The big news yesterday was the video of the death of Nick Berg at the hands of hooded men claiming to be part of al Qaeda which was posted to a website associated with that terrorist group. Descriptions of Nick’s graphic beheading have been all over the news media since the video was released, not to mention the blogosphere, and the number one thing people have searched for here at SEB in the past 24 hours is links to the video itself. Up until this entry I didn’t have any links to sites hosting the video, but if you feel the need to see it then over at Wizbang they have an entry up with links to the video as well as an ongoing debate in the comments on the appropriateness of providing said links. The argument over whether the guys at Wizbang should have linked to the video is silly in my mind as the video is already out there on the Net and anyone who really wants to see it won’t have to search too hard to find a copy of it someplace. Whether or not you should watch the video is a choice only you can make, but if you have any doubts then my advice is to avoid it as it’s probably more disturbing than you imagine.
As for myself, I decided to watch it, but not out of morbid curiosity. My decision was based on the need to understand first hand what others had seen so I had a proper frame of reference to judge their reactions by. I didn’t want anyone trying to claim that I couldn’t understand the emotions they were feeling because I hadn’t seen the video. I had a pretty good idea of what the video would be like from the various written accounts of it I’ve read and I’m pretty good at keeping my emotions in check over things of this nature, but the video still had quite an emotional effect on me. Unlike many other people, however, the emotion I experienced was despair.
I already had a good idea of how a lot of people were going to react to the video regardless of whether they had seen it and checking around the blogosphere my suspicions seem to have been borne out. Those of a Conservative mindset are loudly proclaiming their anger and outrage not only at the perpetrators of this crime, but at their favorite targets such as The Liberal Media™ and anyone who isn’t expressing a similar emotional response (read: Liberals in general). Those of a more Liberal mindset either aren’t talking about the story all that much or seem to be trying to claim it’s a direct result of the Bush administration or a American foreign policy in general. Both sides point at the other and prattle on about what’s wrong with their way of looking at the whole situation. The reality is that all sides of the debate have at least some kernels of truth in their grasp, but none of them have a lock on the truth as a whole and too many people want to over-simplify things to suit their particular viewpoints.
Many Conservatives want to say that Nick Berg’s death makes the Abu Ghraib scandal pale in comparison, but the truth is that at least two Iraqi prisoners died as a result of the activities at Abu Ghraib. Simply because they weren’t beheaded nor had their deaths broadcast from a website doesn’t in any way make their deaths any less of a crime than Nick Berg’s. Many Liberals want to lay the blame for Berg’s death on the Bush administration as a direct result of the Abu Ghraib scandal which they feel the Bush administration encouraged. The truth is that there is no evidence that anyone involved in the Bush administration knew about the conditions developing at Abu Ghraib nor directly or indirectly gave permission or instructions for the activities that took place. So while it may be arguable that Nick Berg’s death is directly a result of the scandal that doesn’t mean the blame for it is in part or in whole the fault of the Bush administration itself.
These are just two examples of the sort of arguments flying back and forth and all of the different arguments fail to consider what I feel is probably the real crux of the problem: Our tendency toward Tribalism.
Tribalism has been a part of human nature since the beginning and it pervades much of our thinking on every kind of human relationship. Simply put it’s the “Us vs. Them” mentality that at one time in our history was a very beneficial way to view the world when competing over limited resources and struggling to survive day to day. It was an effective tool and thus it became ingrained in our nature and still affects how we think of ourselves in relation to others to this very day. By and large this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it often manifests itself in relatively harmless forms such as declaring ourselves to be Red Wings fans or Linux enthusiasts and so on. Even though being a member of either of those two examples is in no way a matter of survival it doesn’t stop us from feeling like a part of the group and committed to supporting its causes or ambitions. We take ridiculous amounts of pride in whatever successes our “tribe” manages to accomplish even if we had nothing to do with that success (e.g. winning the Stanley Cup) and when a member of the tribe somehow screws things up the sense of betrayal and anger is very real (e.g. Cubs fan Steve Bartman, the most hated man in Chicago). Modern professional sports wouldn’t earn anywhere near what it does if not for tribalism. It’s a useful tool for uniting people behind all manner of causes and organizations both silly and serious by creating an emotional investment and impetus to action for the members of the “tribe.”
It’s not all good, though. The downside to tribalism comes in the form of conflict when two or more “tribes” with opposing goals clash. The partisan bickering that takes place in politics between Democrats and Republicans is a perfect example of the negative aspects of tribalism. It can result in things such as legislative grid lock where nothing gets accomplished as well as plenty of political back stabbing. Too often emotional tribalism ends up replacing rational discourse as a means of solving problems. Rather than honestly considering the implications of a particular solution to a particular problem we’ll fall back on “towing the party line” which, depending on who’s leading the tribe, can be a very dangerous shortcut to take. Tribalism and the “Us vs. Them” mentality is reinforced by all aspects of society such as governments (I Pledge Allegiance…), religions (Thou shalt have no other God before me…), political groups, sports teams, video game console makers, shoe companies, fast food restaurants, TV networks, and so on. You could sit here all day just listing off the different groups, organizations, companies and such that promote tribalism. When you mix in the fact that in today’s world everyone is often a part of many different tribes which may share closely aligned goals the influence that can be brought to bear on the thinking of members can ramp up quickly. When taken to its extremes the mentality of “Us vs. Them” can then result in the unthinkable becoming not only possible, but acceptable.
It’s that extreme version of tribalism that made Nick Berg’s beheading and it’s subsequent broadcast on the Internet not only possible, but morally acceptable to the people who participated in it. It’s the same line of thinking that made the death of 600 Muslims at the hands of Christian militiamen in Nigeria not only possible, but morally acceptable to the people who participated in it. It’s the same sort of thinking that made the Holocaust not only possible, but morally acceptable to the people who participated in it. It’s the same sort of thinking behind groups such as the KKK, the Branch Davidians, the Black Panthers, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Nazi’s, the neo-Confederates, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Jewish Defense League, Volksfront, among many more. It’s exactly the line of thinking used by individuals such as Timothy McVeigh, Bernhard Goetz, James Kopp and countless suicide bombers.
Looking around at the various responses folks have written to Nick Berg’s death it’s easy to see this same thinking in use. Azygos’ comment and Wolfe’s comment (among many others) on Wizbang, Kiril Kundurazieff’s blog entry, D-Coy’s blog entry, Tom’s blog entry, and the comments of Ken right here on SEB just to list a few. By and large for a lot of these people this is just a way of blowing off some steam from what is in all reality a very emotionally disturbing event, but for some folks the logic of Us vs. Them would justify acts as bad, or worse, than what inspired their anger in the first place. The futility of this line of thinking is exemplified by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. First one side kills a bunch of people in self-righteous indignation then the other side exacts deadly retribution which prompts the first group to exact revenge for the retribution which prompts the other side to kill more people to “discourage” continued attacks which ends up only providing the first side with more fuel for the fire and the cycle continues on and on while both sides claim that the other side is “evil” and that God is on their side and that the other guys started it anyway so there. It’s almost as if no one is able to take a step back and see that both sides are making similar claims as their opponents. Folks are describing the people who killed Nick Berg as being Evil and Satanic. The people who killed Nick Berg describe Americans as Evil and Satanic. Both sides feel that God is on their side and will send the opposition to Hell for their crimes. Both sides try to paint the other as being less-than-human animals worthy of nothing but being put out of their misery.
This is why I felt despair after watching the horrific video of Nick Berg’s death. Unlike so many others I didn’t see Evil Personified in the people who killed Nick anymore than I saw it in Timothy McVeigh. It doesn’t take a supernatural evil for people to act like this. All it takes is a cause and a willingness to give in to the Us vs. Them mentality and that’s a hell of a lot scarier than the thought of Old Scratch at work. Look throughout history and it becomes clear that all manner of atrocities can be traced to this one way of thinking about other people. Us = Good versus Them = Evil. The real problem is that there are so many societies in the world today where this sort of extremist thinking is condoned and encouraged and so many individuals out there who would have it no other way. In the past before mass communication and global travel this was less of an issue as the damage these people could cause was limited to themselves and their neighbors, but this hasn’t been the case for a very long time now. Western society, while far from perfect, is ahead of the game compared to many other societies in this regard which is why it’s so damaging when we fuck up on things like Abu Ghraib. How can we convince these other societies that rising above tribalism and the Us vs. Them mentality is to everyone’s benefit when things like Abu Ghraib show that we’re just as capable of using that line of thinking to justify our actions as the societies we’re trying to elevate? On top of that it doesn’t help when our leaders use Us vs. Them rhetoric constantly when rattling their sabers.
Tribalism is ingrained in human nature for better or for worse and that’s not in itself a bad thing, but unless we can manage to keep it from going to extremes in ourselves and help others to do the same then I see no end to all the bloody and horrific conflicts or the brutal deaths of folks like Nick Berg.