The animalism of our species

Posted Sep 28, 2004
Last Updated Nov 7, 2011

Don’t kid yourself into believing that humans are so different from the animals of the wilderness. Far from it… we are very much like the animals. In fact, we are animals.

I was reminded of this still-true fact when a friend sent me a link to a video that will forever taint the back alleys of my mind. It was the beheading of Eugene Armstrong at the hands of extreme Islamic fundamentalists. The images and sounds are so gruesome that even the poor quality of the video was too clear for my tastes; the urge to vomit, cry and destroy things lingered in my system for a couple hours after seeing it.

My first instinct was to retaliate. Of course, I’m in no position to retaliate from my desk. Who knows what dingy apartment on the other side of the world housed the filth that committed the crime? The inability to retaliate against something so appalling was unbearably frustrating… and for a few moments I vowed repeatedly to exact immediate and violent retribution to any such individuals that ever happen to cross my path.

Eventually my adrenaline died down and I began to look at the situation more objectively. I began to wonder why the terrorists would do this. What is their goal? What makes them so different from us?

The more I pondered it, the more depressed I became. Recollecting all the stories of executions that have been recorded throughout history… and assuming those were only a miniscule percentage of actual executions that have happened, I started to force myself into realizing that this gruesome scene that I witnessed over the Internet is really not uniquely horrible—it’s simply more motivating to us because of its immediately important significance in the world today as well as its visually and audibly graphic nature recorded in more than ink.

Twisted individuals maim and brutalize humans throughout the world throughout history. Fanatics and lunatics have done equally dishonorable things in all cities where humans have congregated.

I know it as a fact that humans have done countless unthinkable things to each other. And they are all equally reprehensible. In a cosmic sense… the beheading of Eugene Armstrong was no worse than a forgotten Jew cremated at Auschwitz or a peasant woman burned by Crusaders. Yet… on a personal level… the murder of Armstrong is more important than all atrocities that ever happened; to me the Armstrong murder is more real because I can identify with the image and fear it induces.

After embracing this view of the murder, I pondered the propaganda that terrorists are only hoping to invoke fear in us… something they obviously did with me (for I can think of nothing more frightening than a loved one or myself suffering Armstrong’s fate). Is the goal of a terrorist really simply to scare us? To answer this question from my armchair, I had to ask myself a disturbing question: What would it take to get me to brutally kill someone in the fashion the terrorists killed Armstrong?

The question is important. The reason I asked that question was because I am convinced that there is no fundamental difference between humans of various cultures and religions. While the specific nature of their faiths may change… it is human nature that creates all the possible cultures of our world. After reading Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners a few years ago… I had to concede that brutal cultures and sub-cultures are not exceptionally unique.

The answer to the question lied in Goldhagen’s conclusion that human’s tend to brutalize other humans if they have come to view the other humans as less-than human. Translated to my mind… I have no qualms about executing someone who harms or threatens my loved ones—such a person is a "monster” in my mind. And we all know that "monsters” are not "humans”.

Taken to another world… I thought of clips I’ve seen of male chimpanzees brutally mauling "enemy” males from foreign troops. Chimpanzees have been documented torturing each other in Gombe, from bashing heads and castrating each other, to ripping limbs from bodies.

Xenophobia—the fear of strangers or foreigners—is built into primate psychology. Humans, whether we like it or not, are primates. We know more about calculus and philosophy than other primates, and we try to forget that we have instinctive drives like our phylogenic relatives… but we are still animals. Logic governs very little of our actions because logic is a tool of our motives rather than a tool to create motives. If logic were a significant factor in natural human interactions, then we would long ago have stopped warring and destroying lives, cultures and ecologies.

Terrorists are "terrible” to us because they are strangers; we are naturally afraid of them and easily label them as terrorists. But that doesn’t explain why they attack us so much as it explains why we are afraid of them. They attack us because they too are xenophobic humans who are afraid of us. Because we do not believe in Allah, we are not "humans” in their eyes. Because we are not humans, they can abuse us with no moral predicament. I don’t think a terrorist that beheads a man is doing it to invoke fear; I think the motion was an overt act of war, albeit primitive.

To me, Eugene Armstrong was a flesh and blood human who probably enjoyed almost all the things I enjoy in life. He certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered. But you won’t convince the terrorists of that fact because they are operating from a primitive primate instinct to threaten their enemy and kill them when possible.

I am very depressed about the situation in the world because I almost feel that there are no solutions. We are not very close to finding a cure for human nature. The war between the West and Middle East probably won’t resolve in our lifetime because the ideological and religious divide forces the two worlds to view each other as aliens… as enemies… as beasts.

Hopefully I am wrong, but it appears that this conflict will not go away until one side suffers such a catastrophe that it cannot bear to continue the war. I don’t think the blood will stop pouring any time soon because the only way to stop the violence, ironically, is through violence. Imagine what an Islamic Terrorist or KKK leader or Nazi General or Archbishops from the Crusades would do if you begged for sympathy and mercy on the grounds of pacifism. Once the hatred starts… violence is inevitable even from the morally just.

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