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David Ropeik

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A Final Message From Osama Bin Laden. Is There a Bit of Him, in All of Us?

Posted: 05/05/11 04:50 PM ET

Fear is a great thing for bringing people together. Witness the nearly unanimous initial response to the death of Osama bin Laden. Witness the remarkable unity and civility among otherwise bitter political enemies. Witness the congratulations from nations around the world, nations that are usually so ready to criticize the United States for so much else. It's almost like that awful day in September of 2001 when, here and around the world, people dropped their labels and divisions and declared "We are all Americans!"

What the 9/11 response illustrated then, and the response to the death of bin Laden illustrates now, is that when threatened, the human instinct is to come together. Al Qaeda's fundamentalist extremism doesn't target one political party or another, one location or another, one religion or another. We are all in the crosshairs. We are all targets. And whether the risk is terrorism or anything else, when we are threatened our response is to circle the wagons along with the other members of the tribe under attack and come together for protection.

So as we did on 9/11 and are doing again now, everyone who feels they might be a target of fundamentalist terrorism -- not just Americans, but pretty much anyone anywhere living in civil society -- sets aside their other divisions and rallies around the cause of their shared tribe.

Conservatives and liberals, Muslims and Jews and Evangelical Christians, French and Germans... we set aside the labels that normally divide us and rally around the identity that brings us together, and makes us safe. U.S.. Safer, together.

This is a good long term survival strategy for social animals like us, who depend on each other -- the tribe -- for our well-being and survival. We identify with all sorts of tribes all the time; our family, local community, nation, political party (Go Red Sox!), religion, gender, age, race, school, among others. And when one of our tribes is threatened (Damn Yankees!) we rally around whichever tribal banner we feel is under attack and circle those wagons; against immigrants, or people of other political views, or other religious beliefs, or against other communities or nations or races... We circle the wagons of safety against others.

That, of course, is the bad news in all of this. Fear unites, but fear divides. The initial "We are all Americans" response to 9/11 returned to the normal divisions after a few months. The political unity around the response to bin Laden's death is disappearing as we speak. The bump President Obama got in his approval ratings -- an implicit statement that The Leader of the Tribe is keeping us safe -- will almost surely be temporary. There are plenty of other more constant threats -- the economy, health care costs, the environment, the rise of China as a global power/competitor, a nearly bankrupt federal government -- to grab and hold our attention once the temporary threats are off the front pages.

To protect ourselves from these more persistent dangers, we fall back on our more intimate tribal associations, the group identities where the ties are tightest and the support and protection are the greatest.

But of course, this instinct can also be bad for us. It breeds divisiveness, and polarizes, and inflames, because the more threatened we feel, the more we look to our group for protection and the more we see others not just as people with whom we disagree, but as the enemy. This tribal instinct plays a huge role in the fundamentalist blindness Osama bin Laden represented, a narrow Us Against Them worldview invoked to justify al Qaeda's mad violence. It motivates sectarian religious violence in Israel and Iraq and India. It has inspired some of the most heinous human behavior in history, genocides in Germany and Rwanda and Cambodia.

In less violent forms, this instinct lies at the heart of nationalism, and racism, and homophobia, and anti-Islamic Koran burning, and anti-immigrant passion, and certainly in the vituperative culture wars in the United States that have so many, figuratively, at each others throats. You can even see it in the incredibly vulgar profanities some of my Red Sox tribe mates sling, at the top of their lungs in public, at the Yankees when they "invade" Fenway Park.

So as we celebrate the death of one violent tribal leader, we should pause, and think about one of the lesson's this man's life/death can teach. We should look in the mirror just a little. Not that we'll find Osama bin Laden's madness and hatred there. But we may find just a touch of the same instinct at work in ourselves, the instinct that compels us, particularly in worrying times, to band together, to treat others as the enemy, and in the name of tribal unity and safety, to close our minds and hearts to the compromise that can also contribute to the well-being of the overall tribe to which we all belong.

 
 
 

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