Summing Their Primal Fears

In the final analysis, the problem of all terrorism, including Weapons of Mass Destruction terrorism, is a problem of primal human behavior. And such behavior is always the result of compelling individual needs and seemingly irresistible collective expectations.

Prof. Louis René Beres,

Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene Beres
israelnewsphoto: R. B.
Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti's Man Pointing gesticulates ominously. Emaciated, skeletal and tormented, it is an artistic expression of humankind's steady march toward suffering and annihilation.

Like the sculptor's gaunt and unnaturally elongated figure, each and every one of us has now become a prospective casualty. Today, each and every American is threatened by Arab/Islamic terrorism.

Where is Giacometti's man pointing? Does he point, dreadfully, toward the masses of likely victims, or judgmentally to the always-unrepentant perpetrators? Does his extraordinarily extended finger indict an entire species, or rather, does it cast responsibility only upon certain individuals and groups of individuals?

Understood in terms of terrorism, especially the dire chemical/biological/nuclear threat now hanging perilously over the United States, the very long finger assuredly points in several directions.

In the final analysis, the problem of all terrorism, including Weapons of Mass Destruction terrorism, is a problem of primal human behavior. And such behavior is always the result of compelling individual needs and seemingly irresistible collective expectations.

More than almost anything else, sometimes even more than the drive to avoid death, human beings need to belong. This need can be expressed more or less harmlessly - as in cases of extreme sports hysteria or rock concerts - or it can be expressed grotesquely - in genocide, war and terrorism. But the underlying dynamic is always the same. In all cases, the individual person feels empty and insignificant apart from his/her membership in the Herd. Sometimes that Herd is the State. Sometimes it is the Tribe. Sometimes it is the Faith. Sometimes it is the "Liberation" or "Revolutionary" organization. But whatever the particular Herd of the moment, it is the persistent craving for membership that brings the terrible downfall of individual responsibility and the terrifying triumph of the collective will.

It follows that unless certain fellow humans learn soon how to temper their overwhelming desire to belong, military and political schemes to prevent and control anti-American terrorism will surely miss the mark. These schemes will only tinker at the margins of what is truly important.

Today, the overwhelming desperation to "belong" is undeniably greatest in the Arab/Islamic world. How significant is this desperation to a real understanding of anti-American terrorism? The philosopher Nietzsche can be helpful here. Aware of substantial harms that can be generated by the immense attractions of membership, Nietzsche declares with remarkable prescience: "To lure many away from the herd, for that I have come. The people and the herd shall be angry with me. Zarathustra wants to be called a robber by the shepherds."

The most primary dangers of anti-American terrorism stem from the combining of certain susceptible individuals into war-centered herds. Not every herd is terrorist, of course, but terrorism cannot take place in the absence of herds. When individuals crowd together and form a herd, the destructive dynamics of the mob may be released, lowering each person's moral and intellectual level to a point where even mass killing may become altogether acceptable.

This is now most evident in ongoing Palestinian terror directed against Israeli nursery schools, restaurants and municipal buses. It is also illustrative of now-planned Al-Qaeda tactics against major soft targets in the United States.

To begin their urgent investigations of impending Arab/Islamic Jihad against the United States, our scholars and policy makers should look closely at human meaning. To prevent expanding violence against the United States, Arab/Islamic terrorist groups must somehow be shorn of their capacity to bestow primal meaning. Even before this can happen, however, those individuals who turn to terrorist group membership must first discover more private sources of belonging. An underlying cause of terrorist crimes is always the continuing incapacity of individuals to draw authentic meaning from within themselves. At its very heart, the problem of terror/violence is always a problem of displaced individual meaning.

Ever anxious about drawing such meaning from their own inwardness, particular human beings draw closer and closer to the herd. In all too many cases, this herd spawns hatreds and excesses that make certain forms of killing desirable. Fostering a ceaseless refrain of "us" versus "them", it prevents each affected person from becoming fully human and encourages each such person to celebrate the death of "outsiders."

Not surprisingly, when Palestinian mothers and their children crowd into a constructed "museum" celebrating the immolation of Israeli mothers and children in a bombed Sbarro's pizza restaurant, it is not fellow mothers and children that they see. Rather, they see only "Israelis", an abstraction, a population so presumptively different from themselves that their hoped-for extermination of "The Jews" carries absolutely no hint of regret.

Each person contains the possibility of becoming fully human, an empathetic possibility that could reduce corrosive loyalties to the terror group herd and prevent further terrorist violence against the United States. It is only by nurturing this possibility that we can now seek purposeful remedies. The immediate task must be to encourage people in the Arab/Islamic world to discover the way back to themselves, as persons; otherwise, elements of this world will continue to fly with the annihilative ideals of a delirious religious collectivism, with a life of conformance and fear that could soon make even chemical/biological/nuclear terrorism seem delightfully normal.