and regimes exploit this us-and-them survival impulse to their advantage, but a democracy glories in achieving the best version yet of the good life thanks to what are traditionally called liberal arts - the broad-based critical education that freed people from all-knowing authority and allowed them to see both themselves and others as fully human.

But the more this good life is repositioned and redefined as material goods, where objects have become more intrinsically human than people themselves, the faster the liberal arts have fallen out of favour - in the academy, the economy and society at large, where a doctor, an X-ray technician and a former engineering student are now charged with wanting to bomb us into oblivion.

Clearly jihadists are the sworn enemies of liberal democracy, but can there be a connection between the disappearance of the liberal arts and the rise of homegrown terrorism? Or put another way, can we deter violence by teaching young people to think more clearly and compassionately than they now do in a technology-obsessed society where democracy is too often defined by its unthinking excesses? Prof. Nussbaum believes so.

As the culture of homegrown terrorism was coming into being, she undertook a study of the Indian province of Gujarat, where religious violence and an ambitious modernization of the educational system starkly exist side by side. "Gujarat is a classic place," she says, "where schools have cut out all trace of critical thinking and the humanities, and placed a relentless focus on the technical training of people going into engineering and computer science and so on. I do think that is conducive to a culture where you blindly follow authority and respond to peer pressure. Lacking the empathy developed by a more critical kind of education, these tendencies reign unopposed."

Indian men carry a charred body of a train passenger in Gujarat, Feb. 27, 2002. A train carrying Hindu activists was set on fire, sparking further violence.

In 2002, Hindu mobs in Gujarat killed 2,000 Muslims, a pogrom that Prof. Nussbaum traces to "technically trained people who do not know how to criticize authority, useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations." We're reminded of that willing deference to higher authority and that failure of imagination when someone among us is arrested and charged with, as the law politely says, conspiracy to facilitate an act of terrorism. It's a disturbing throwback to an animalistic kill-or-be-killed relationship when the calculating minds of homegrown plotters can so casually reduce us from compassionate humanity to objects of disaffection.

Because we remain human beings, despite the best efforts of our enemies to get past that fact, we can also visualize the pain and the suffering and the horror that are the essential parts of the bomber's objectifying obliteration. This intellectual leap, sadly, is the great strength of what Northrop Frye called the educated imagination. If we've learned to share the strong feelings of characters in War and Peace and Madame Bovary, how can we not also identify with the sufferings in our own time and place.

The bombs didn't go off, and yet this reaction is distressingly powerful, at least in those who still know how to feel. But here's the essential conundrum with so-called homegrown terrorists: How do they come to be missing this visceral empathy, and how can they so easily shrug off the fellow feelings of the democracy they were raised in? Is there a hole in their soul? Something about their upbringing, their formation, their training that has gone missing or was never there?

Khurram Sher hams it up during a 2008 auditon for Canadian Idol in Montreal.

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