Is Turkey suffering from learned helplessness after years of terror?
Rubble from a building damaged in last weeks terrorist attack in Gaziantep. Nine innocent people were killed in the explosion, including a 1-year-old baby.
26 August 2012 / SEVG AKARÇEME,
The heinous terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attack on Aug. 20, the second evening of bayram (Eid al-Fitr), claimed the lives of nine civilians, including a 1-year-old baby girl and three other children, and caused a wave of anger to engulf the nation.
One of the two biggest religious holidays of the year turned into a time of grief as people were devastated by the further brutal killings of civilians by the PKK. Even though the PKK did not officially claim responsibility for the attack, there is a consensus that it must be the perpetrator.
Following the funerals of the victims, President Abdullah Gül said on Wednesday that they have no doubt the PKK was behind the attack.
While even the most liberal people, those who believe in a political solution to the Kurdish problem as opposed to a military one, drifted further away from their faith in negotiations, the general public went into virtual despair, wondering whether terror would ever come to an end in this country.
In a country that has been suffering from PKK terror in varying degrees since 1984, in addition to other forms of violent polarization over the decades, by now everyone knows by heart the aim of terror: to deter, intimidate, cause fear and mistrust in the state and, most importantly, instill a sense of hopelessness. However, in todays circumstances, given how frustrated people are following the latest terrorist attack in the vibrant commercial city of Gaziantep, which has become one of the symbols of fast developing Turkey, one cannot help but wonder: Is Turkey suffering from learned helplessness after decades of patience and resilience against terrorism? The idea of the Kurds separation from Turkey, which used to be a much stronger taboo, is now said out loud in frustrated conversations among friends, especially in the western part of Turkey.
Confirming an atmosphere of despair in society due to the relentlessness of PKK violence, a retired terror expert from the police department who wished to remain anonymous commented that a Turkish issue is due to emerge if this process is mismanaged, adding that Kurdish Turks are mingled with Turks in this country to an extent unseen in any other nation in the region -- the Kurds of Syria, Iran and Iraq are isolated from the rest of the population.
Gültekin Avc, a former prosecutor and columnist for Bugün known for his firm stance in the legal struggle with the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the urban political wing of the PKK, says that the aim of all terrorist organizations is to create a sense of control over society. Terrorist organizations would like to establish control over the psyche of society and instill hopelessness, pessimism and mistrust in the state, he commented, adding that he believes terror is similar to a tumor that citizens expect the state to remove.
Although Professor Abdulkadir Çevik, president of the Political Psychology Association, agrees that terror tries to elevate feelings of fatigue and hopelessness in society, he refrains from a diagnosis of learned helplessness as this would represent a collapse and failure in society. He believes that it is possible to minimize terror in Turkey but that its total elimination is not likely as actors who are not happy with the rise of Turkey would always use terrorism against Turkey -- a widespread conviction shared by millions around the country. However, a division in society in terms of the perception of terrorism is too evident to ignore. What a Turk considers a ruthless attack on civilians could be considered justified revenge by a Kurd in the Southeast of Turkey.
It is not possible to talk about a common reaction among 74 million people, says Dr. Nihat Ali Özcan, expert from the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), adding that terror aims to elevate frustration in some, while trying to make others think that they have taken revenge. Özcan talks about the structuring power of violence in society and notes that from the point of view of the terrorist PKK killing soldiers and police is legitimate, while killing civilians is not -- although from time to time they target civilians, as in the most recent attack in Gaziantep.
Anti-terror expert and Taraf columnist Dr. Emre Uslu also lists creating a sense of entrapment in society among the PKKs goals. They are not only trying to create no-state zones as they used to, but trying to accelerate the emotional division by making Kurds think that there is no state but the PKK. Similarly, former prosecutor Avc argues that Kurds in particular would prefer the authority they believe to be stronger. If security is not kept under tight control, the tendency to surrender to terror would rise, states Avc. He believes in a firmer stance in the fight against terrorism until PKK terrorists in the mountains are completely removed and defends increased rights for Kurds such as education in their mother tongue and citizenship defined on a constitutional basis. Like Çevik, he also believes that no matter how broad the rights given to Kurds, the PKK, as a terrorist organization, will retain its armed identity.
Doubtless the PKK does not represent the average Kurd or the majority of Kurds in Turkey. If it did, the political wing of the terrorist organization, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) -- which consistently refuses to distance itself from the terrorists, and members of which have recently been seen embracing terrorists bearing weapons -- would be represented far more strongly, given the high population of Kurds in Turkey. However, it is equally undeniable that the BDP, and hence indirectly the PKK, has almost hijacked the defense of Kurdish rights, an act which has marginalized the issue and jeopardized progress. Avc agrees that the PKK has exceeded a psychological threshold, as it did in 1993 when terrorism peaked. On the other hand, according to Uslu, the state could still mend the psychological division, especially in the west, if it targets the PKK leadership. There is near consensus among terror experts in recommending a firm stance against the PKK, a group that has never stopped resorting to violence. However, fortunately, there is also a consensus on the need to increase democratization and deliver, belatedly, the rights of the Kurds. Everyone agrees that failing to expand rights earlier has contributed to terror and served as a pretext for the PKK. As Özcan says, Terrorist organizations like the PKK attack harder as steps towards democratization are taken in countries with an ethnic problem. But he adds that democratization is not a magic wand to solve the problem. Professor Avc, who resents the government for failing to consult political psychology experts on this matter, talks about the importance of expanding rights at times of low-level of terror, as the opposite -- the expansion of rights at a time of high-level terror -- would lead to the conviction that it is violence that makes things happen.
It seems that Turkey will continue to face a critical dilemma as far as the Kurdish question is concerned. Everyone seems to know the proper prescription: Make a clear distinction between the terrorist PKK and the majority of the Kurds; remain determined in the fight against the PKK, especially when it targets civilians; continue the process of democratization and giving expanded rights to Kurds, including education in their mother tongue; have a more structured strategy against terrorism; and synchronize your policies. Easier said than done. Especially in a domestic political atmosphere lacking a reasonable Kurdish party to save the Kurds from the BDP, which is engaged in a hopeless love