One approach in dealing with terrorism is to try and knock it out with even greater force. If we can just exterminate the terrorists, we can get back to normal life. The problem with this approach is that it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of terrorism and the individuals who perpetrate its horrors. Our longer term solution will come as we are able to get inside terrorism and see where (and how) it takes hold of otherwise sane and decent human beings. Launching counter-terror campaigns can quickly make terrorists of ourselves.
As soon as we can acknowledge the ease in which we slip into and are taken up by ideologies that control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, the closer we will be to a world free of terrorism. Once we understand the process as it takes hold of us, more creative, responsible, and wise solutions to the global problem of terrorism will become available. Ideology is a powerful spell that takes possession of our intelligence, radicalizes our attitudes, and compels us to act out of character with our better angels. How it does this is my topic here.
My diagram illustrates the process that produces a terrorist, but which also produces careless consumers who are currently devastating the biosphere of our planet. My challenge here is not to elucidate a particular type of terrorism (Muslim jihadism, rampant consumerism, or some other) but rather how any ideology makes us behave in ways that put living systems, and our own lives insofar as we depend on these systems, in jeopardy of extinction.
The process that slowly but inexorably leads us into the trance of ideology begins at a critical threshold where each of us manages the stress of life. By “stress” I am referring to anything in the environment – a challenge, crisis, difficulty, hazard or obstacle – that disrupts our equilibrium and must be addressed in the interest of regaining balance. Psychosomatic (mind-body) health is our capacity to identify the stressor, size it up, and work out a response that may involve some combination of overt action and mental adjustment. Success in any case will depend on an accurate appraisal of the stressor, along with a strategy for accepting it, overcoming it, reframing it, or perhaps exploiting it to our advantage.
What I’m calling a stressor (i.e., the cause of stress) is something “out there” in the external environment. The disturbance of our internal equilibrium is called distress. How we manage the threshold between stress and distress is a chief indicator of psychosomatic health. When the stress is more than we can handle, it provokes a “stress response” in the body that involves a syndrome of numerous physiological events, such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure, increased breathing rate and muscle tension, and the release of cortisol into the bloodstream which unlocks the energy stores in cells to mobilize stress-appropriate behavior. But of course, if the stress is already “more than we can handle,” something else must be done.
It is at this point that we try to separate ourselves from the internal distress we feel. An absent or ineffective behavioral response to stress leaves the distress unresolved, which further translates into chronic insecurity, flares of anxiety, growing agitation, and general unrest. When we were infants, our distress was pacified in the nurturing embrace of a caregiver. Our higher power helped us feel safe and supported, literally understood as he or she stood under us and calmed us down. When our higher power wasn’t immediately available, we probably found comfort in a transitional object like a blanket, teddy bear, or something to suck on – all of which can be called pacifiers, since they pacified us by alleviating our distress.
A pacifier is anything to which we attach ourselves for comfort. Since our first step was separating ourselves from the external stressor and fixating on how it was making us feel inside, pacifiers provided a way of reconnecting to the environment and recovering security. As adults we frequently seek security in membership, in joining groups and performing roles that help us feel accepted and valued. If our family of origin was not a strong community of support, or was maybe even dysfunctional and abusive, we might spend the rest of our lives looking for a partnership or society where we can belong. If we are desperate enough for security, we may be willing to sacrifice personal fulfillment and “sell our soul” for its sake.
Young people are especially vulnerable to the seduction of other misfits who have found identity in each other’s company. A distressed security-seeker finds consolation in knowing that others are similarly agitated, and joining a group pulls them into an identity contract where they take on obligations, are accepted as “one of us,” and may be given a special name or title. This identity contract anchors a worldview, and in turn energizes that worldview through the devotion and sacrifice it demands. For the insider such a construct of meaning offers refuge from “the rest of the world,” specifically from outsiders who lack understanding or sympathy.
Originally we needed an effective strategy for addressing the stressors of our environment and resolving the distress we felt internally. And ultimately this is what every ideology will drive us to, but now with an agenda that has divided reality into “us versus them.” If the pacifier is important enough to us, we will do anything to prevent it from being taken away. (Have you ever tried taking a security blanket from a toddler in distress?) Every attempt on the part of outsiders to destroy the society that gives our lives meaning only serves to strengthen that meaning as something to be defended at all cost.
When we have reached this point, terrorism as an ideology transcends the individuals possessed by it. Killing every terrorist will be impossible so long as the ideology of terrorism is alive, and only killing terrorists makes it stronger still. What needs to happen is for the ideology to get compromised inside its own logic. I propose that the “logic of terrorism” is a code made up of six elements.
1. Articulation of Grievance
Our distress is formulated into a complaint about the way things are.
2. Validation of Resentment
We need to feel that our distress (insecurity, anxiety, agitation, and unrest) is warranted.
3. Projection of Responsibility
Something in the external environment must be identified as the cause of our trouble.
4. Motivation of Vengeance
We are convinced that something must be done to retaliate and rectify the problem.
5. Justification of Violence
Any sacrifice, damage, or loss of life is interpreted as necessary to our cause.
6. Promise of Reward
A better life awaits, both on the other side of this conflict and in the world to come.
In our “war on terror” the rest of the world (we who are outsiders) have directed the major part of our aggression and criticism at the demonstration of this ideology, in acts of terrorism, but show little understanding of the soil where it takes root. In other words, we are trying to defeat terrorism in the theater of action when we should be disarming it farther down and far earlier in the process of its gestation.
I have argued that a terrorist ideology (as well as a consumerist ideology) is seeded by a grievance narrative, where a fundamental complaint about the way things are is articulated and takes command of our focus. This is what gets inside the minds of young people who are, even in normal development, searching for somewhere to belong that will pacify their insecurity, connect them to others who understand, and give them a meaningful outlook on reality.
But a grievance narrative will only take root in a personality that is unable to resolve internal distress. The narrative articulates what the young person only feels but can’t formulate into words. Once the grievance narrative takes hold, the individual feels supported, understood, and validated – and unwilling to give it up. With the individual’s full agreement, the grievance narrative anchors and drives all other elements of the ideology.
Rather than fighting violence with violence – or, if we must wage war on terror for the sake of our own security, then in addition to it – we would better help our young people learn how to manage that critical threshold between “out there” and “in here,” between self and world, where the stress of life can be met with composure, resilience, imagination, and responsibility. We will stop terrorism when we as parents, teachers, and other adult higher powers teach our children how to stay centered and just relax into being.
True enough, we cannot teach what we do not know. I guess the war on terror starts in me.