As the heat subsides from the immediacy of the Boston Marathon bombings and shootings, our national dialogue naturally turns to more contemplative issues, like preventing such attacks in the future. Concurrently, we continue to wade in the morass of Sandy Hook and our elected leaders blather ineffectively over action to prevent more gun massacres. The connective tissue between those seemingly different situations is angry people acting out violently to, in their minds, right a wrong or to make a statement and be heard or because some mental illness led them to kill.
Setting aside mental illness as a motivator, what we have are people who do horrific things, yet those very same things seem sensible – even mandatory – to them. The popular saying is that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
It is never popular to suggest that we have a part in what goes on elsewhere. We’re more comfortable pointing fingers at the crazy, violent people. But what if there are things we can do so that we don’t spawn so many people who see violence as their only option?
Here’s Human Being 101 on this: every one of us has a fight or flight response ready to be triggered instantly. It’s located in the so-called reptile brain, the oldest component inside our skulls, and its operation isn’t ruled by notions of consequences, fairness or reason; indeed, it isn’t ruled by conscious thought at all. It is survival level stuff as practiced by alligators and it works really well for – guess what? – survival. It isn’t good for much more than that and that’s the problem when we humans feel threatened or wronged.
Impulses from the reptile brain flood our system ten times faster than thoughtful deliberation and we go primitive quicker than the snap of fingers. This is the kind of stuff that is handy for recruiting members for militias, for white supremacists and for al Qaeda. All those recruiters need to do is to smear “others” as threatening what the recruited hold dear, like their loved ones, their country, loyalty, right over wrong – you can make up your own list – and the sign-up is easy. All that fierce reptilian stuff feels good, because when it’s engaged we feel powerful. That’s especially useful for manipulating those who have felt disempowered, ignored or bullied. Violence feels to them like strength and, perhaps, like it is their only remedy.
Next thing you know the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City is blown up, 6-year-old children are blasted apart by 10 bullets each in Newtown, CT and Americans are blown up at the Boston Marathon.
We have an unlimited supply of people exhorting us to primitive, violent redress to every conflict. Their chest thumping and their simplistic solutions appeal to our desire for quick resolution and to make us feel safe. Indeed, our war drum beating legislators seem to believe that most problems should be resolved through military means.
For every Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. insisting that we be non-violent in dealing with our grievances, there are hundreds of others rattling sabres. Humankind has always been short of peacemakers. Actually, it is a hazardous profession, as those folks have a way of becoming prematurely dead, thanks to ever-present violent people who feel threatened.
Just get that clobbering other people will not convince them not to attack us. That applies to the Muslim world, the various places where we expend ordnance in order to prove to ourselves that we’re Number 1, as well as to our neighbors across town who may be somehow different from you and me. Come to think of it, I’m not too sure of you.
That last was, of course, tongue-in-cheek. It is meant as a placeholder for all the ways we “other” people who seem, well, other. We can succumb to fearing whoever might appear to be different or we can get past that. John Lennon said it well:
“If you want money for people with minds that hate,
“All I can tell you is brother you’ll have to wait.”
We have to figure out that we cannot dominate and kill our way to security and comfort because that just leads to the next generation of people who want to attack us. Nothing is going to get much better until we figure that out. Pogo said it best: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The way we have been is not who we have to continue to be. Perhaps – just perhaps – we can find remedies to our individual and collective challenges. We’ll all need to do our part in that.
Copyright 2019 by Jack Altschuler
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