Is it too much of a stretch to link the alleged police execution of Michael Brown in Missouri with the terrorist execution of journalist James Foley somewhere in Iraq? Setting aside obvious differences, do these tragedies have anything in common?
We humans are a potent combination of impulse and rationalization. We are inhabited by a primitive, kill-or-be-killed part of our brain that connects back millions of years to our evolutionary ancestors. And we also share what evolved later, the cortical, empathetic part of our brain. These two parts are not separate; they are in (mostly unconscious) dialogue with one another. When the primitive, irrational part of our brain overcomes us under the stress of fear and we regress into violence, the cortex can step in, ideally to restrain us, but often merely to rationalize—to justify the kill.
This interaction of dinosaur-brain and our capacity to rationalize only rachets up the endless cycle of killing. The Islamic State perpetuates this cycle by justifying the gruesome beheading Mr. Foley in retaliation for American bombing. The Ferguson police department perpetuates the cycle by racist stereotyping that rationalizes arming their ranks to the teeth. The president perpetuates the cycle by rationally justifying the assassination of terrorists by drone. And in an ultimate act of dinosaur-brained rationalization, we humans have drifted into an international security system based in deterrence by nuclear weapons that could kill us all—we justify our security with potential mass death.
We Americans, we Israelis, we of Hamas, we Salafists of the Islamic State, we Alawites, we Shias, we Sunnis, are culturally habituated to exclude and dehumanize the thousand diverse “thems” surrounding us on all sides. We assume this justifies our right to kill. The more we understand that this is a universal human condition, not something “they” do that forces us to respond in kind, the greater chance we have of building moral, legal and cultural structures based more upon inclusiveness than exclusiveness, structures that de-escalate the cycle of violence.
Most British police, for example, do not carry firearms at all. In England and Wales over a twelve-month period ending in March 2013, there were only three incidents during which police had to discharge their guns. You would think the U.S. would be interested in what might help us move in a similar direction.
Rwanda is one of the most hopeful examples of a culture in self-aware transition from death-affirming to life-affirming structures. Within the space of a few months in 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered at least 800,000 minority Tutsis. Only twenty years later, Rwanda, where 85% of the population are farmers yet 44% of children are malnourished, is learning how to grow a balance of nourishing crops in small-scale agricultural projects like Gardens for Health, an international organization that “steps in where food aid stops. “ Through this program Rwandans are teaching other Rwandans the principles of sustainable agriculture in a model that is easily replicable, potentially meeting gargantuan needs in many other regions of the African continent.
In tragic contrast, areas of the Middle East have become potential if not actual hotbeds of genocide. There are so many parties eager to kill one another that former enemies like the U.S. and Iran or even the U.S. and Syria absurdly find themselves in common cause, attempting to subdue people armed with the very weapons the U.S. distributed in its misguided attempts to secure oil by force.
A world is possible where arms sales and war are illegal under consistently applied international law, enforced by reformed and strengthened U.N. peacekeeping forces. A world is possible where verifiable treaties prohibit nuclear weapons and resources sunk into such weapons are released for projects like the Rwandan Gardens for Health. A world is possible where we no longer rationalize killing but instead, humbly acknowledging our inner dinosaur, justify what leads to life.