Terror, Guns, and Political Paralysis: How to Escape the Tribal Trap

If there is one thing the carnage of the last few months has proven, it is that we are all human, and all too human. We may listen to Mozart and celebrate Einstein, yet we drag along some truly awful traits. Muslim or Christian, we descend into the madness of murderous fanaticism. Liberal or conservative, we vent our anger by screaming invective at our brothers and sisters and stopping our ears to all reason.

Just days apart, an End Times Bible-thumper and a married Muslim couple sprayed innocent people with bullets and tried to deploy bombs to kill even more. In the sulphurous haze of such atrocities, a war of words has erupted in America over guns, blame, and politics. Its tone tells all. Here's a Nov. 5th headline from the liberal-left media site Salon: "2nd Amendment fanatics are just this desperate: How wing-nuts with guns are trying to hijack the Constitution." Makes you want to grab your gun and rally to the defense of the Constitution, doesn't it?

Yet, what the inflammatory headline refers to is even worse: a tangle of rightwing media conspiracy theories that have convinced a number of sheriffs that mass shootings like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre were federal plots staged to justify an Obama Administration roundup of all guns. That's enough crazy to power a rocket to Mars. But crazier still are the apocalyptic-utopian ideologies that inspire the likes of White Nationalist mass murderer Dylan Roof and murderous ISIS worshiper Tashfeen Malik.

I've already written about how utopian ideologies motivate and rationalize atrocities, and how such acts arouse terror in our minds. But there's something more going on in our collective reactions, something that could conceivably hand terrorists the apocalypse they seek: a retreat into tribalism.

Humans evolved in small, hypersocial bands. Our extraordinary ability to cooperate within groups made us top among megafauna, and our personalities evolved to reward that in-group loyalty. Wherever we may live, we love to sit around a fire, share stories, and laugh.

But we also evolved in fierce competition with other bands of humans. We are the survivors and perpetrators of countless genocides. That also shaped our personal traits. We automatically categorize people, and once we place someone in the not-one-of-us category, anything can happen. Those we dehumanize we may hate, scorn, torture, rape, enslave or slaughter, according to the expectations of our in-group. It's how good people do terrible things.

Often, there's internal ambiguity about group lines. Dunbar's Number tells us that we evolved to be most at home in a group of about 150, but nearly every human now belongs to multiple groups larger than that: schools, employers, houses of worship, political parties, sports fanclubs, and Facebook are all megatribes from an evolutionary standpoint.

That's one reason why it's hard for Muslims to recognize an Islamist terrorist as one of their own, and why it's equally hard for Christians to see Robert Lewis Dear as kin to them. Regardless, it's critical to recognize three things: first, tribalism is instinctive; second, we instinctively find it difficult to trust anyone we categorize in an out-group; and third, the expansion of circles of trust beyond Dunbar's Number is what makes civilization -- the good life -- possible.

The retreat to tribalism may be an entirely human response to terror, but we must rise above it. Civilization is a paper boat; it can all too easily catch fire from burning passions, capsize during panic, or sink under the weight of indifference.

We do not know who will next be taken in by toxic ideology and turn into a terrorist. You cannot spot a terrorist by religion, gender, income, nationality, or marital status. For once, the right and most advantageous responses coincide. We should make all of humanity our in-group, but treat each person with a skeptical, rebuttable presumption of innocence.

Years ago, I fell into conversation with a man wearing a "Team Jesus" t-shirt. I'm a humanist. We could not be more different in our worldviews. But before long, we found something we both cared deeply about: the rescue of "Lost Boy" refugees from Sudan. It was a good moment, and it turned into lasting mutual respect.

Talk to someone of a different religion or political party. Better yet, listen. Even better, have a cup of coffee together. That doesn't mean you have to agree on everything or share passwords. It only means you have to recognize each other's humanity. But chances are you'll find some commonalities.

The great American humorist Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936) got it right: "Trust everybody, but cut the cards."