Another great piece by Sam Harris on religious fanatacism.
A young man enters a public place—a school, a shopping mall, an airport—carrying a small arsenal. He begins killing people at random. He has no demands, and no one is spared. Eventually, the police arrive, and after an excruciating delay as they marshal their forces, the young man is brought down.
This has happened many times, and it will happen again. After each of these crimes, we lose our innocence—but then innocence magically returns. In the aftermath of horror, grief, and disbelief, we seem to learn nothing of value. Indeed, many of us remain committed to denying the one thing of value that is there to be learned.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, a journalist asked me, “Why is it always angry young men who do these terrible things?” She then sought to connect the behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers with that of Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza. Like many people, she believed that similar actions must have similar causes.
But there are many sources of human evil. And if we want to protect ourselves and our societies, we must understand this. To that end we should differentiate at least four types of violent actor.
1. Those who are suffering from some form of mental illness that causes them to think and act irrationally. Given access to guns or explosives, these people may harm others for reasons that wouldn’t make a bit of sense even if they could be articulated. We may never hear Jared Loughner and James Holmes give accounts of their crimes, and we do not know what drove Adam Lanza to shoot his mother in the face and then slaughter dozens of children. But these mass murderers appear to be perfect examples of this first type. Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter, is yet another. What provoked him? He repeatedly complained that he was being bombarded with “ultra low frequency” electromagnetic waves. Apparently, he thought that killing people at random would offer some relief. It seems there is little to understand about the experiences of these men or about their beliefs, except as symptoms of underlying mental illness.
2. Prototypically evil psychopaths who feel no empathy for others and may even derive sadistic pleasure from making the innocent suffer. These people are not delusional. They are malignantly selfish, ruthless, and prone to violence. Our maximum-security prisons are full of such men. Given half a chance and half a reason, psychopaths will harm others—because that is what psychopaths do.
It is worth observing that these first two types trouble us for reasons that have nothing to do with culture, ideology, or any other social variable. Of course, it matters if a psychotic or a psychopath happens to be the head of a nation, or otherwise has power and influence. That is what is so abhorrent about North Korea: The child king is mad, or simply evil, and he’s building a nuclear arsenal while millions starve. But even here, very little is to be learned about what we—the billions of relatively normal human beings struggling to maintain open societies—are doing wrong. We didn’t create Jared Loughner (apart from making it too easy for him to get a gun), and we didn’t create Kim Jong-il (apart from making it too easy for him to get nuclear bombs). Given access to powerful weapons, such people will pose a threat no matter how rational, tolerant, or circumspect we become.
3. Normal men and women who cause immense harm while believing that they are doing the right thing—or while neglecting to notice the consequences of their actions. These people are not insane, and they’re not necessarily bad; they are just part of a system in which the negative consequences of ordinary selfishness and fear can become horribly magnified. Think of a soldier fighting in a war that may be ill conceived, or even unjust, but who has no rational alternative but to defend himself and his friends. Think of a boy growing up in the inner city who joins a gang for protection, only to perpetuate the very cycle of violence that makes gang membership a necessity. Or think of a CEO whose short-term interests motivate him to put innocent lives, the environment, or the economy itself in peril. Most of these people aren’t monsters. However, they can easily create suffering for others that only a monster would bring about by design. This is the true “banality of evil”—whatever Hannah Arendt actually meant by that phrase—but it is worth remembering that not all evil is banal.
4. Those who are moved by ideology to waste their lives in extraordinary ways while doing intolerable harm to others in the process. Some of these belief systems are merely political, or otherwise secular, in that their aim is to bring about specific changes in this world. But the worst of these doctrines are religious—whether or not they are attached to a mainstream religion—in that they are informed by ideas about otherworldly rewards and punishments, prophecies, magic, and so forth, which are especially conducive to fanaticism and self-sacrifice.
Take a moment to consider the actions of the Taliban gunman who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. How is it that this man came to board a school bus with the intention of murdering a 15-year-old girl? Absent ideology, this could have only been the work of a psychotic or a psychopath. Given the requisite beliefs, however, an entire culture will support such evil. Malala is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. She is an extraordinarily brave and eloquent girl who is doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do—stand up to the misogyny of traditional Islam. No doubt the assassin who tried to kill her believed that he was doing God’s work. He was probably a perfectly normal man—perhaps even a father himself—and that is what is so disturbing. In response to Malala’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, a Taliban spokesman had this to say:
Malala Yousafzai targeted and criticized Islam. She was against Islam and we tried to kill her, and if we get a chance again we will definitely try to kill her, and we will feel proud killing her.