Last night I listened to my boys take turns running across the basement with a football, giggling and shrieking when they were tackled. Then, before-bed, their damp, shampoo-fresh heads bobbed up and down as they jumped on a mattress on the floor. “Three little monkeys, jumping on the bed!” they screamed happily in unison.
I forced a smile, my kids too young to know or understand what was going on across the world. But my heart was being squeezed inside my chest. As a mother to boys, I couldn’t help it- I mostly thought of the mothers who lost their boys, young men whose childhood kisses and smiles and smells would seem so far-away… Tears blur my vision as I type.
Of course, tragedies happen and lives are cut too-short-too-soon all over the world every day. And yes, it is true, that the Paris terrorism attack especially strikes home because, well, it is close-to-home. France is a developed country. We go to concerts. We go to restaurants. We think we are safe. Just like them.
But, really, there is no “us” or “them.”
This is the premise of unbridled empathy for victims everywhere, and this is the premise with which we fight terrorism.
Psychologists have long been trying to harness the answer to the question, “What drives an adolescent boy to drop all sense of humanity in favor of joining a sadistic, psychopathic, murderous movement?”
There are individual characteristics (generally recruited during impressionable adolescence, generally male, feel victimized, angry, alienated/disenfranchised, seeking glory/feeling downtrodden etc.), cultural characteristics (collectivist culture, friends/family sympathetic to the cause, exposure/desensitization to death, group dehumanizes others, etc.), political characteristics (feel otherwise powerless/oppressed), and religious characteristics (violence justified for “holy” causes, promised benefit of violence) at play. And most importantly, terrorists are programmed to view outsiders and victims as inhuman and abstract, devoid of humanity and value.
Programs in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the UK are attempting to “de-radicalize” terrorist detainees. These programs, shockingly, don’t use any threats, guns or bombs. Instead, they connect-with and become-human-to these terrorists. There is an intellectual component, where moderate Muslims debunk extreme distortions of the Qu’ran; There is an emotional component, where a detainee’s anger is actually diffused by others showing concern for his family and welfare; There is a social component, which introduces him to other former militants who are now functioning members of society.
Would the same concepts of connecting and humanizing, that seem to effectively soften the hate of detained terrorists, prevent 16 year olds from becoming killers in the first place?
Maybe we honor worldwide victims of terrorism by connecting and humanizing. Maybe we honor them by teaching our kids to connect with the kids who aren’t like them, because those kids might be looking for a reason to hate. And maybe we honor them by smiling and embracing our brothers and sisters of different religions, because it’s hard to hate the person that cares. Maybe we offer help and education and prayers to the most unlikely of people, because lack of aid and knowledge and humanity is what makes hate seem to make sense. And maybe we honor them by maintaining our senses of relating to ALL humans when we talk about our politics and preferred foreign policies.
The mothers of last night’s victims are no-doubt exhausting themselves with tears, remembering childhoods of snuggles and singing songs, snapshots of taking training wheels off little bikes and kissing little scrapes, and graduations and first apartments, and dreams cut short…
And the world weeps with them.
Our hearts should also twist- with fury and regret and agony and anger and grief- for the little boys around the world who would be jumping on their beds singing about monkeys, had they not been offered a gun and a head full of lies in a vacuum of evil…
I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do know that the only thing that outshines fear and pain and anger and powerlessness is intentional connection. Some might call that love.
And that’s all I have for this emotional ramble….
Check out this article for more information on the psychology of terrorism.
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