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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 13-May-18


Sunday 13-May-18

Us and them: How terrorism is good for us, though it is bad for all of us

Terrorism is a terrible thing that leads to many sleepless nights. A few big incidents can spread disproportionate fears. While the probability of being killed by local criminals or motor accidents is far higher, we worry more about the terrorists who might indiscriminately strike us at any time. And it is this indiscrimination that creates the most fear. We are built to reduce uncertainty and do much in our lives to be safe, yet we feel there is little we can do to mitigate the threat from the grand plans of those callous, evil terrorists.

Terrorism these days has a strong associative link with 9/11, the Middle East and Islam. Islamist terrorists fuel the story when they say that their cause is Islam. This lets us pin the blame on one word and consequently everyone who we associate with that word. Media fuels the meta-story as coverage of Islamic terrorist events tends to be far greater than from such as far-right extremists. A result is that we view all Muslims with suspicion and fear, something that is easy when they are easily spotted through their distinguishing clothing.

The far right and those they influence, who commit far more terrorist crimes, are not so easy to criticize when they name their cause as the country, even as they attack constitutional freedoms. While we decry their acts, surely we cannot criticize our country as a whole. We may not support nationalism, especially the more extreme forms, but we still consider ourselves patriotic, albeit from a different direction. A result is that we largely avoid the subject, perhaps for fear of appearing to being unpatriotic.

So how can terrorism be good for us? For those not tainted with an associative brush, it pushes us together. Our evolutionary tribal history has led us to pull together when we have a common 'enemy'. Terrorism can hence be a cohesive force and perhaps prevent us from in-group squabbling. It is good for 'us', though there are many downsides. We pick an enemy (or maybe they pick on us), then generalize, characterize and criticize. You're with us or you're with them. The choice is stark and easy. Those on the wrong side of the fence must constantly explain themselves and perform the tricky balance of distancing themselves from terrorists while not denying their religion.

Terrorism is good for terrorist groups too. It helps give them purpose and hold them together. They recruit people who have lost their way or who are angry at their impoverished, low-status position, giving them family and purpose. A reason they take extreme action because of asymmetry, where they feel small and weak and so need to make grand, noticeable gestures. They probably do not call it terrorism. Like too many of us, they demonize and dehumanize others, justifying their retaliatory, punishing actions as necessary, moral and legitimized by a higher power.

How have we come to such a polarized world, where extreme action is becoming everyday? Or has it always been thus? To know who 'we' are, must there always be a terrible 'they'?

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