Is terrorism really “unnatural”?
I watched in sadness but, alas, not in shock, as India suffered its own 9/11. Casualties were far fewer but the impact was similar because the action was brilliantly as well as savagely executed.
The young mass murderers in Mumbai dominated world news throughout America’s Thanksgiving weekend, ensuring that many families would find little to be thankful for. India is humiliated, state officials have resigned, and tensions between it and Pakistan–both nuclear-armed and about five minutes apart by missile–have been heightened. The world was perplexed and dismayed.
When I say I was not shocked, I still weep with the victims. But my view of terrorism and of human violence in general sees them as deeply engrained in our nature, and likely to emerge from time to time. Everyone who knows anything about terrorism expected more events after 9/11, and indeed we had the mass murders by bombing in Madrid, London, and Bali, as well as the foiled plot to bring down ten full jumbo airliners with liquid explosives, before we got to Mumbai.
There will be more. As I wrote when war broke out between Russia and Georgia, we should feel the tragedy, but we should not be surprised. Why? Because surprise implies stupidity and leads to unpreparedness.
The stupidity lies in not knowing by now that violence is part of the natural order of things, like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. The unpreparedness lies in failure to do whatever can be done to reduce the damage when it happens.
When buildings in an earthquake-prone area are not designed with earthquakes in mind, tens of thousands die instead of thousands. When levees are not high enough or strong enough, thousands instead of hundreds lose their homes. And when there is no network of earthquake detectors appropriately deployed throughout the oceans, a single tidal wave can drown hundreds of thousands.
Others are pointing out the ways in which India was unprepared, and indeed the ways in which more advanced countries can do much better. I want to explain why terrorism, even more than war, is a part of the human condition, and as always I explain it in an evolutionary context.
Chimpanzees are our closest relatives, and they resemble the apes we evolved from. Repeatedly now over many years they have been found to assemble a critical mass of males within a group who become excited and go out looking for trouble. They pass up hunting opportunities to go to the edge of their territory, and if they find a lone chimp from a neighboring group within striking distance, they assault, hit, bite, kick, and stomp that victim to death.
Humans do it in more complex ways, even in the simplest societies. Ilongot headhunters went out in male groups looking for victims, often when they themselves had recently experienced grief. Cultures like the Dani or Enga of highland New Guinea or the Yanomamo of highland Venezuela had perennial ambush raids back and forth with their hated neighbors, an endless exchange of homicides. Even hunter-gatherers known for their peacefulness, like the !Kung Bushmen I lived with for two years, are descended from similar people known to have carried out deadly raids.
Male humans especially are unfortunately designed for this. They have the genes, the hormones, the neural circuits, the developmental patterns, and the mindset. X-chromosome deficiency and the resulting testosterone poisoning lead to this and many other defects.
Classic experiments in social psychology show that it is almost trivially easy to turn boys or men (and to some extent women) into in-groups that hate out-groups, even when at the outset there is no difference between them. Add the dynamics of ideology, follow-the-leader, and emotional contagion, and you have a recipe for disaster.
But most men in the modern world don’t do this; there must be a cultural context. Consider the Jewish fanatic who murdered Yitzhak Rabin when he was an Israeli prime minister making peace; or the Christian fanatics who bombed a federal office building in Oklahoma city; or the Hindus who have rioted against Muslims, murdering many. This is not the province of one particular religion, but it does require a certain type of belief.
It also requires a group process. Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and intelligence analyst who has studied all accessible recent terror networks, finds no evidence of psychopathology or religious indoctrination. What is needed is a group of young men with time on their hands, a need for mutual respect, and a shared belief that evil is being done by someone different from them, and that killing that someone will be good, even purifying. Fame is a bonus.
This process resembles the dynamic in male groups throughout the range of human cultures, identified long ago by Lionel Tiger in his classic, Men in Groups. In addition, in a religious context, sacrificing your enemy and perhaps also yourself is a bloody ritual like that involved in primitive sacrifice. René Girard, in Violence and the Sacred, pointed out this link; and every further sacrifice makes your cause more holy.
Thus our animal instincts derived from apes like chimpanzees are transformed by language, ideology, and ritual into something that looks right to some groups of young men who-inspired by older ones safely ensconced on videotape-bring tragedy and tears to hundreds or thousands of innocent others.
Be saddened, of course, but don’t be shocked. Instead be resilient, resolute, and above all, vigilant. Build a better early warning system, a stronger levee, an earthquake-resistant edifice, and watch for the next assault.