Culture Magazine

Identity, Terrorism, and the Nation State

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I’ve got one thought about terrorism, and it has to do with identity. If you live in a nation-state, such as the United States, such as the states that have dominated international affairs since the 19th century, you have been indoctrinated as a citizen of that nation. That citizenship is a central part of your identity. And it is through that identification that you see your position in world history. Your nation’s position in history is your position in history.
I am a citizen of a large, rich, technologically advanced country, the remaining superpower, the United State of America. I may not like some of the things this superpower does in my name, I may have complex and ambivalent feelings about this superpower, but the fact that I am a citizen of the USofA is part of my identity and it's a way I think of myself in the world and in history.
What if you’re living in a nation-state that doesn’t have a very prominent place in world affairs, but you’ve got a TV and radio and through them have some sense of the larger world? You know that there’s a world beyond your village, or town, or your neighborhood. How do you relate to that larger world?
What about someone living in, say, Lagos, Nigeria. That's a very different country. In the context of Africa, Nigeria may be rich, but a lot of that oil money ends up in a few hands. It's got the third largest film industry in the world (as measured by titles per year), though I'm not sure how many Nigerians know that, or what they think of it. I'm guessing that people who work in Nollywood (as it's called) know it quite well and are proud of that. But not every Nigerian lives in Lagos. Some Nigerians are aware of the world at large; they've got TV and whatever. Some are not. How do they think of themselves in relation to world history?
At the moment I'm deep in the analysis of Hayao Miyazaki's last film, The Wind Rises. It's set in Japan before WWII. One of the motifs is that Japan is a poor backward country. But the protagonist his Jiro Horikoshi, who is a real person, though his life is highly fictionalized in this film. Horikoshi was an aeronautical engineer and he designed the A6M Zero, which was on, say December 7, 1941, the most sophisticated fighter aircraft in the world. Hayao Miyazaki, born in 1941, is a pacifist; his father manufactured tail assemblies for the Zero. H.M. loves planes and is immensely proud of the Zero and the pilots who flew them. The interplay of identities and committments in this film is bewildering and wonderful.
Is THAT why Japan went on a rampage through East Asia starting in the late 19th century? Until the mid-19th century Japan had been the center of (its own) the world. It was aware of the outside world, and had even been in touch with Europe for several centuries. But this intercourse had been limited. For all practical purposes, Japan was the world. That ended in 1853, when Admiral Perry landed. The Japanese decided to respond by seeking out the rest of the world. They acquired Western learning and technology, particularly military technology, and set out to restore a sense of balance in their sense of the world. That required imperial conquest. Things went pretty well until they decided to engage the United States. Did Japan engage in 50 years or imperial conquest just to restore a sense of centrality on the world-historical stage?
National ideology seems to be a dangerous thing.
If you're middle class in Ecuador, Cambodia, Kenya, Indonesia, or Syria, how do you see yourself in the world? Your country is not nearly as rich as The Big Guys, your technology not so advanced. But you've got TV and radio, you have some sense of the larger world. And you see that your nation is a wannabe to the wannabes. Is that how you think of yourself, as the citizen of a never-will-be? I don't know. That's not where I live. But I can't help but think that this distance, if you will, is one of the things driving terrorism.
Your cousin, or your cousin's schoolyard friend's sister's brother just killed a bunch of people in Paris and is now playing on the world-historical stage. Now you’ve got a link, however tenuous, to the larger world, to history. Now you can see people like yourself on the world stage.
Is this what nationalist ideology does to people?

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