Mental Health Matters: Beware those who solve problems by demonizing others
December 17, 2015
In my July 26 column, I wrote about Donald Trump. It said, in part, that while some call Mr. Trump a "blowhard, blathering buffoon, a grandstanding small-minded showman of little substance," others "love winners with out-sized wealth and mesmerizing self absorption … and see a tough tactician, willing to make the hard decisions."
I ended by noting that The Donald, "Is speaking to the average American in a language they understand and relate to, undermining the so-called serious politicians."
That was then, the opening volleys in the amusing spectacle of the American Presidential Race. Now, after the tragic murder of 14 innocents in San Bernardino, the American world has turned darker. Anxiety, fear and loathing stalk the land, prime real estate for dangerous demagogues.
Trump's trumpeting to close the borders to the entire Muslim world has drawn the ire of virtually every politician, Republican and Democrat alike — it's "unconstitutional, it sends the wrong message, it's racist, it's just what ISIS wants," and much more.
Now, its more about us as a people than it is about Trump. A whirlwind of condemnation abounds about Trump's remarks, yes, but not from most of his supporters, some 10-20 percent or so of the population with a potentially outsize influence on selecting the Republican candidate for President.
How did we get to this? First, 9/11. Then the "War on Terror," and the dismantling of Iraq. Details aside, the Middle East, where most of the world's Muslims reside, is now threatened by rising sectarian violence and a great and murderous unraveling.
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Before, but particularly after San Bernardino, Americans have become anxious, fearful, enraged and maybe a little paranoid about the Muslim World in general and our own security in particular.
If all Muslims are potential terrorists, as Trump suggests, there are some 1.6 billion potential terrorists out there, some born in America, most not. We can't possibly keep all of them out of America, "neutralize" or "contain" all of them, so maybe we need to look at this situation through a different lens.
Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist, and America's preeminent psychohistorian, wrote in 2003 that, "The apocalyptic imagination has sparked a new kind of violence. There is … an apocalyptic face-off between Islamist forces, overtly visionary in their willingness to kill and die for their religion, and American forces claiming to be restrained and reasonable, but no less visionary in their projection of a cleansing war making and military power."
Lifton says, "Both sides are energized by visions of intense idealism; both see themselves as on a mission of combating evil in order to redeem and renew the world; and both are ready to release untold levels of violence to achieve their purpose."
Lifton reasons that, try as we might, history cannot be controlled; we can never be invulnerable. Great nations, when they believe otherwise, risk overreacting to minor injury. Two radicalized Muslims kill 14 people in San Bernardino — so America perceives an existential threat.
Call it the "Goliath Syndrome." When you believe you are the biggest, the baddest, the toughest, the one "indispensable nation," you are enraged, you feel embarrassed and humiliated over pinpricks. You overreact. You escalate.
That's precisely what the United States risks doing now. Thank you, Mr. Trump.
Rebecca Solnit, a marvelously gifted and luminous writer, in her book, The Faraway Nearby, speaking in an altogether different voice, looks inward to make the same point.
Says Solnit, "Not to know yourself is dangerous, to that self and to others. Those who destroy, who cause great suffering, kill off some portion of themselves first, or hide from the knowledge of their own acts and from their own emotion, and their internal landscape fills with partitions, caves, minefields, blank spots, pit traps and more."
She adds, "You see the not-knowing in wars in which the reality of death, the warm, messy, excruciating dismemberment of bodies, the blood and the screams, and the unbearable bereavement of survivors, is abstracted into collateral damage or statistics or overlooked altogether, or in which the enemy is categorized as nonhuman."
In the end, both Lifton and Solnit provide a similar warning: Beware those who would solve problems by demonizing others. Yes, there are bad people out there, and we should recognize and undermine them and their destructive ideology — but labeling an entire people as potential terrorists will provoke the very violence we seek to avoid.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.