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  • Writer's pictureDr. Paul D'Alton

Terror's true threat: the 'us' and 'them' feeling

The dove of peace flying against a backdrop of industrial looking buildings.

On January 7, 2015, Lassana Bathily, a 24-year-old Muslim from Mali in west Africa, was working in a kosher grocery shop in Paris. He risked his life to save 15 Jewish people when the shop was attacked by extremists.

He hid the shoppers, including a baby, in a cold storage room. He had the presence of mind to turn off the cooling unit so those hiding inside wouldn't suffer hypothermia.

He told them to stay calm and quiet, to huddle together for warmth, and he went out in search of help. He saved the lives of 15 Jewish people and risked his own life in the process.

When asked on national television why he did this he said: "We are brothers. . . this is not a question of Jews, Christians or Muslims, we are all in the same boat."

What terrorism does is strike at the heart of what it is to be human. It wins when we begin to lose that sense that "we are all in the same boat." Terrorism will win when we close down our hearts and minds.

Terrorism thrives on its ability to penetrate into the hearts and minds of its intended victims. It is a type of psychological warfare aimed at dividing and conquering by attacking the hearts and minds of those who stand in its way.

The insidious nature of the increasing threat of terror attacks in our cities, our supermarkets and our schools is how the extremists plan to win. This form of psychological warfare gets at the very core of what it is to be a human.

If we walk into 2016 blind to the terrorist tactic of dividing and conquering through fear, they will gain a psychological foothold that will be difficult to undo for generations to come.

As we reach the end of 2015, in the face of mounting terror threats and trying to come to terms with the heartbreaking loss of so many innocent lives, we are facing the biggest challenge of our generation.

After centuries of getting it terribly wrong, western Europe established a way for its citizens to live in relative harmony. Our democratic system and human rights commitment are of relatively recent design. It is a flawed system. It is a system that fails many and is in need of constant adjustment.

But it is a system that has brought significant social and economic stability to western Europe. This democratic system is not the result of natural evolution. This fragile, fledgling and imperfect democracy is the design of the human heart and mind when it is not riddled with fear. It is what happens when humanity is inspired by ideals, wants to do something better and is informed by a deep understanding of the importance of the collective. It is what happens when humanity is not operating from fear.

Terrorism will win when it undermines the potential of humanity to create and sustain social systems like our fledgling democracy informed by human rights and deep knowing of the importance of the collective.

Terrorism will win when we allow it to pit Christians against Muslims, when it erodes our sense of common humanity, our sense of "all being in the same boat".

The human brain has developed over many millions of years. We have made significant advances over the last few decades in our understanding of the human mind. We know that the typical psychological response to the fear evoked by terrorism is to get 'tunnel vision' in our thinking. We take psychological shortcuts and reach very simplistic, black-and-white conclusions.

In threat mode, we get hijacked by a part of the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala is the most primitive part of the human brain. It is only concerned with immediate survival - and it over-rides the rational and reflective capacity of the brain.

At times, this is absolutely necessary. Your child steps out onto a busy road - the amygdala kicks in and produces an immediate reaction; you reach out and grab the child.

There is no time or need for reflection in this situation.

The danger comes when we get stuck in threat mode because we make kneejerk reactions when they are not necessary.

Such reactions will inflame the current terror threat and will play into the hands of terrorists - and this is exactly what the terrorists want.

The real challenge for us as individuals and for our world leaders in the years to come is to make sure we do not react in this kneejerk way to the terrorist threat.

We need to resist the amygdala-hijack that reduces our concern down to myself, my kin, my religion, my country - and to remember that we all share a common humanity.

We NEED wise and brave leadership that can pull us back from the brink of playing into the hands of the terrorists by allowing them to close down our hearts and minds. Terrorism strikes at the heart of what it is to be human - our capacity to connect with our fellow human beings.

Our need to connect is biologically hardwired; we are utterly vulnerable and dependent on others from the first moments of life.

Paul Gilbert, a leading figure in the field of evolutionary psychology, says that from the day we are born we are biologically programmed to respond to the care and kindness of others.

We know from decades of research that our social connectedness is a key to our mental well-being and by extension is essential to stable societies.

Our connection to other human beings is what keeps us alive.

From the very beginning, if we do not belong or connect as infants, we die. It's that simple. Our survival is dependent on human connection.

The danger of terrorism is that it has the capacity to deeply disrupt our hardwired need for connection and belonging. We begin to live in smaller and smaller worlds increasingly defined by 'us' and 'them'.

Historically, most of our major world conflicts, and some closer to home, are fuelled by extraordinarily contracted sense of 'us' versus 'them'.

From the local to the international, much of our conflict emerges from a very fixed and territorial sense of 'me' - my office, my country, my religion.

The terrorist attacks we have witnessed in 2015 have the potential to rob a city, a nation, our fledgling democracy, of its sense of safety for a very long time.

The terrorist threat can strip humanity of its innate capacity to aspire to ideas of democracy or commit to human rights - it can close down our hearts and minds.

We need leadership that will help us continue to resist the threat mode that reduces our concern down to 'me', my kin, my religion, and to realise - just as the Muslim shop assistant in Paris did last January - that we are all in the same boat.

Originally published in The Irish Independent 26/12/15.


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