Are all Christians responsible for Scott Phillip Roeder’s 2009 murder of Kansas Doctor George Tiller for performing abortions? Roeder said he killed in the name of his Christian religious belief.
Are all Jews responsible for Yigal Amir’s 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which Amir said he committed in the name of Orthodox Judaism’s views?
Are all Muslims, “even the peaceful ones” as Rupert Murdoch puts it, responsible for the brutal murder-in-the-name-of-Islamic jihad of the staff of Charlie Hebdo or those innocent customers in the Parisian deli? Or the Islamic State’s sickening brutality? Or the butchery by members of Boko Haram who at the same time the Parisian events were occurring were soullessly slaughtering thousands of innocent civilians in the northern Nigerian town of Baga? All violence committed in the name of Islam.
Of course not. To think that these crimes were actually committed in true devotion to the religions the murderers used as their excuse, and to blame the non-violent members of those faiths for not doing more to prevent such extremist violence, is to miss what these brutal acts were really about.
Such crimes – and there have been millions like them through the centuries – are the acts of people lashing out against a world in which they feel powerless, so powerless that only the most heinous and attention-getting violence will satisfy them. And the satisfaction does not come from the killing and violence itself. It comes from the sense of belonging, of being a part of a group – a tribe – that, united, can do more than any individual can. Proving by extreme behavior that you are truly loyal to the tribe establishes that you are a member in good standing, which means the tribe will support you, and protect you. And by acting the way every member of the tribe is expected to act, you are contributing to the social cohesion that gives your group more power than you have alone. Belonging is empowerment. It gives you a sense of control. And that helps you feel safe.
The study of the psychology of risk perception by Paul Slovic and others has found that how afraid we are, or aren’t, has a lot to do with how much control we feel we have. If we face a risky situation but we have a sense of control, the risk will feel less frightening. The less control we feel we have over the situation, the more worried we will be. This is as true of minor risks as it is of the larger matter of how much control we feel we have over our lives in general.
We do lots of things to give ourselves a sense of control. People worried about crime buy guns. People afraid to fly, drive. Affiliating with a group is the same thing, and it’s being done by more and more people all around the world, who for a variety of reasons feel worried by the lack of control they feel over their lives and futures. Hopelessly unemployed young men join extremist groups. People without freedoms join revolutions. People worried that income inequality leaves them less economic control over their lives join political movements. People whose basic personalities make them more comfortable with tradition and the status quo, who feel powerless against the rapid pace of change in our global information age or against increasingly large and invasive governments, affiliate with groups that work to keep things as they are.
We identify with these groups not for their beliefs per se, but also for the empowerment and safety of belonging, an instinctive need for the social human animal that depends on the tribe for safety and survival. And the more powerless we feel the more we band together into our tribes, for the reassuring sense it offers of control and protection.
It was not Islam that drove Cherif and Said Kouachi, and Amedy Coulibaly, to do what they did in Paris, nor an extreme views of Islam alone that inspired them to go to their deaths, supposedly as martyrs, in a hail of police gunfire. It was their need to belong to a group that gave them a sense of power to strike back against a world that felt to them like it had its boot on their necks.
It was not being German that led Adolph Hitler (born in Austria) to form the National Socialist German Workers Party and in the name of a national tribe commit some of the most atrocious crimes against humanity the species has ever suffered. It was to belong, and lead, a group that provided the power that as an individual Hitler always felt he lacked.
It was not to be good loyal Americans that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols identified with anti-government extremist groups when they bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 2003, killing 169 (including 19 children) and injuring nearly 700 more. Affiliation with such groups empowered them to fight back against The Man. As McVeigh wrote in his autobiography:
I didn’t define the rules of engagement in this conflict. The rules, if not written down, are defined by the aggressor. It was brutal, no holds barred. Women and kids were killed at Waco and Ruby Ridge. You put back in [the government’s] faces exactly what they’re giving out.
It’s not just extremists who do this, of course, and that’s the point. We all identify with this tribe or that (our city/state/nation, gender, race, religion, age group, political or general worldviews, etc.) And while it is fortunately only a few who turn to physical violence to establish their tribal identity, it is this same basic instinct that leads us to demonize others who come from a different nation, or culture, or religion, or point of view. That’s tribal too, and divisive, only without the guns and bombs. There is Us, and there is Them.
Political polarization, virulent nationalism, religious orthodoxy; these are just a few examples of what just played out in Paris – divisive tribal affiliations that lead us to see others as the enemy, producing friction and conflicts and real harm to societies around the world. So before we hold everyone in any group responsible for the actions of the worst its members, lets look past the tribal ID cards those people are carrying and into the mirror, because what we see in these terrible acts is only an extreme reflection of a potentially harmful instinct shared by everyone in the tribe of Homo sapiens.