Ten years after the fall

This is something I wrote for the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. It is a hybrid of what I wrote for the 5th anniversary and what I published in Métro last Tuesday (De vieilles nouvelles). SVP voir à la fin pour la version Française de la chronique. Merci.

The fuel of hatred

In last week’s paper I came across a brief article on page 11 with the headline ‘Baghdad bomber kills at least 28 in mosque.’ I guess these events no longer warrant major coverage. Of course the irony is that only news makes the news and a suicide bombing simply isn’t news anymore.

Homo Sapiens?

Ten years have passed since that infamous sunny day in New York. The human species is called Homo sapiens (wise man), but what perversion of this wisdom can lead a man to fly an airplane into a building, knowing he will kill himself and thousands of others, and believe he is doing something noble?

To kill in the name of God seems anathema to us. Is there something about Muslims that makes them radical? Does Islam preach hatred? Or is the problem at the level of human nature with the potential for violence residing in each of us?

In discussing his masterpiece, Lord of the Flies, William Golding stated that the defects in society can be traced back to defects in the individual. True. But what defect drives this terrorism?

Groupthink: The nature of the human beast

Human nature is complex but all of its aspects evolved for one single purpose – to ensure survival. Strong defensiveness is a necessary component of this nature. It protects us against threats. This leads us to form groups and be wary of outsiders. After all, rival tribes may try to kill us for our food. And since the best defence is a good offence, aggression is a natural aspect of this protective instinct.

When we assume adversarial positions, we will always find evidence to justify our stance. This confirmatory bias distorts our interpretations of events. We see this everywhere. In war, when we kill an innocent child, it is considered collateral damage, a regrettable accident, but an understandable cost of defending oneself. When the other side causes such a death it simply confirms the evil in their souls. They are ruthless bastards, and they must be made to pay. Our resolve is strengthened. Each side continually provides the other with ample opportunities to confirm any position held. It is a self-perpetuating process of hate that has been fuelling wars, holocausts, purges, mass murders, and bigotry for centuries. And through it all, the killers and the perpetuators of hatred always believe they are doing the right thing.

Group mentality is a necessary component of human nature that protects us against collective threats. The positive side of it is seen whenever tsunamis, earthquakes, or famines strike. We seem to rally as a species against the threat of nature. But groupthink also feeds conflicts among competing groups. When a conflict between two individuals causes enough anger to kill, one person dies. When the conflict is between two groups, thousands die.

The human tendency to think as a group will inevitably turn ugly. Wars are simply an extreme example of what can be seen in soccer stadiums, arenas and schoolyards on a daily basis. Isn’t the other driver always at fault? Doesn’t the umpire always seem to make calls in favour of the other team? Don’t we always blame the teacher for poor grades? These examples may seem mundane but they are part of the same self-justifying, unquestioning, us vs. them thinking process that fuels wars.

The big questions

Related to the need for self-preservation is the desire for eternal life. Wouldn’t that be nice? The belief in eternal happiness makes the daily struggle for survival more tolerable. In trying to answer existential questions, most of us simply do not have the maturity or the courage to admit that we do not and will not ever know. Instead we speculate and theorize.

This leads people to many systems of belief that guarantee the goal of ultimate bliss. People are taught that by following a certain moral path, all will work out in the end. Unfortunately, this moral path can be perverted when belief systems clash and group mentality takes hold. If you think your belief system is moral, then anything done in the name of that belief is also moral. Defending yourself in the name of a spiritual leader becomes right and justified. The more you are convinced in the morality of your belief, the more immoral a competing belief system will appear.

When so much is at stake, how can we accept that our vision is wrong while another’s is correct? We simply have too much of an investment in being right. Our very existences, and our presumed eternal afterlives, are attached to our competing beliefs. These differences are nearly impossible to reconcile. After all, did not George Bush and Osama Bin Laden both proclaim they were doing the work of God in the week following the 9/11 attacks?

These belief systems are like any other biases. They are by nature distorting and self-confirming. Every event from a flood to the death of a child is seen through our beliefs.That flood must be a punishment from above, that child’s death must have a sacred purpose. How else can we accept such tragedies? Belief systems give us a sense of control. We could then create a moral world and natural disasters would stop. Follow the rules of your doctrine and you are guaranteed eternal bliss. But just because you want something to be true does not make it so.

The defect is in us

The defect in human nature is in us. It is in us when we think we are always right, when we distort facts to suit our beliefs, when we blame others for our problems. It is especially in us when we don’t question ourselves. This lack of critical thinking is the easy way out. It makes things seem clearand provides us with a sense of control over our uncertain world. This results insimplistic and black-white beliefs about events and people. These beliefs coupled with their inevitable confirmatory biases are what drive our actions. And our actions can be horrific indeed at times.

A fair and just world

A fair and just world is achievable but not through aggression, nor through idealism. It is achievable through a simple principle; respect for the individual. The best way to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, is not only to pay tribute to the victims, but also to question within each of us the seeds of conflicts between groups. Respect for the individual, regardless of their language, color, flag, or beliefs, is the only way to prevent the ugly side of human nature from winning. We may not have complete control over our destinies but we do have control over how we treat each other.

Version Française de la chronique du Journal Métro du 6 septembre, 2011:

De vieilles nouvelles

Dans le journal de ce matin, je suis tombé sur un entrefilet titré « Un attentat fait 28 morts dans une mosquée de Bagdad ».  Apparemment, ce genre de nouvelles, pourtant si fréquentes, ne méritent plus une vaste couverture médiatique.

Dix années se sont écoulées depuis cette journée fatidique qu’a connue New York et le monde entier. L’humain est un Homo sapiens (homme sage), mais quelle perversion de cette sagesse peut donc conduire un homme à faire s’écraser un avion sur une tour, en sachant qu’il se tuera lui-même et en tuera des milliers d’autres, tout en croyant faire quelque chose de bien?

La nature de la bête humaine

La nature humaine est complexe, mais tous ses aspects ont évolué dans un seul but : la survie. Et un solide instinct de défense est une composante essentielle de cette nature. Cela nous protège des menaces et nous amène à nous regrouper, en nous méfiant des étrangers. Après tout, des tribus rivales pourraient tenter de nous tuer pour s’emparer de notre nourriture. Et, comme la meilleure défense est l’attaque, l’agression constitue un aspect naturel de cet instinct de protection.

Cet instinct de conservation est couplé du désir d’une vie éternelle. Croire en une félicité éternelle rend plus tolérable la lutte quotidienne pour la survie. Cela oriente bien des gens vers des systèmes de croyances qui garantissent cette issue. On inculque aux gens l’idée que s’ils suivent une certaine voie morale, tout finira bien. Malheureusement, cette voie peut être dénaturée lorsque des systèmes de croyances s’affrontent. Si on croit que son système de croyances est moral, alors tout ce qui est fait en son nom sera moral. Se défendre au nom d’un chef spirituel est alors bien et justifié. Plus on a la conviction que ses croyances sont morales, plus un système de croyances opposé semble immoral.

La mentalité de groupe, qui protège contre les menaces collectives, alimente les conflits entre groupes rivaux. Lorsqu’un conflit entre deux personnes provoque assez de colère pour inciter à tuer, une personne en meurt. Lorsqu’un conflit naît entre deux groupes, des milliers de personnes en meurent.

La tendance humaine de penser en tant que groupe finit inévitablement par mal tourner. Les guerres ne sont que l’exemple extrême de ce qu’on peut voir quotidiennement dans les stades de soccer, les arénas et les cours d’école.

La meilleure façon de commémorer les événements du 11 septembre 2001 n’est pas seulement de rendre hommage aux victimes, mais aussi de remettre en question, en chacun de nous, le germe de conflits entre groupes. Le respect de la personne, quels que soient sa langue, sa couleur, son drapeau ou ses croyances, est la seule manière d’empêcher le côté sombre de l’être humain de prendre le dessus.

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Posted in Human nature.

Posted on 08 Sep 2011

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One comment to Ten years after the fall

  1. Lyne Deschênes
    On Sep 15th 2011 at 11:12

    ohhhh comme vous avez raison Dr. Z ! Un commentaire empreint de sagesse et d’humanité. Merci de prendre le temps d’écrire pour nous tous…l’impact est plus grand que vous ne le croyez! :)