A reasonably articulate and educated young man from Ottawa stands beside a ruined village exhorting others to violence against those who provided him with a comfortable childhood.
How can we explain this? And how can we explain the angry response stirring in my own brain?
Young men. Males of the species. Biology. Evolution.
We humans have come so far because we are the most adaptable of species. The traits and instincts we have inherited come with wide variability. Most other species play out a single program when challenged, or threatened, or frightened, or hungry, or fed, or stroked. Our reactions can be far more nuanced, far more context driven. Our reactions are sometimes even preceded by thoughtful consideration of outcome. And, after a certain age, even thoughtful consideration of long-term outcome and effect on others.
But the extreme possibilities remain in our atavistic human brain, those extremes that served us well in the jungle, in hostile environments, in times of scarce food, when survival of the species, of the family, required intense competition for territory and mating. When survival required the banding together of brothers, intense loyalty to the Alpha male, and the willingness to kill.
We learn through play, through the socialization of family, sports, music, school and work to suppress those primitive instincts. We have developed healthier outlets for them: the hockey arena, the football field, the rock concert, extreme sports, the racetrack, even the hunting party, and perhaps, we hope, video games. And, for better or worse, we can vicariously experience the flowering of these traits, these behaviours, this banding together of brothers, this adrenalin rush, this possibility of righteous killing, of revenge and conquest, as we ride alongside Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell.
God help us, the instinct is there, the trait is there, lying dormant in most young men, usually only trotted out in safe and playful circumstances. But it is there.
And to release it, to let it flourish, for some young men, requires but a little indoctrination by a charismatic psychopath with an ancient text under his arm.
How do we prevent this happening? Mostly by doing what we have been doing: becoming more educated, more aware, more sensitive to the feelings and rights of others, to the stupidity of war. By, if you’ll pardon the word, “allowing” women to become equal partners in this evolutionary struggle. By sharing. By treating the ill among us. By developing a good, just, liberal, inclusive, and secular form of governance.
But, I also think our ongoing reliance on ancient texts remains a problem. There are moderate people in our midst, good people, who believe in and promulgate ancient texts. The most progressive among them even ask us to believe in only the nice parts of these texts, the love and kindness parts, and they ask us to ignore the homophobic, misogynist, racist, vengeful, violent, and very stupid fanciful bits of these same ancient texts.
But still they are conditioning another generation to believe, without question, the teaching of an older, ordained man, with an ancient text under his arm, a text written before we knew the world was round and not the center of the universe. Usually a good man I am sure.
But at a certain low and troubled time in his life, how is a young man to know that this charismatic ordained bearded father with an ancient text under his arm, promising brotherhood, glory, certainty — is really a murderous psychopath?