Humans have been coded in a particular way that they ultimately resist the goals and methods of terrorism.
I recently took a solo drive to a conference and on the way I listened to an audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2013 book David and Goliath. He has a section on World War II and the German’s bombing campaign against Britain. Before the bombs started to drop, the British military and civic advisors were preparing for mass panic: 800,000 dead and 800,000 needing medical attention in the nation of 8 million people. They built psychiatric institutions and hospitals on the outskirts of major cities and prepared for the onslaught.
Finally, the onslaught came: The Blitz lasted for 37 weeks where London alone was bombed over 70 times. Can you imagine the sustained fear and horror that every moment might be your last, that every air raid would be your last? The fear of the over 1 million buildings that were bombed, the next one might be the one you are in?
And the end result? No mass panic, 40,000 dead, a similar number needing medical attention. While certainly a horrific time for the British people, there was nowhere near the mass panic like the advisors feared.
How did the human spirit endure such a time without failing to the fear and terror hoped-for by the German leadership? And how might it inform the contemporary struggle against terrorism?
It turns out humans are coded for courage in a way that resists random bombs and unexpected terrorism alike.
Here’s how another blog summarizes Gladwell’s research on what happened in Britain during those days:
Canadian psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy…looked at cities that were bombed, dividing the affected population into three groups:
- Those directly killed. While there are some who are immediate casualties, and clearly they have the most severe impact, it is not their loss, but the reaction of the survivors that affects the psychological reaction of the group. These folks actually cease to influence the community, or as MacCurdy callously (yet accurately) put it ‘corpses don’t spread panic.’
- The near misses. In a bombing, these are the people who feel the blast, see the destruction, are horrified by the carnage, may even be seriously wounded but not killed. They survive, but are deeply impressed by the experience. In these cases, their “impression” reinforces a fear reaction associated with bombing. They are usually jumpy, dazed, preoccupied with the horrors of what they saw and may experience PTSD. This is the reaction leaders expected to prevail in the wake of the bombings.
- The remote misses. These are the people who listen to the sirens, hear the bombs, and even see the explosions in the distance, but they are not personally injured or often close enough to be blown off their feet by the blasts. Psychologically, the consequences to these survivors are the exact opposite of the near miss group. Their survival comes with an excitement associated with the attack and a feeling of invulnerability. A near miss leaves you traumatized, but a remote miss makes you believe you are invincible.
It’s the last group that was not expected: the largest people group would experience the bombings in a more remote way, and every hit that missed them gave them a sense of courage and invulnerability that allowed them to not only endure but thrive under the adversity.
Every Hit has 10x the Misses
Today, the world is rocked by explosions and bombings and mass-shootings on a regular basis. From Paris to Beirut to Baghdad in the past week, and myriad places before that, there have been acts of terror in places and at a scale that was unheard of a few decades before. With no end in sight, many nations (and perhaps the world) is preparing for a Blitz that may last for years to come.
And yet as Gladwell draws out from MacCurdy’s work on WW2, no matter how effective a hit that a terrorist may plan and execute, they will always, always, always have more remote misses. There will be near misses who suffer exactly the effects hoped-for by terrorists–and they should be cared for, along with remembering the dead.
The end result of terrorism isn’t more terror: it is a managed fear that leads to more courage for the majority of the affected population.
The only thing we have to fear is…ourselves
As I write this, the response has been to close borders to Syrian refugees who surely have terrorists intermingled with them. And yet that act of closing up creates more situations where desperate people will be swayed into desperate acts by terrorist groups who prey on such situations.
Nations now have an influx of refugees who are the walking exemplars of distant-misses: people who have suffered in unimaginable ways but have endured to get to another nations’ borders. Such people, as a whole, will be more resolute and resistant to terrorism, given the opportunity for hospitality and a fresh start in a new land. They have optimized human code to deal with the virus that is terrorism.
Indeed, the two situations where the near-misses and the deaths can overcome the resistance of the remote-misses is when a nation-state undertakes them against their own citizens, and when the attacks have numerical death counts that reach nuclear bomb levels. These are overwhelming situations that cause precisely what terrorism hopes for. Both of those situations are ones that nation-states and our national leaders have the capacity to handle…for now, and hopefully as long as possible.
In short, the refugees are the walking embodiment of human courage and resistance to terror–why would nations turn away this great resource of people, even in the face of potential dispersed attacks? We only have to ultimately fear our own actions, it seems.
Struck down, but not destroyed
I write the above from a place of privilege: the closest I’ve been to terrorism was being 10 miles away from the Oklahoma City Bombing. But I think that it is true.
As 2 Corinthians 4 reminds us, we are struck down, but not destroyed; we are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed. As Gladwell writes, the fear associated with being struck down lends itself to a greater human spirit:
“We are all of us not merely liable to fear. We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration. When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”
My hope is that many daughters and sons of courage find a place to be, to grow, and to become the face of the world that is stronger because terrorism failed, and God’s movement towards peace with justice prevailed. Because it must.