Here at the Theological Heretics Institute for the Nurture of Knowledge, Enlightenment, Reconciliation and Salvation, we recognize that one of the greatest evils we face in this world is groupthink, also known as mob mentality, or in some contexts, tribalism. Groupthink helped to get Jesus killed. It got Socrates executed. It has caused murder and mayhem throughout history, with examples like the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution, the lynchings of the Jim Crow era, not to mention the wars of the 20th century. Lately, the US has had a bout of groupthink fed by fake news and nefarious actors who know the power of fear, anger and hate. There is a narrative in particular that is gaining dominance in the groupthink vernacular that is so observably false, that it may serve to call attention to how poorly groupthink performs as a cognitive method.
The narrative is this: Terrorists are cowards. The narrative claims they are cowards because rather than meet on a battlefield in polished brass and shoot at men to settle their matters of honor, they kill babies. Now, the fact that they kill babies and do not instead form armies to duke it out in traditional combat is not in dispute. What is in dispute is that cowardice is what they show. The absurdity of this idea should be plain enough. If you believe that Sgt. Rock leading a suicide charge to take out a machine gun nest is heroic, then you can’t claim that using your body as a bomb is not require a similar amount of bravery. It is despicable and unconscionable to decent people, but it is nothing if not an act of bravery.
This is where people usually start shouting accusations of “apologist” and “why are you defending them”, to which I must shake my head. That is just the groupthink talking. In groupthink, everything is either us/good or them/bad and nothing else makes sense. In Reason, we can see that many things can be used in a good way or an evil way, so the thing itself does not determine good or evil. I can bravely do something good, or I can bravely do something bad. The silly notion is that anything bad you might say about “them” is appropriate because they are “bad”.
“If you aren’t defending them, they why do you say good things about them?”
I don’t. I make a point that groupthink leads to really outrageous ideas with no justification, and that is no way to deal with anything in a positive way. Groupthink leads to the belief that intelligence is bad because it is against what the group thinks. Even if those in the grip of groupthink do not say it that way, it is evidenced by their willingness to accept a simple premise even if they know from firsthand experience that it is wrong, rather than a demonstrable proof that has any nuance to it that the premise is absurd.
This is all pretty abstract, right? Why post about this theoretical discussion that I just said the people it targets will refuse to get it? Well, I have hope that the rest of us can steer clear and not fall into the groupthink, because there are forces at play that push us that direction, and history has shown than virtually none of us are immune.
Let’s go from this abstract pseudopsychology discussion to something that we can agree is a clear and present danger (although we probably disagree on what the nature of the danger is): Terrorism. We have already peeked at the notion that “terrorists are cowards”, and my concern that this is a dangerous belief with no justification and a lot of momentum. The nature of the us/good them/bad mindset is such that we have a pretty good idea of who the “us” is and a pretty poor understanding of who the “them” is. Moreover, because “us” is good, we tend to be blind to all of the ways we are the exact same “bad” as “them”, or even that “they” are not what we claim, but we are. For example, which is more cowardly, to face death in a struggle for what you believe to be a just cause, or to turn cold, hungry children away for fear that they might grow up to resent you? Now, the suspicious ones who are afraid of facing their own groupthink will ask what trick I am trying to pull by making terrorists look good and Americans look bad. No, no trick. Ask yourself how accurately the language we use fits what we describe. My question offers no judgment. You bring any judgment of your own to the question. But, I admit that the question is Socratic. If we are to make moral judgments about others, we must be willing to subject ourselves to the same standard, or as Jesus put it: “Judge not lest ye be judged” (Luke 6:37).
So, let’s examine exactly what “terrorism” is. Terrorism is a tactic of conflict. It may or may not be an acknowledged war, but it is a tactic. Those who use that tactic are thus called terrorists. What if one side of a conflict uses terrorism in some operations but traditional warfare in others? Well, as it turns out, if it is “us” then it wasn’t terrorism, and if it is “them” then we refer to the traditional warfare as “combat with terrorist forces”. But back to what exactly the tactic itself is.
Terrorism is a tactic in which there is an attack that is targeted to strike fear in the general populace to motivate them to some action. For example, prior to sending troops into Iraq in Gulf War II, the US bombarded Baghdad with a spectacular show of airpower dubbed “Shock and Awe” with the express purpose of striking terror into the people who supported Saddam Hussein. There were strategic targets, and civilians who did not work in regime’s headquarters or were not driving on bridges were not targeted directly, but the very fact that it was a mission objective to use fear to affect the outcome actually qualifies as a terroristic tactic. You see, it is not the body count that makes it terrorism, it is the fear it is intended to inspire that makes it terrorism. In WWII, both the Allies and the Axis used terrorism in the form of firebombing civilians for the purpose of demoralizing the general population into surrender, with no pretense of military or strategic target values other than the terror response. I will leave it to History to judge the kinds of large scale terrorism that has occurred in a declared war, but the point is that whether someone blows up a bus in Jerusalem, or drives a truck into a crowded Mall, or flies planes into a building, or drops an atomic bomb on a city, if the intent is to strike fear in the heart and motivate a change, then the tactic is best described as terrorism.
What kind of action can be motivated by fear? Who would expect fear to have the right outcome? The answers vary, but they generally follow the format that cool heads do better in a fight with hot heads. Outrage may motivate fictional characters like the Hulk, but like the Hulk, people smash everything when outraged, including things they value, and unlike the Hulk, they don’t tend to win against the cool head that was using outrage against them all along.
In Sun Tsu’s The Art of War, Sun Tsu describes how to take a small army against a fortified city and win without a prolonged siege. Roughly put, he said to get a young maiden, preferably from the city, but say she is from the city at any rate, and in view of the city walls, rape the girl savagely, and then set her loose to run back toward the city, and shoot her down before she can get there. Give the city time to screw up their outrage, and when the city gates open and the army files out, retreat the bulk of the army to the hills where the approaching army can be ambushed, cut off and slaughtered, while the remaining forces that hid during the retreat enters and captures the city.
The basis for the tactic Sun Tsu describes is that outrage was a weapon supplied by the enemy that could be used against them. Cool heads defeat hot heads.
Terrorism can be very effective in this same way. Fear and Outrage are overlapping emotions. Even those who don’t personally feel particularly vulnerable can become outraged at the thought that the tribe as a whole is under threat.
Why would some Podunk country that nobody likes want to outrage the Mighty United States of America and her allies? Well, let’s get visual. One of the tropes of the comedy western involves the bully throwing a punch at the hero, who ducks, and a bystander gets hit instead, and turning around in a blind rage, the bystander punches another bystander, and in seconds the entire saloon is being destroyed as the hero crawls out the front door, while the bully ducks out the back, and the destruction of the saloon rages on in their wake. What happened in that fictional saloon is believable and absurd at the same time. Everybody other than the initial players let their outrage confuse their ability to properly assess who their enemies are.
Look at how outrageously effective the 9-11 attacks were at manipulating the US into a cycle of self-destruction. The attack was outrageous. It was worthy of outrage and there is not moral way to justify it at all, but it was outrageously effective. As a result of the 9-11 attacks:
Americans gladly ceded their own civil liberties in exchange for a feeling of security.
Americans crippled air travel and shipping, causing an economic downturn we have not really recovered from since.
America went to war with Afghanistan solely to extradite the accused.
America was able to be duped into going to war with Iraq by being susceptible to a false association with the 9-11 attacks.
Most importantly, the goal of the terrorists was fully met in that a plurality of Americans are ready and willing to enter a war with the Muslim Religion itself, having been convinced that the terrorism ever had a religious motivation shared by all adherents of the faith.
Americans gladly defend the notion that we must insult, bully and blame the Muslims of the world for our own outrage and fear, which increases the likelihood that they will recognize us as enemies, as well.
So, we are the undefeatable city that Sun Tsu tells how to defeat. Make us so outraged that we abandon all that we value just to satisfy our moral outrage, blind to the fact that Sun Tsu is not a crazy zealot, but a shrewd warrior, playing our weakness to his advantage.
So, what is the message of this post? Am I just hating on Fox News for cashing in on the fears and bigotry of their viewers? No. The message is that with poor thinking comes poor outcomes, but we are all able to overcome poor thinking.
Terrorists are evil, but they are not the cowards, they take advantage of the cowardice in us. Failure to recognize this hands them one win after another, since they are counting on it.
The terrorists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State pose no existential threat to us, but we pose that threat to ourselves if we choose blind rage over thoughtful observation.
Every time we choose to do the terrorists bidding in response to terror, they win. When we alter our values of openness and opportunity, religious freedom and cooperation, and even when we assume the worst of people and abandon all trust of the goodwill one another, the terrorists win. When we turn away widows and orphans out of abject fear of what we choose not to understand, the terrorists win. When we think open disdain of the Muslim world is a way to defeat terrorism, the terrorists have already won.