Is terrorism somehow inherent in humans?

I have long been fascinated by violence and our species’ propensity to use it. This interest does not stem from any personal experience of it – I grew up in a middle class southwestern Ontario home at a not too dangerous time in Canadian history – so I suppose that the draw for me stems from my work in counter terrorism.

As a consequence from my time at CSIS I learned a lot about individuals who decided (yes decided: terrorism is a choice) that joining terrorist groups was a good idea. Through our investigations we gained insight into who does so and were able to put to bed misplaced notions, albeit not forever, as some erroneous ideas still circulate. By this I mean those who maintain that terrorists come from backgrounds where there is poverty, or a lack of education, or personal strife or mental illness and so on. We knew that, based on the cases we worked on, all of these factors were neither sufficient nor necessary conditions for terrorism.

Then there was the argument that at least in one instance religion was to blame. Here of course I am referring to Islam since that brand of extremism – Islamist terrorism – has dominated the discourse and the headlines for decades. The argument has seesawed between two polar opposites, that Islam has nothing to do with this kind of violence or it has everything to do with it. As University of Waterloo professor and personal friend Lorne Dawson has argued for a long time, this question is much more subtle than that. In other words, yes religion matters, but it depends and there is a lot of variation from individual to individual.

Which leads to my post for today: is terrorism, or more widely serious violence, somehow an inherent part of who we are as humans? Philosophers throughout history have argued that yes it is (for an excellent overview see this Aeon article), perhaps embodied in the notion that life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Heck, even 2001: A space odyssey began with one group of apes killing another after the appearance of that weird black obelisk. Maybe we are destined to kill.

And yet there are those who argue against this. Some, like Canadian psychologist Stephen Pinker, have written (in his opus The Better Angels of our Nature) that even if we are innately violent we have become less so over the millennia (his book is comprehensive but he had to rely on iffy statistics on historical levels of violence in eras with little to no record keeping).

So while there is no question that we are capable of horrific levels of violence I am not so sure we are destined to be violent. Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise (played by Canadian actor William Shatner) did acknowledge in the episode The Enemy Within (where he is split into two people, one violent), “He’s like an animal. a thoughtless, brutal animal. And yet it’s me. Me!” but also noted in A Taste for Armageddon “[War] is instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands! But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers… but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes! Knowing that we’re not going to kill – today!” Sorry for the long Star Trek quotes: I have been a fan for decades.

My point here is that just as terrorists are made, not born, so the use of violence may be a product of a person’s upbringing. The decision to use any extreme action, whether you join Al Qaeda or beat up a homeless person, is dictated by so many factors and so many interconnected events such that any slight alteration in the sequence leads to a different result (much in the same was as the late Stephen Jay Gould described evolution in It’s a Wonderful Life). Hence, the potential for violence is very hard to predict. Two people with very similar backgrounds and influences can make very different choices (I saw this on several occasions in my research at CSIS).

At a time when we are obsessed with terrorism as a particular form of serious violence it may be helpful to keep exploring this avenue. If we assume that certain people (e.g. Muslims) are inseparable from terrorist beliefs, this false idea can push us to assume that similar individuals have analogous traits. That has led us nowhere in the last twenty years save for unnecessary and counterproductive profiling. We are better than this.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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