Every time the happiness or safety of one of my children was threatened, I felt a rush of adrenaline that drove me to protect them. I kept an eye on the suspicious-looking guy at the toddler playground. “Excuse me, mister, what are you doing here?”
Identifying threats is critical to survival. The quicker the better. In the wild, a split second can make the difference between living and dying. Our need to assess threats and react to them is deep in our base brains. It’s as much an instinct as the urge for food and sex. We act without thinking.
When we feel threatened and can’t identify the source of the threat, we become agitated. We feel defenseless, vulnerable. The resulting anxiety, which sometimes seems intolerable, can be ameliorated only by identifying the threat so we can plan our defense. No serious threat exists for long without our finding, or imagining, the source of it.
After the Boston bombing some rushed to the judgment that the bombers were Chechen Muslim terrorists. Even a few U.S. Senators, ostensible defenders of our Constitution, recommended that the surviving bomber, a nineteen-year-old U.S. citizen, be held as an enemy combatant and tried by the military rather than the courts.
The breathless panic of those Senators was not that surprising. We need to know this about ourselves. We need to know that we are afraid. We need to know that being afraid makes us lash out to try to protect ourselves. We need to know that sometimes, because of other instincts that are also deep within us, we lash out at the wrong people.
When we lived in tribes, the tribe next door was frequently a threat. So we learned to fear the other, the foreigner. Xenophobia sounds like an irrational psychological state, but it is deep in our psyches. We are programmed to fear foreigners. We need to know that about ourselves too.
I’m not saying we should be naïve. I don’t recommend we whistle while walking down dark alleys late at night. I’m not suggesting there are not plenty of people in the world who would hurt us if they could. What I am suggesting is that we aren’t helping ourselves by generalizing from isolated examples of legitimate threats. Not all black men in hoodies mean you harm. Nor all women in hijabs.
The world is chaotic. Many of us are confused. Some of us are unbalanced. A Christian zealot who murders an abortion doctor may say, may even believe, he is acting out of religious conviction, but is he? Or is he just crazy? I ask the same question about the Taliban. How sane are you if you are willing to strap on a suicide vest? We can blame zealotry on religion or nationalism, but perhaps the blame lies within us.
Perhaps it lies within our need to blame others for our misfortune. I’m not sure of evolutionary roots of that particular trait--it may be simply another form of identifying threat--but it has produced many a martyr willing to die for the sins visited upon his people by the godless abortionist or the imperialist aggressor. The storm grows as blame begets blame.
Perhaps, instead of responding defensively, we should try to understand why others want to harm us, why they blame us for their troubles. “They hate our freedoms,” a Fox talking head said after the Boston bombings. “They hate our way of life.”
Somehow I doubt that. They may be jealous, but if they hate us it is probably because of something they think we are doing to them, or about to do to them, as opposed to the way we are living among ourselves. Nations have been exporting their cultures for millennia. The most common method of export has been conquest. No wonder we are suspicious of each other’s motives and pieties.
Religion plays into this suspicion, of course. Heretics and infidels are to be despised. How else can the clerics retain control over their flocks? I would be fine with doing away with all religion, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. There is no doubt yet another evolutionary imperative behind its longevity. If we can’t get rid of it, perhaps we should try harder to understand it, or at least just to agree to disagree, peacefully, and see how we all end up in the end.
One reason it is hard to ignore some religions, to just let them alone to be however they want to be, is because they are abusive, especially to women. Westerners are justifiably sanctimonious about how enlightened they are on this front compared to the teachings of, say, Sharia law. No one with a developed intellect and conscience thinks women should be treated differently than men, but they always have been. Parts of the world are just farther along the cultural evolutionary curve than others.
Does that give us a right to feel superior, to condemn the heathens? In a way, yes. But in another way, most of us cannot claim to have been the authors of our better mores. It is not just scientists like Newton but whole societies that stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Are we, by virtue of time and place of birth, innately more virtuous that those born in societies that have not so advanced? Are they to be ridiculed? Subdued? Conquered? They are nothing more than a look back at ourselves. The answer to how we should treat them lies in how we, in their shoes, would want to be treated ourselves.
A hand reached out in understanding might be bitten. It might be blown off. But it might be taken. And another hand taken. There’s a nice version of the song “None of Us Are Free” that has an improvised line that puts it well: “The only chain a man can stand is the chain of hand on hand.”