Terrorism and Selfishness

One of the defining characteristics of our times we have yet to take up are the acts of violence haunting our headlines. Terrorism is designed to increase the amount of terror within the target population, obviously, but what does that entail exactly and why is it considered, at least by some, an effective means of war? This week I would like to offer a speculative model dealing with the why and how and pointing to what effective counter measures individuals might take for dealing with the psychological ramifications.

Terrorists, despite our own propaganda, do not commit these crimes just to be evilly evil. They have a strategic goal in mind. Now that Western societies are being targeted more frequently by such attacks, we should ask ourselves what they are designed to accomplish and how we might thwart these goals.

Terrorism is the concerted effort to increase the level of stress and fear in the psychology of the target population. Terrorism achieves its aim both by increasing the role of the unknown and unknowable within people’s daily lives and by increasing the sense that they are living in a meaningless universe where precious human lives can be so easily and so unexpectedly mowed down. Many traditional treatments of terrorism mention it is designed to demoralize the population; nihilism as a weapon of war.

In an attempt to cut through these abstractions let’s ask ourselves what happens to an individual that is suddenly confronted with a stressful and frightening event. Cognitive neuroscience can show us exactly why the ability of an individual to reason and think clearly is obstructed when they are terrified. Blood flow to the neocortex is diminished as the mid-brain and brain stem prepare to react to the threat. Stressed and frightened individuals do not make the best life choices. Nor do stressed and frightened societies. Terrorists, then, are seeking to pressure their target societies into making political, economic, and military mistakes which they can then exploit.

This model does imply that the behavior of societies and individuals are similar, a contentious point. However, it has the advantage of showing how a demoralizing process might actually occur.

So how does an individual react to being hurt or frightened? We are profoundly social creatures, we need one another. The first thing we do when hurt or frightened is call out for others: “Help!” This is all about the mid-brain and its processing of emotions. When emotions overwhelm us it is as if they are too large for us to contain, they feel as big as the sky and we need to be open to allow them to flow through us. Our first need or desire is to share these moments with others. We cope best with shock, grief and loss when we receive a nurturing empathy from others. This is very primal, rooted in the bond of infant and mother. Recall the preference for the cloth covered wire mother substitutes in the monkey experiments we looked at earlier.

If others are not around or unable to provide succor, the second strategy is executed and the individual prepares for fight or flight. If we call out and there is no one to come to our aid, we prepare to kill or to run away. If the avenues for escape or effective combat are unavailable the third and final strategy takes place as the individual freezes, like a mouse feigning death in the jaws of a cat.

  • Reach out for someone
  • Fight or Flight
  • Freeze

Neuroscientists have observed this threefold strategy seems to be built into most all creatures with mammalian nervous systems. Combining these two pieces of evidence about how human beings react to terror, namely with weakened reasoning and the primal threefold strategy, we arrive at an interesting model.

I am going to suggest that if an individual finds succor among friends the shock of pain and terror is most readily absorbed and the overall rationality of the situation can remain high. This follows directly from the nature of the emotional subsystems in which the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems work together to maintain homeostasis. Correspondingly, a close knit society with large reserves of trust among its citizens would be most likely to weather terrorist attacks well. If fight or flight is invoked, on the other hand, all the irrational horrors of crimes of passion or acts of war can be unleashed. Finally, if the enemy cannot be fought because they cannot be caught, and cannot be run away from because they seem to be everywhere – just what terrorism is seeking to accomplish – the catatonic state is produced where the will to act is thwarted. It is not that a frozen society stops moving but that it’s movements resemble circular thrashing. It finds itself incapable of taking effective action in dealing with the real causes of its pressures and contradictions.

We live in a time frighteningly dominated by a very lopsided, one-sided view of mankind. It excludes any possibility that acts of human kindness can take place without ulterior motives. Capitalism’s justifications for selfish behavior have now run through all our modern ideas: psychoanalysts insisting we are all at base narcissists seeking only and always our own pleasure; invisible hand economists assuring us that any thought of societies engaging in the exchange of goods and services on a principal other than pure, unadulterated selfishness is hopelessly utopian; biologists insisting that our bodies are nothing more than the vehicles by which selfish genes ruthlessly pursue their quasi-immortal life in some strangely mechanical Valhalla; theologians teach us we are all damnably selfish little beasts desperately in need of grace while their secular equivalents, the ad men, continue endlessly insisting we are all damnably unhappy and unsatisfied and desperately in need of, and selfishly deserving of, the latest widget; etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Well folks, congratulations. All this has left us uniquely vulnerable. In creating a metaphysic to justify not helping the poor of our planet, we managed to destroy every scrap of dignity and nobility inherent in the lives of human beings. Our hyper-capitalism has cut us off from the first means by which we might have absorbed the shocks of terrifying events. Ruthlessly selfish, when we in the modern world cry out for help we fear that only con men and thieves will respond.

Western pundits and academics serve as the moat for this Castle of Metaphysically Pure Selfishness. They continue doing everything they can to protect it yet we find the normality they claim to represent is hard pressed by the current attack.

This metaphysical castle in the air┬áhas been built on a foundation that denies the reality of interdependence; our complete and total dependence on others for our very sense of self, for the clothing we wear and every bite of food we eat, and by denying our complete and total dependence as a species on the planet’s intricately inter-meshed organic and inorganic environments from the poles to the tropics. Interdependence puts the hallucination of the self-made superman of our Faustian fantasies out to pasture.

Good riddance. Now is not the time for hubris, now is the time to admit we need one another. If the model I have suggested here has any merit, this is the most direct route to a robust and healthy response to terrifying events.