Photograph of Anil Chawla

Author - Anil Chawla

Suicide bombers force one to relook at our philosophy of life and death. An article about the philosophy of death.

World is shaped by neurotics and not by reasonable, sensible men. Never was this statement more true than in the past fortnight. Some mad men caused the collapse of the twin towers at New York and the whole world seems to have gone into a frenzy of madness. Revenge, anger and retribution are the key words of the day. CNN and other TV channels are fuelling the war sentiments with a minute-to-minute coverage as if war was a game of baseball.

It is surprising that 24 hour TV channels dishing out miles of footage of intellectual analysis have focussed on the short term view and an objective dispassionate long-term view of the impending World War is just missing. Let us look at some possible war scenarios:


A short war of two-four weeks with less than thousand American and European casualities; Osama Bin Laden caught dead or alive; A new regime installed in Afghanistan; Taliban eliminated.

The scenario is the most optimist and seems to be least likely. Yet, it is possible that the war may just take the above course initially. But, that may not be the end of war.


Scenario I followed by a long list of intermittent bloody terrorist attacks across the world by independent self-motivated groups which have no headquarters, no central co-ordination and no central figure like Osama. Each group will be less than twenty suicidal persons. To understand their mindset, one can study the psychology of those who create and spread computer viruses. The only difference being that the damage by terrorist groups will be real and not virtual. This scenario can be best compared to someone breaking open a glass bottle containing a swarm of poisonous bees and killing the queen bee in the fond hope that it will lead to an end of reproduction of poisonous bees without realizing that each bee let loose is capable of mutating to become a queen bee and raising a swarm.

This scenario seems likely, though will be very bloody. The first phase of the war in such a case will look like a great victory and will help President Bush and other western leaders to consolidate their domestic constituencies. Each subsequent attack of terrorists will lead the western countries to lose their temper and send some more fighter planes to some poor country. This will provide the intellectual justification to terrorist groups and reinforce their will.


A long drawn out war spread across the world with millions of casualities in Afghanistan and other poor countries and a few thousand casualities (military as well as civil) in Europe and America.

This is possibly the alternative that is on the mind of US leaders when they talk of a ten year war. Of course, no US leader talks of any more American lives being lost in the war. The US view of war is shaped by their experiences during the Gulf war ten years ago. Most Americans seem to even now believe that a war is something that they can watch on CNN and is a modified version of fireworks displayed on 4th July. A war that means thosands of women and children killed on US soil is outside the comprehension of most Americans. One wonders if they have the stomach to digest such a gruesome possibility.

Whether the man on the street in USA is mentally prepared for such a horrid possibility or not, the fact remains that this war will not spare the US soil and lives like the earlier wars did. USSR's involvement in Afghanistan led to loss of one million Afghan lives and only 15,000 Soviet lives were lost. Yet, the Soviet empire collapsed and Afghanistan could not be conquered. The key in any war is the capacity to accept death and destruction. Soviets could not come to terms with the loss of a few thousand lives. Russsians were not prepared to die for defending a nebulous ideal like communism, so they lost the war. Americans would face the same questions in the next few weeks and months.

The key question that America faces is about the number of lives that it is ready to sacrifice in the war against terrorism on its own soil and in foreign lands. Irrespective of the course that the war takes, one thing is certain that the war will be unlike any that the world has seen. The new terrorist is an expert and is not an uneducated, untrained soldier. He knows that the maximum impact of the war will be felt only if it is fought on US mainland and not in some remote Afghanistan or Vietnam. America has already lost almost half the number of lives lost by Soviet Union in Afghanistan. What will be impact on the psychology of US citizens and leaders after they have lost double the number of lives and still see no end to the war? Are the Americans ready to lose a million lives to retain their status as world power? Are the Britishers ready to lose a few lives (say a few thousand) in this war against terrorism?

The answers to these questions are not easy. Outside the US consulate in Mumbai, there is a long line of people for visas. Ask any of them if he would like to have a citizenship of USA and he would jump up with joy. But, ask him if he would like to die for his dreamland and the answer would generally be negative. One goes to the land of opportunities to make money and live like a king and not to die. The problem of USA is that it may not have enough people who are willing to die for the country. In fact one should not be surprised to find a lot of people leaving USA for countries of their origin, if life in USA becomes tough and insecure. Remember the old saying about rats leaving a sinking ship. America's problem is that it has too many rats.

President Bush can talk macho about catching "Laden Dead Or Alive " but he cannot talk about Blood, Sweat and Tears. Winston Churchill's and Britain's greatness was that they were ready to lose every building in London and fight the Germans on the beaches, if need be. Second World War was won by the grit, perseverance and determination of nations like Britain and by the canon fodder supplied by countries like India (It is estimated that about 2.7 million Indians were killed in the second world war.) On the face of it, prosperous USA has neither the grit and determination to accept blood, sweat and tears nor has a perennial source of canon fodder.

It is not clear whether the leaders of USA are aware of their limitations in the new war. Being aware of one's limitations is a great strength. On the other hand arrogance leads to blindness which can be a very big weakness. As an outsider, one is often perplexed by the arrogance of Americans who see no virtue in being humble. Even in Europe, Americans are often disliked for their arrogance and better-than-thou attitude. As a nation, USA suffers from a strong culture of arrogance and a world-view that treats everything unamerican as something inferior. It will be very difficult for USA to now accept that their basic philosophy of life has a fundamental weakness - the absence of philosophy of death.

Islam has a clear and simple philosophy of death - If one dies for the faith, one goes to heaven where one gets so many women for sex and so many fruits and so many foods etc. Hinduism treats death as a stepping stone to rebirth. Christianity with its message of love and suffering for the God and the ideal of Jesus at the cross provided the basis for death in a crusade. America during the past century has shed religious philosophies and accepted materialism and individualism as the only ideals worth pursuing. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the American life is governed more by the ideals of selfishness propounded by Ayn Rand than by the preachings of Lord Jesus. The problem now is the same as in case of Soviet Union. Just as Soviets were not ready to die for communism, followers of Ayn Rand are not willing to die for materialism, individualism and selfishness. The philosophical contradiction is too glaring.

The greatest paradox of life is that it cannot survive without death. A philosophy of life is incomplete without a philosophy of death. Communism was an incomplete philosophy and so is the American way of life. The war against terrorism cannot be won by incomplete philosophies. Sending armadas, fighter planes, missiles and tanks is fine but wars are not won by machines. Wars are won by men and women who have the will to fight and to die.

USA and the countries of Europe need to develop in their people the will to fight and die. Wanting to die appears to be some form of madness. It is this madness that the developed world must acquire in some measure if it wants to survive in the war aginst madmen who fear no death. As they say, world is shaped by neurotics and not by reasonable, sensible men. Someone committing a suicide attack is indeed a neurotic. Rest of the world will need to become a bit neurotic lest the suicide bombers win the war.


26 September, 2001

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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