Self-imposed superiority at the root of evil

By R. Stephen Riley

Most agree that we must contain and neutralize the terrorists who murdered so many of our fellow Americans on Sept. 11. We must muster our courage and resolve to be unrelenting until we have rendered them incapable of attacking our citizens and fomenting fear that might threaten our ideals of freedom, democracy and the sanctity of human life.

It is also important over the long-term to come to understand terrorism. Only then can we hope to deal effectively with terrorism in all its forms. To understand a thing at a deep level, it is necessary to see relationships between similar phenomena.

The aim of terrorism is to create a crippling fear that eviscerates courage. This fear enables one to punish, dominate and control another. We must come to recognize this method in its many forms.

We must also understand the root causes of this type of control by fear. One person cannot inflict pain and fear on another without a belief that he is somehow superior to the other. This is the root of terrorism: The thought that, "I am better than you."

When some feel that they are better because they have an inside track on spiritual truth, they feel a moral imperative to punish others that they regard as outside of the truth and therefore less loved by God and somehow less human. They demonize the other who does not believe as they or worship in the same way. This punishment can take the extreme form of a lethal physical attack or even the threat of such an attack. Some with a similar mindset feel obligated to threaten those who are different with the wrath of God. Their punishment takes a more subtle form. They seek to inspire guilt and a fear that if others do not conform to their beliefs, God — as they understand Him — will destroy them. A sense of moral superiority and control by fear are the common elements.

The roots of terrorism affect every society. Every nation on earth has been guilty of attempts at domination and control over other groups by the infliction of pain and fear. This always begins with a sense of superiority and demonization of the other. It always causes some to see evil as outside of themselves — in another group who is different.

In our country, we have inflicted great terror and control over millions of African Americans and Native Americans. We did it for economic gain but we justified our actions by first demonizing the other and concluding that they needed to be punished and controlled.

Of course, throughout history many conversions to Christianity have been made at the point of a blade. Again, domination and control through fear followed a belief that the Christian is superior and that pagans deserve to be punished or controlled. This pattern can be seen in all societies.

Another example of this pernicious pattern can be seen in how women and children are treated here and in many countries. They are viewed by many as having less value and are therefore subject to domination and control by fear. We have made progress on this but the remnants of this thinking continue. Spousal and child abuse are not uncommon.

Bullies in the schoolyards operate on the same principle. They feel superior because of their physical strength and willingness to engage in fights. They inflict terror on thousands of children across our nation every day. They punish, dominate and control. They use fear to extort money and to humiliate other children. This humiliation leads to anger and the potential for more "Columbines" to come.

Road rage is one more manifestation of this problem. Some drivers feel that they must control and punish others through fear. They believe that they are more special and that their time is more valuable and that they are superior in their driving skills. They use their cars as weapons to intimidate and control others.

It is obvious that these are evil ways. They impact freedom and love. Freedom is diminished by fears. To the extent that we live in fear, we are not free to express our selves and our individuality. Fear is a violation to the human spirit. Fear is the enemy of love. Love must be free of fear and coercion or it is not real.

There will always be those who lack spiritual wisdom and miss the fundamental message of all religions — which is love and the Golden Rule. They do not understand the ways of freedom and love. They seek to dominate and control through fear. Of course, it is possible to control people through fear — at least for short periods of time — but the human heart is not subject to control through intimidation. People may act pious and yet be mean-spirited and full of hate.

We must resist the urge to feel superior and to demonize those who took the lives of our countrymen. Any actions based on hatred and vengeance reduce us to becoming terrorists ourselves. We must seek justice in their containment to prevent future assaults on our way of life, but we must do this with the right motives and understandings.

We can best honor the lives of those who died by using this time in our history to understand and combat the forces of terrorism in all of its forms. This begins with an inward search. None of us are immune from evil in the form of acts that control others through fear or evil in its most mundane form: pleasure in response to the misfortunes of others.

Where do we go with this understanding? We must also come to understand why some people come to believe that they are better than others — with all of its evil ramifications. I believe that I have some ideas about that, but that is another topic. We must also use our understanding to make concrete changes in public policies. I hope that simply seeing these matters through different eyes will help with awareness that will cause changes in some. However, that is not enough. We need to do more than outlaw hate crimes and hang the Ten Commandments in schoolrooms. We need well thought out school curricula to teach children basic principles of human nature to help inoculate them against patterns of behavior that are pernicious to the development of healthy ways of seeing themselves and others. We need to do much more.

R. Stephen Riley is a school psychologist at Heatherwood Middle School

He is working on a book about values

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