As long as humans have existed, people have sought to disrupt society with terror. Niccolo Machivelli outlined the importance of terror in The Prince seeing it as a means to ensure social stability. Dictators, revolutionaries, terrorists and criminal organisations have resorted to terror to market themselves and project an appearance of power. They cause horrendous carnage and spread sadness with a sole objective of fracturing social capital in their opponents and strengthening their own. Their success or failure in this effort is the secret to their ability to create, grow or sustain their power.
In the essay “Striking at the heart of the state?”, Umberto Eco once pointed out that the Brigado Rossi’s pronouncements on its Italian terror campaigns revealed its lack of understanding of power in society. While you may disagreed with his view of politics, Eco rightly pointed out that ‘the system displays an incredible capacity for restabilising itself and its boundaries’ following an attack. We grieve. We unite. We rebuild. We add security rituals and we go on. These responses are all part of our efforts to unite and restore social capital following an attack. Psychological research reminds us that social capital mitigates the psychological impact of terror. There is strength in unity as more than one politician has claimed in history.
Real power is does not “grow from the barrel of a gun” as Mao remarked. The power and potential of society lies in social capital. Mao’s successors in China know this as they work feverishly to create economic prosperity. Their greatest fear seems to be loss of social stability in society. Organisations that use terror know this too. These organisations invest in social services to replace absent or unaccountable states. They invite conflict and retribution because the ongoing battle unites their supporters and disrupts social capital of other forces in their societies. No doubt they will find the violence that they seek.
At the same time we must recognise, we have better connection, capabilities and tools than ever before to connect people, to develop community relationships and to build social capital. Sustaining and growing social capital is key to our future and of our societies. Let’s not be beaten in the creation and leverage of social capital by any of the forces of violence and darkness.