On Charlie: Courage in the Face of Fear

Family in bed watching television
Family in bed watching television

It's been over a month since the armed assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, and the tragedy has been on my mind every day since. There are many issues deserving of reflection, from free speech versus hate speech, and rising xenophobia and violent extremism, or even avoiding the conflation of all Muslims with the violently radical, yet tiny network of heretics. Yet, my mind has been more preoccupied with a more overarching theme of the core mission of terrorism -- terror itself. The goal is more than a body count; it's the arousal of our most instinctual response in evolutionary psychology: fear, and where that fear will likely lead us.

For much of the past few months, even before the attacks, I've just happened to end up in a few conversations about fear. At a recent networking event, our facilitator asked us to define a time we were courageous. I threw out: "Moving to New York," while the guy across from me shared: "Quitting my job to start a business." Neither of us were horribly satisfied with our own answers. This led us on a conversation about what courage is, which we settled on "overcoming fear." Of course, we then tried to define fear. My personal answer was: "The overwhelming combination of uncertainty and anxiety (for a more accurate definition, here's Oxford's). This was an "aha" moment for me. I suddenly and vividly remembered the last time I had a crippling amount of anxiety in an uncertain situation. It was the first kiss with my wife when we started dating. For whatever reason, I felt confident up to that moment, and beyond that kiss had no reservations, but in that moment, I was overcome with crippling fear.

Fear is both predictable and irrational. We can anticipate it in ourselves and others, but rarely can explain why we fear some things more than others. To most of us, it's a mysterious set of chemical reactions in the brain, seemingly evolved to maximize the potential for self-preservation. Our senses sharpen, our mind focuses, our heart races, our entire body optimizes for fight or flight. This is largely a good thing. However, in today's world, where we can experience cognitive fear due to stimuli not actually in our immediate environment, it can betray us. For instance, when we watch a scary movie, the neurological response is nearly identical whether or not the knife-wielding psychopath is on screen or sitting next to us. Through fear conditioning, we can also become accustomed to repeating this process, strengthening the brain's neural fear pathways. Like workaholics feed on adrenaline, or those with addictive personalities repeat dopamine-releasing behaviors, many people can also become addicted to the rush of emotion fear foments within us.

The sociological ramifications of this neurological phenomenon are distinct. Simplistic "us and them" narratives, charismatic leaders, patriotism and militarism are all manifestations of a nation reacting in fear. Shrewd politicians take advantage of it, and it's essentially the business model for most news organizations. Agents of terror are also able to predict it, and use our shared fear to their advantage.

The point of terrorism is not just killing people. That's simple, basic murder. The killing of innocents is only a tactic of terrorism. The real strategy is to trigger the neurological fear process in the society at large. This could largely explain our outrage and our solidarity with Paris, embodied in the "je suis charlie" message, and our simultaneous seeming indifference to the Boko Haram attack that killed 2,000 people in Nigeria the same week. Twelve people in Paris triggered a movement, while 2,000 in Nigeria hardly earned a headline. Our unequal outrage is both irrational and predictable. We share more common culture with France, there's video footage and most importantly, the attackers in Paris were out to create terror, not simply slaughter people. Fear was the intention, and murder was the method.

So the question is, is it working? Is terrorism having an impact on us? To my disappointment, I think it may be, and for a simple reason: in fear is power.

When I took international politics as an undergrad, our professor revealed: "Power is the ability to make another party take a course of action they otherwise would not have taken." I wonder, by reacting, are we in fact empowering these violent madmen, and promoting their vision. It is their actions that make them murderers, but our fear that renders them as terrorists.

Terrorism brings out the worst in all parties. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I was struck by the seething vitriol that once again alluded to our role in a global war, a crusade between the supposed "West" and "Islam." Don't be mistaken, I too condemn this disgusting affront on all humanity, but when the passions really flair is when we all begin to betray our values. Judge Jeanine Pirro makes an impassioned and horrifying plea, "We need to kill them!" on Fox News.

She then commits all the sins that fear leads us to, promotes an exclusively military response, demands allies to be "with us or against us", praises our non-democratic allies, like Egyptian President Al-Sissi, conflates Pakistan with Arabs, suggests supporting war crimes and a slough of other emotionally driven self-defeating reactions. I suggest you watch it all the way through, as she defends islamophobia and argues against interfaith dialogue.

It's easy to want to dismiss her as misinformed, but she isn't just some ignorant outlier. She embodies all of our instinctual reactions to terrorism. She's now been recruited into this cosmic war between civilizations. Many of us have.

This is not a case for pacifism. Despite founding a global organization dedicated to building interfaith cohesion, I too have my limits. I don't believe Gandhi could have stopped Hitler. But, I do recognize when we've been played. When someone manipulated us, and bet on our predictable irrationality, to get what they want. Stephen Covey says aptly that: "There's space between stimulus and response." Recognizing this pattern of reactive fear as a society is the first step to rising above our instinct for bloodlust, and course-correct. Only in conquering our fear can we defeat terrorism.