The rampage of destruction in our country this week once again confronts us with murder and war. So many of us have been left dumbfounded in grief, thrown into an existential crisis as we struggle to assess the condition of contemporary mankind. We tend to think of ourselves as evolved, civilized people, more and more educated as a world community, increasingly connected by technology. Yet, we see with these atrocities that the ugly reality of killing and hate still contaminates the goodness of life. Badness is like a rotten apple in a barrel of good ones. It may start as a small part of a person, a nation or a group, but if left unchecked it inevitably spoils all. We now find ourselves in yet another ideological war. Perhaps we are not so far removed from the crusades of the middle ages after all.
America was founded as a land of freedom and diversity. It is because of our freedom that these terrorists were able to train for their treachery with our technology, our equipment and our flight schools. America is a place where our government is designed to incorporate tolerance. We believe that differences are good and enhance the human condition. We do not advocate a narcissism that demands a clone of ourselves. In fact, many of us embrace diversity as part of our success and strength.
How is it possible that young men kill themselves and thousands of others without mercy? How did the Serbs kill 10,000 of their ethnic Albanian neighbors? How did the Rwandans slaughter a half million of the folks living next to them? Are we so far beyond the pogroms and barbarians of yesterday? Anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and geneticists have carefully studied rage and hate. It seems that all human being have the capacity for evil. It happens to ordinary people. Jay Lifton studied the Nazi doctors in charge of the concentration camps and found them to be average fellows, many living a quiet anonymous life today. One of the terrorists who piloted one of the planes into the world trade towers was described as an unassuming student who was gradually transformed into an emotionally ridden zealot.
Perpetration usually has antecedents. It is a gradual process, not so unlike sin; acting hurtfully once makes it easier to establish a pattern of violation. Destructiveness progresses along a continuum. Small seemingly insignificant acts may move one towards a greater potential for further more destruction ones. For example, accepting the benefits of the system in Nazi Germany required a spoken, "Heil Hitler" as a precursor to accepting the Nazi movement. Initial acts that cause limited harm can result in psychological changes that make further destructive acts possible.
Chronic threat and frustration may give rise to hostility and the tendency to harm others. In addition, there may be genetic factors associated with more aggressive reactivity. This in combination with critical childhood brain development, imprint learning, experience and culture may set up the possibility for acting on hate and revenge. Collective self-doubt may combine with a sense of superiority as a defense. Nationalism is strengthened under the influence of difficult life conditions--shared trauma, suffering and humiliation. The "us" v."them" mentality is a basic human potential for which we carry genetic building blocks.
Often groups that come together in hard times find an ideological plan for a better world that may require destroying others. A society may gradually turn against a subgroup in times of hardship. Hostility is especially likely to occur if people regard their suffering an unjust, and some others are not similarly affected. Blaming and scapegoating diminishes ones own responsibility. Often in this context, the thought system is commandeered by the emotional system using reason as justification and rationalization for killing and ruination. Poverty almost always leads to low self-esteem, particularly in today's world where we have exposure to others with more money.
Because people define themselves to a significant degree by membership in a group, a positive view of their group becomes important to individual self-esteem. The experience of hardship and social disorganization is a frequent starting point for mass killing and genocide. Tyrants like Hitler, Milosevic and bin Laden can emerge who are orators of sorts, verbally fanning the smaller flames of hate into a forest fire of rage and genocide. Many people in Afghanistan, like the Hutus in Rwanda, could not escape low social status, socioeconomic hardship and poverty. Large factions, but not all of these populations, became emotionally driven to paths of killing and destruction.
Bin Laden, like Saddam Hussein has managed to perpetrate crimes of murder against humanity with impunity. Will we become numb and self-centered, thinking that it will pass and not affect us as individuals? The complexity of terrorism sometimes may make us long for a Roosevelt who rose dramatically on his enfeebled legs to declare a stand against tyranny. There are sins of commission and those of omission. And yet our response must not be in kind, but a thoughtful assertive intolerance of intolerance, murder and hate. Leadership and guidance can have a seminal influence on the path of human development and experience. Compare Nelson Mandela, a man and his country with every reason to feel a desire for revenge, and Milosevic or bin Laden. How shall we respond to the vengeance of despots?
People and societies that value reason, temper their emotions with thoughtful, cortical negotiation. Remember that your emotional system is a very primitive signal survival system that evolved 400 million years before your cortex, the center of complex thinking. Exercising power over our emotions is sometimes no small feat. Feelings are very strong and interface with our thinking. Relationships are intricate at every level. Perhaps our challenge as a human community is to become less controlling but more in control, developing our kinder, gentler selves, but using our minds and technology to stand up to terrorists and murderers so that we may survive peacefully together with a contemplative world perspective of tolerance and inclusiveness.
- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist