It was like an "apocalypse" festival menu in Hollywood/Bollywood: domestic terrorism in the United States; political crackdown in Russia; protests in Hong Kong; war-mongering in Korea; Persian Gulf brinkmanship; revoking 'special status' of Jammu and Kashmir and integrating the state with India; and dengue in Dhaka. The idea of not rank the worst 2019 incident, but to look inside each raises scarier thoughts: it exposes how mentally unsound we humans can be even amid historically unparalleled technological breakthroughs.
Any mention of terrorism within the US context these days (and for as long as that term has been a newspaper item in the United States), implies Islam, precisely jihadis. The first surprise was to find white Anglo-Saxon supremacy sympathisers, instead, mowing down 30-odd within a day's spell, that is, more than the typical average daily tally in such recent warzones as Kabul, Raqaa, and so forth. Surely the climax must have been that the perpetrators were not combat-dressed warriors but typical civilians using a legitimate legislation to purchase and collect killer-weapons. Yet the shock stemmed from something else: we must still hold our breath for a while, as in movies, until the very end.
Crossing over to the former US adversary, the Soviet Union, the Hollywood screens portray something to the effect of "From Russia without love," as hundreds and hundreds of civilians protesting the election participation ban got roughly hauled up. Quickly crossing the thousand mark, these "prisoners" could become the last to aspire for democracy as, if not an "iron curtain" descending upon them, then clearly an iron-hand clipping their voice. "When will they ever learn," asked the poet Pete Seeger, to which the only answer must now be "we will never learn," that is, to be humans. There is far more than the icing of the particular (and bitter) cake too that we must await discussion.
Russia's historical nemesis but concurrent bedfellow, China, may be replicating similar democracy-snuffing exercises across its own territorial boundaries in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but also using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters in Hong Kong.
If these are but rough patches in that most dynamic corner of the world, war mongering cannot be far away. In fact, it continues to remain where the Cold War first heated up outside Europe: Korea. From the smiling Kim Jong-un face of the past two years ago, we now see the "dagger" Donalbain configured behind "men's smiles" in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Denied the nuclear relaxation he sought in negotiating with the United States, Jong-un is back to being "Rocket Man" again, as missile-testing not only frays relations with South Korea, but also threatens Japan directly. Something else resurfacing on that peninsula is an item the essay returns to.
Not quite at the missile stage as yet, but the sudden Indian Kashmiri nosedive invites nothing but more future missiles: this was a province whose peace blanketed growing society-level fissures with the authorities, so much so that one only had to wait for that volcanic eruption. Abrogating Article 35A (special privileges to Kashmir's people), which is part of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution (giving circumscribed provincial autonomy), can only mean the gloves have been taken off: a Hindu festival cancelled in Kashmir and tourists warned to return home from Kashmir, something that can only mean the hitherto Muslim majority in the province is being pushed to pull the trigger first. What that means awaits its own finale.
Dengue conjures images of unkempt and dirty surroundings, precisely what one might expect from the world's second most-polluted metropolitan in the world. When one adds to that setting one of the world's most congested country, one can understand why when Dhaka catches the proverbial "flu," the rest of the country gets "pneumonia," well, in this case, Dhaka's dengue outbreak becoming the country's. For the fledgling middle-income club-member, this virulent reputation also digs deeper than visible. What it all sprouts from, again, demands patience.
A second appraisal of those events illustrates why apocalyptic events may serve as only the tip of an explanatory iceberg. Understanding each of their true colour helps us with future policy prescriptions and rewriting historical annals.
Turning to the US domestic terrorism, first, we can now better understand why the anti-Islam posturing was merely a façade to remake the modern world along US images. That single underlying US preferences has been what the country was built upon: not democracy, but trigger-happiness. Though the first country (along with France) to make democracy a state principle, the United States would not even begin that process until after the Civil War had brought former slaves into the mainstream, then provided voting rights to more than one-half of the population, with women from 1920, and Afro-Americans from mid-1960s. Until these events, it was busy with its western expansion, itself built upon prototype trigger-happy model: the cowboy. It is not hard to see how subordinating "injuns" set in motion a practice reformulated into the anti-communist leadership role of the early 20th century (even fighting Bolsheviks inside Russia before confronting the Soviet Union along the real Iron Curtain from 1945).
President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Farewell Address captured the embryonic model. His warning of a military-industrial complex is a more sanitised counterpart of trigger-happiness for the world's largest economic power, but could also be extended into the military-industrial-intellectual triad if we bring in the intellectual sympathisers: George F. Kennan's "X" article in Foreign Affairs in 1947 and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilization volume as setting the anti-communism and anti-Islam mindset and pathway.
Russia's current crackdown merely reminds us, no matter how democratic its claims, or tyrannical its governmental structures, its modern age history points to the same old stripes: czarist autocracy and communist dictatorship marring modern-day democracy. No matter how many more billionaires and tennis stars it boasts today, Russia's underbelly resembles that of the United States: the same as before. Learning to call a spade a spade helps prepare future diplomatic negotiations.
So too is the case with China's underlying top-down, tribal instinct reverence for the man at the top, be he Confucian or Communist Party leader outstripping all other considerations.
Kim's Korea depicts, much like previously divided Germany, that "the twain" can no longer remain the same: just as today's populist threat within Germany sprouts from the former German Democratic Republic area (and pro-European remaining more favourable in the former Federal Republic of Germany area), so too the totalitarian North Korean instincts have been so institutionalised against the freer-flowing South Koreans that no realistic unification is even in the cards.
The Persian Gulf and India also expose similar historical hard-lining features that no modern age diplomacy can fully resolve: across the Persian Gulf is the Shia-Sunni rivalry dating as far back as the 7th century origin of Islam, and in India to treat Muslims as equal when innumerable Muslims were nothing more than low-caste Hindu Sudras before their forefathers’ conversion to Islam.
Finally there is Bangladesh's capital city, still searching for a progressive identity, not one mixed in crisis. It has been more than a century-long journey, yet still far from homeostasis.
What these snapshot 2019 incidents expose is important: human instincts barely get buried against even the most tectonic technological advancements. Moving in circles typifies more of what we do than hitting the jackpot, that is, clinching the breakthroughs we make. This, then, may be the missing 2019 variable that should be improved upon in 2020. [Slightly abridged]
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.