I was sitting at an outside table, eating a sandwich, watching the pigeons and children, when a cute little girl with a tangle of brown curls caught my eye--and ear. She was not happy. She threw herself against her brother’s legs and wailed until he gave her his bag of chips. She sulked behind a post when her sister denied her something. She slapped her hands against the wood and cried and looked up to see what effect her performance was having, and when it seemed the answer was none, she carried on with greater lament. I was smiling as I watched her and eventually she began playing peekaboo with me before charging after a pigeon who needed a good chase.
Watching her, I naturally thought of terrorists.
We know that young children have undeveloped neurology. With too much stress, their brain circuits overload. Meltdown; clean up in aisle three. Mostly, their tantrums aren’t their fault. They can’t help themselves. Which is why it makes us so mad when we see some oafish parent giving their child a case of nursemaid’s elbow as he drags him away, the parent as red-faced and out of control as the kid. Sure parents’ have stresses, including the ones sobbing at their feet, but they’re supposed to be able to control themselves. They’re supposed to be patient. They’re supposed to gently show their children the way to get along in the world.
Terrorists are not children, of course. Some, like Osama bin Laden, are calculating and cold-blooded. When he planned the attacks on the World Trade Center, bin Laden wasn’t having a tantrum, he was acting out his narcissistic impulses without the burdens of conscience that restrain most of us. Men like him (and women, too, I suppose, although there seem to be fewer women in the terror game) are sociopaths. Most of the rest of us aren’t. But we do get very angry sometimes, especially when our lives are rotten. We get frustrated and start looking for someone to blame. We have a tantrums. Sometimes we get together and have mob tantrums.
When we’re lashing out that way, in angry concert, I think we’re more like three-year-olds than sociopaths. And we will respond to the same things toddlers do: patience, encouragement and--yes, it’s true--the adult equivalent of lollipops and ice-cream. Like a toddler, and unlike a sociopath, we can be distracted long enough to recover our emotional equilibrium.
The biggest difference between angry children and angry mobs is that most toddlers, the ones you see in the grocery store having a fit over skittles, anyway, get to go home to decent lives. Most angry young men bent on violence--whether gang or jihad--do not. A lollipop isn’t going to calm them down.
So what should we do? The most obvious thing is try to improve their lives. Do what we can to ameliorate the dreadful conditions that fuel their anger. Poverty is the biggest driver of hatred, followed closely by repressive government. Those are two tough nuts to crack on a global scale, but we should keep trying. Compared to the Middle Ages, we’re making progress.
What we should not do is respond in anger. We should not be the creepy abusive parent we all despise. It’s tough, I know. They say they want to kill us. They’re firing real bullets. It’s hard not to want to whack them in self defense. But their threats, while more dangerous, are not so psychologically different that those of the youngster screaming that she hates you. With children, we look past those moments. We give them another chance--and another, and another; as many as it takes. It seems to me that would be a good way to respond to angry mobs lashing out at the Great Satan.
In our daily lives, with our families, we’ve shown we can respond with compassion and restraint. We’ve shown that we have bountiful stores of patience, wisdom and kindness when we understand what is needed from us. Given the way the world is filling up, and the position of the United States and other rich countries in it, the poor and disposed of other lands (and our own) are no longer strangers. For better or worse, they are our children. And they will grow up to be the way we teach them to be.