In the grip of alcohol or drugs, people often damage themselves and others. Many regret it. But what are the factors that lead sober men to deliberately destroy lives?
Lately, bombings in Syria and other countries in the Middle East have been flashing across our screens. January brought coverage of bloodletting in Bangladesh.
In the last few weeks, violence in Thailand has grabbed global attention, particularly when it claimed the lives of four children.
Last week, the focus shifted to Ukraine.
Horrific acts of aggression flare in a constant barrage over the globe in our modern times. Sometimes, as in the case of 9/11, their sudden and lethal force is on par with a natural disaster.
When humans first roamed the Earth, their only enemies were large predators. Stone Age man protected himself with hunting weapons. As the aeons passed, humans began to settle down in one place. Fenced in, they were safe from predators.
However, fences led to problems with neighbours over territory. When a population with a shared culture and religion grew large enough, a bigger boundary was drawn to create a state. When these large communities came into contact with outsiders, they would use violence in a bid to dominate and grab territory. Or, they could combine forces against a common enemy, as witnessed in Europe during the Crusades.
The picture has never really changed, though nowadays we have institutions like the UN and World Court to deal with conflicts between countries.
Technology is held up as evidence of human progress, but whether it has led to a decrease in violence is debatable. In reality, communication technology can help spread conflict – witness the social-media war being waged in Thailand right now.
It’s true that Twitter and Facebook are being used to mobilise popular support against a poor government in many countries. But in Thailand, they are also weapons of “hate speech”. Fired off at the least provocation under the cover of cyberspace anonymity, they have whipped up a war between “enemies” who will never actually encounter each other in real life.
Do humans, by nature, love to make trouble?
Violence in Bangladesh is the result of a power struggle.
In Thailand it’s friction between two groups of the populace who hold different political views. Bangladesh’s trouble is more complicated, with many unidentified players in the political game.
The situation in Ukraine is more complex still, as outsiders are now involved. At the weekend, Russia approved the use of military force against Ukraine, apparently to support ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, who favours alliance with Russia rather than Europe. The aggression by Russia will almost certainly spark some kind of intervention by the United Nations.
At the root of all this violence is the primitive struggle for power. Homo sapiens emerged some 200,000 years ago, scrabbling to survive with their bare hands. Their only thought in a hostile environment was to find a safe place to sleep and enough food to keep hunger at bay. Now we, their descendants, have tamed nature with sophisticated tools. But we remain at the mercy of our untamed selfishness.
Animals are now confined to farms, zoos and national parks. New technology extracts all we need from natural resources – even turning seawater drinkable. Humans are even leaving Earth to walk in outer space.
The progress is astonishing, but instead of being used to better the living conditions of all on our planet, humans display more selfishness than 200,000 years ago, when they hunted together and shared food. People who lack capability lust for power, disguising their real ambitions by proclaiming a desire to help the underprivileged.
In a world where hundreds of millions still live in poverty, I dream of the day when all countries pool their financial resources to invent technology that provides free drinking water and energy to all, and strengthens the world’s resilience to climate change.
In Thailand, where millions live below the poverty line, I dream of the day when politicians cease playing power games that cost others their lives and livelihoods. I dream of the day when we stop using “hate speech” to demonise fellow human beings. I dream of the day when people realise the consequences of bad policies and know when to stop funding them. I also dream of the day when the popular uprising that conquered the self-serving push for the amnesty bill is turned into a drive towards true fairness and equality.
Only with a genuine tolerance and compassion for others can we claim to have progressed as human beings. Without these, and despite our technological marvels, we will always be Stone Age creatures.