On: Terrorism is the illusion of power. It only becomes powerful when people fall for it. Picture a magician who performs a variation on the trick of sawing a person in half. The “victim” screams in agony as the saw appears to slice her in half. The magician then turns to the audience, raises his arms, and says, “Bow down, or you shall be next.” This can only work if people fail to recognize that he’s not a magician at all; he’s an illusionist.
History’s lessons are clear: Terrorists aim to provoke overreaction, so that their numbers will swell. If you don’t fall for the illusion, they remain puny. Dedicated intelligence and policing can dismantle terrorist networks. Mass round ups, political hysteria, revenge attacks, and in the most grievous extreme, invasion of a country that harbored neither international terrorist cells nor weapons of mass destruction only makes matters worse.
Two: Like advertising, terrorism exploits our emotional vulnerabilities. I don’t suppose terrorists sit around studying evolutionary psychology, but they don’t have to. Again, like advertisers, they have both intuition and trial and error to draw on. Many of our emotions evolved to deal swiftly with life-or-death threats. If you start crossing a river and spot a crocodile on the move, you can’t afford to engage in the rational analysis of a decision tree that weighs the opportunity on the other side against the odds that the croc will select you as its prey. Your emotions kick in and you sprint the hell out of there. Similarly, if someone starts firing an automatic weapon in a concert hall, you don’t pause to think about the odds. You instinctively assume that you’re a likely victim and either flee or freeze — or in some rare and remarkably courageous instances, leap on the attacker yourself.
The reality is that terrorism directly strikes a tiny number of people. Our electronic media, however, ensure that all of us run the simulation in our minds. Unless we consciously push back, we all become secondary victims. That’s a terrible mistake. It’s one thing to sympathize with the real victims and their loved ones, and indeed France itself; it’s another to reward the terrorists by giving in to outdated emotional instincts. The most consequential of these is the desire for overgeneralized revenge.
Three: Islam, per se, is not the problem. Neither is religion generally. I’m an atheist who often finds himself under rhetorical attack by atheists. Why? Because I won’t succumb to the temptation to fire off a broadside condemnation of religion when something like this happens. I don’t even train my rhetorical cannons on Islam, which means that Sam Harris fans and conservative Christians join in accusing me of coddling Muslims. But I want to hew as close as possible to the truth.
To prevent terrorism — and several other evils — we have to understand its real causes. Not religion, not poverty (that’s a slander on the poor!), not even humiliation, though it’s fuel for the fire. The cause is what I call the neuron bomb: the infiltration of a vulnerable mind by an explosive utopian ideology that provides warrant for any manner of atrocity. The way to stop it is to equip young minds with the mental tools — critical thinking, a grasp of naturalism, and compassion — to resist the infiltration of their minds. That means exposing religion generally to searching critique, but so be it. Either the religious have faith in their faith or they don’t.
Let’s make one more step back. We have to realize that we are the descendants of primates and need completely new thinking and behavior. Otherwise we will perish. Our primate brains, our thinking is completely inappropriate to the world we have created. IV.
Islam is the perfect religion to give justification for those who feel under attack and to maintain the eternal “victim” fantasy. Islam is also “higher” than Christianity because it comes last in co-opting the revelations of Sinai and the New Testament. What a perfect receptacle for projecting hatred. Islam incites, encourages and permits hatred of the Jew and Jihad. It’s perfect for a fragile personality that has the need to hate and the need to have an enemy. There are billions of people out there who share those sentiments and that profile. As an underdog religion, Islam provides great mass appeal, which even Eric Hoffer, the author of the True Believer, noted in 1951. It should come as no surprise that its numbers are growing. If one has a grievance, Islam will take care of it.