During a CBC interview this past week, I introduced the term “inner terrorist” to describe mindbugs that make us vulnerable to the extremist agenda. A number of people followed up afterwards asking me to explain further.
So to clarify, here’s what I meant.
Underlying the frightening terrorist attack and the resulting anti-Muslim backlash in Western nations is a simple but ancient two-step choreography: They hurt Us. We hurt Them.
Us. Them. This is the heart of the problem we face.
This insider/outsider dynamic occurs for both sociological and neurological reasons. History, politics, institutionalized racism and colonization help define who is Us— white, European, Christian—as well as Them—racial and religious minorities. It’s easy to see that outsiders in the current political moment are Muslims and Arabs.
Yet, the roots of what makes us vulnerable to Us/Them are buried deep within the architecture of the brain. I cover this in my new book, and have written about it in my blog—here and here — but to reiterate: research shows that our brain frequently registers those we consider to be outsiders more as objects than humans. Such objectification is what we mean when we talk about “dehumanizing” others. When we consider others as objects, it becomes easier to stigmatize, hurt, punish, and even kill those we perceive to be a threat. Like many aspects of ourselves, this is believed by researchers to be an evolutionary survival mechanism so we may defend ourselves, children and tribe members during emergencies.
We also come equipped with the ability to experience rage, which biologically, is the urge to kill according to trauma expert Peter Levine. Given the correct toxic circumstances, our tendency to dehumanize coupled with the extreme anger and fear can give rise to a wide spectrum of potential responses, evoking our internal defender, vigilante, bully and—and yes, even our inner terrorist. This unconscious potential lies within all of us, awaiting the right conditions to emerge.
Dehumanization exists along a continuum of possibility. Terrorists had to dehumanize innocent Parisians in order to kill. And in the aftermath, so did two thugs who attacked and robbed a Muslim mother in Toronto who was en route to her children’s school, as did Southwest Airlines staff who refused to let harmless Muslim passengers board their flight this week because they spoke Arabic in public. Dehumanization is also the tool of political leaders who believe the solution to extremism is greater extremism, such as and closing mosques or registering and tracking all Muslims within the country, similar to the manner in which Jews were forced to identify themselves wearing yellow star badges in Nazi Germany.
But our inner terrorist dehumanizes in subtle ways too, including the tendency to understand minority groups in stereotypes, absent of any nuance or individuality. This includes:
- The inability to separate mainstream Muslims from ISIS, akin to confusing all white, Christians with murderous white supremacist groups.
- Or saying no to Syrian refugees who are fleeing terrorism themselves, believing they pose a threat to “our way of life.”
Tendency in Not Destiny
Some may wonder, then, are we neurologically pre-determined to turn on each other in crisis situations like Paris?
Of course not— neural tendency is not destiny. In times of crisis, what we say and do truly matter and many of us access our inner angels, helpers and peace-builders. I feel very heartened by the acts of kindness and generosity that have also emerged demonstrating our espoused values, of who are and want to be. Some examples close to home, around the Greater Toronto Area include:
- After a mosque was torched last Saturday night, the rest of the Peterborough community came together and fundraised over $80 000 in just 24 hours to help with repairs.
- Hashtags were created offering solidarity including #StandWithMuslimsTO, as well as #IllRideWithYou to increase the sense of safety for Muslims on public transit.
- Leaders from around the city including the mayor, city council and local school boards came out strongly with statements of unity with the Muslim community and zero tolerance for hate.
- A solidarity march was organized in Flemingdon Park, the community where a Muslim mother was beaten by thugs.
I was particularly touched by a 2-minute video shot by some roommates in Montreal. These four young men — Egyptian, French, Turkish and American— set themselves up at a subway station, holding hands with a sign in front that said: “He is my roommate and best friend. These are my brothers. They cannot separate us.” The video showed how affected people were by this small but personal sign of humanity. Strangers stopped and smiled, hugged them, inquired and talked, took pictures, and even wept publicly.
These are the things that neutralize our inner terrorist. Compassion. Unity. Love. These young men completely understood the underlying intent behind ISIS’s murderous tactics—which is to sow fear and hatred between communities—and didn’t fall for the trap. It is widely reported that the anti-Muslim backlash in Western nations actually serves ISIS as it preys on young people who don’t feel like they belong to their communities, luring them into horrific criminality. Remarkably, we’ve know this for a long time as similar processes are at play when disenfranchised youth join local gangs—it’s in seeking a sense of belonging, to bring meaning into their lives.
My research clearly shows that belonging is a central driver of human behavior, as basic a need as food, water and shelter. So, rather than lashing out during a crisis like Paris, all of us need to reach out to one another, and work harder to see each other’s humanity. Also being aware that our brains are wired for Us/Them can help us be on the lookout for when this internal tendency emerges, and allow us to make a different choice.
Fundamentally, using compassion and love undoes our inner terrorist… and is kryptonite for hate groups like ISIS.
Author, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them (Between the Lines, 2015)