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There can be no cause for which the massacre of innocent people is justified, says Ebrahim Harvey.
Johannesburg - The massacre by the Somali-based militant group al-Shabaab at a busy shopping mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, has again placed the unspeakable horrors of urban terrorism at the centre of national and international debate.
But al-Shabaab is much more of a conservative Islamist-based guerrilla group that espouses jihad and a very narrow and conservative view of sharia than a mass-based radical political movement seeking fundamental societal change.
More than 70 people were killed and close to 200 wounded at Westgate mall. Among the dead were James Thomas, from Cape Town; Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor; and prominent TV presenter Ruhila Adatia-Sood, who was six months pregnant.
It was reported that men and women ran out of the mall screaming and drenched in their own blood and that children were wheeled out in shopping trolleys.
There can be no doubt that the massacre was shockingly violent and brutal. Except for the perpetrators, the horrific results of urban terrorism have universally and historically alienated even the most progressive-minded people the world over.
In fact there is something deeply and unalterably human about such alienation: the vast majority of people worldwide do not support bloody violence, which kills and maims innocent men, women and children while they are going about their daily lives.
The orgy of terrible and outrageous destruction on a huge scale in a busy public space was so senseless that the whole world was shocked to its core.
The notion of the senseless killing of innocent people is a powerful and compelling one. For the perpetrators, however, this notion does not enter into the equation because it is precisely these deaths, the bloodbath and massive destruction of such an attack – relayed around the world by the media – which is their primary objective.
What would repel most people bizarrely attracts the perpetrators as fuel for their cause, and the more horrific the bloodshed such acts of terror unleash, the greater the impact they achieve in drawing international attention to their cause and its supposed justice.
But there can be no cause for which the massacre of innocent people is justified.
To regard civilians as cannon fodder is brutal, crudely instrumentalist and revealing of the perpetrators’ mindset.
It is a false notion to suggest that acts of terrorism are inherently Islamic, and the role 9/11 played in this massive propaganda war is instructive.
Focus on Islamic jihad groups, such as al-Qaeda, is incidental to the wider historical problem of urban terrorism by tiny groups of people. In Europe we had the Italian Red Brigades and the German Baader-Meinhof Gang in the 1980s, who for various causes resorted to urban terror.
However, the perpetrators of these acts of terrorism are always, or often, distant from the masses on whose behalf they are supposedly acting. They are not elected by democratic process and they are not accountable to any electorate.
Their acts of violence and destruction often spring from narrow, religious-inspired zealotry related to one or other perceived or actual injustice, whether political, economic or cultural.
The Palestinian struggle against the state of Israel is a good example here. Often it is not the cause per se that offends people and provokes moral outrage, but the methods and means, the targets and circumstances under which attacks occur.
The bombing of people in public spaces comes to mind.
For example, if al-Shabaab bombed a military installation in Nairobi it would be condemned, but not as much as the indiscriminate massacre of shoppers in a mall.
We need to focus more on the inherently deep alienation the results of urban terrorism as a method of struggle creates universally, rather than seek to alter or undermine often justified underlying causes. Perhaps to try to humanise the struggle and its means is in itself a new struggle we must wage.
What urban terrorism also does is to deflect public attention from just causes that may deserve attention and support.
Taking to the streets in mass marches, protests and strikes is a more powerful method of struggle.
How South Africa and other African countries respond to this massacre will be critically important.
Not only the governments and intelligence services, but every institution and person must make every conscious effort to prevent such incalculable human tragedies.
Nobody and no country deserves such a bloody fate, no matter how powerful any cause might be.
* Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and biographer of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers