A recent essay – Scott Shane’s “From Minneapolis to ISIS : An American Path to Jihad” (New York Times, 3/22/2015) – poses a picture of ISIS recruiting young Americans. It is alarming to realize that young Americans, brought up on western, democratic values, could be susceptible to the allure of ISIS Jihadist extremism. To be sure the number of persons recruited so far, is quite small. Still, the mystery remains: Why is the ISIS vision appealing at all to modern Americans (and, I might add, to many Westerners beyond America)?
My research on the appeal of cults suggests some answers: Four features emerged. (1) Individuals can be seduced by an offer of “Ultimates” — of fundamental values and objectives for one’s life presented clearly, forcefully and convincingly. Individuals might be seduced because of frustration or, even, boredom in their present life – where our values are often expressed and implemented unconvincingly and squandered in political shenanigans. (2) There is an offer – usually from a charismatic leader – of tangible access to the Ultimates . That access is available to you here and now, by your own actions that comply with the leader’s vision. (3) This can produce a sense of sublime achievement – convinced that one’s identity is now entwined with the Ultimate. (4) Yet alongside one’s access to the Ultimate comes an extraordinary vulnerability. For example, for a devout Muslim whose identity is vested in the Koran as the sacred symbol of the Ultimate, a shocking experience erupts when the Koran is desecrated. One’s very identity now seems to be under catastrophic assault.
I experienced something like this in my own life. It happened when I, a Jewish child, saw sacred Torah scrolls desecrated during the Nazi Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938. I felt that my entire life was in jeopardy when this most sacred symbol was desecrated. ( Being a child, such terms as “identity” were not yet in my vocabulary.) I could also cite American responses to desecration of the American flag. There, too, deeply-felt personal identities are believed to be under attack.
These insights might give us clues about the appeal of ISIS. There we are also encountering cult-like behavior, such as the embrace of Ultimates.
I have written about my findings in a short Kindle e-book: Fred Emil Katz, THE LURE AND BI-POLARITY OF THE ULTIMATE, and as chapters in two of my other books, CONFRONTING EVIL: TWO JOURNEYS, and OUR QUEST FOR EFFECTIVE LIVING.
George Santayana was a distinguished philosopher . He lived from 1863 to 1952. Born in Spain, educated at Harvard, on whose faculty he served until he left America to live in Europe for the last forty years of his life. He produced highly acclaimed philosophical and literary works. He is best known for pithy aphorisms, most especially for conferring a blessing on the past with the statement, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This last one is a virtual mantra one hears very frequently. I am particularly aware of it in relation to the Holocaust. We are reminded over and over again “Remember the Holocaust, so it won’t happen again”. This could come straight from the mouth of Santayana. It is the prevailing mantra to make us believe that Remembering that unparalleled horror will so shock people that they won’t ever repeat such horrors.
There is just one problem with this thesis: It does not work. It did not prevent more genocides from happening, by people who knew about the Holocaust. To be sure the latest genocides were not exact replicas of the Nazi Holocaust. But they were sufficiently similar to make one question the validity of the Santayana mantra. This reality deserves some serious thinking about the actual consequences of this mantra.
I. When survivors continually dwell on the Holocaust horrors, as they do when following the Santayana mantra, they are prevented from healing. Their wounds remain raw. They are vividly reminding themselves of the suffering they endured. They recall the violent death of loved ones — of their mothers and fathers, of their children. They re-live their own terror before, somehow, surviving. They re-experience deprivations beyond description. They know starvation. Recalling ultimate cruelties remain part of their here and now. Their sorrow is unconstrained, endless – fed by the very act of Remembering, of re-living, re-living, re-living. Healing is, at best, an unrealistic fantasy. At worst, it is something totally beyond one’s horizon. It is an irrelevance – to be denied because one fears the loss of attachment to those who did not survive.
II. The past sometimes becomes an incitement for repetition. We hear disgruntled people repeating Nazi slogans, yearnings to “finish the Nazi work” of exterminating Jews. Their interpretation of the Santayana mantra, applied to the Holocaust, is that the past is a model for achieving grandeur for the disadvantaged. It is a call-to-arms, where genocide is its favored, illusionary tactic. Their version of the beguiling past – with its choice of what to venerate – confers a blessing on the left-outs of the population, those who feel wrongly deprived, now seeking a path to glory. Yes, there is enchantment with the past. But it is highly selective of events within that past. It chooses the hateful because it is hateful. It honors those who are now filled with hatred, showing them a cause that nurtures that hatred. The Santayana mantra has become a curse.
Long-rejected values may actually persist in a dormant state, and be available for unexpected eruption.
I am thinking of racism in present-day-America and anti-Semitism in much of modern European history. Each of these is suddenly erupting after having been Unmentionable – as was open anti-Semitism in “modern, enlightened” Europe and as was open anti-black racism in post- slavery and post-Civil-Rights Movement America. Yet we are seeing eruptions of both of these right now. So it is time to ask an uncomfortable question about the state of some of our prevailing values, such as opposition to racism.
Not so long ago Americans assumed that crude racism that supported slavery of black people in America had surely been outlived, surpassed by accepting black people as simply being part of the American population mainstream. This received a very special expression with the election of the black president, Barack Obama. But we are now seeing anti-black racism expressed on college campuses and, I am inclined to think, in the fierce hatred of the black president by so large a section of the American political electorate. It would seem that what was believed to be outlawed by Civil Rights legislation succeeded largely in making crude, anti-black racism DORMANT rather than eliminated from the public culture repertoire of American values. It is evidently still available for activation.
I personally experienced the eruption of DORMANT anti-Semitic hatred after my birth in Germany. That country, with its very modern, sophisticated, highly educated population – where crude anti-Semitism had long been relegated to an Unmentionable past – saw the re-emergence of the most lethal, and publicly accepted form of anti-Semitism upon the arrival of Hitler and his Nazi regime. I could similarly mention the French case of eruptions of anti-Semitism – in the Dreyfuss Affair a hundred years ago and, right now, in present-day “modern” France. You get the picture.
The larger issue is this: We often assume that crude forms of currently Unmentionable dispositions and values — which violate much of what most of us stand for — may actually persist in DORMANT form long after they were believed to have been outlived, and surpassed by new standards of communal living. The unaddressed question is: How are such malignant dormancies perpetuated in the face of an enlightened public that seemed to have outgrown them long ago?
A note about DORMANCY in the life of the individual: In my book sub-titled “How we cope in Social Space” (*) I suggest that in our personal life we sometimes have to deal with things that are nasty and publicly Unmentionable. We tend to shunt these things into a silent Second Path – which avoids unpleasantness, but occasionally erupts in unexpected ways. This is a bit similar to Freud’s notions of the Unconscious and Subconscious. Freud saw the root of these in early childhood experiences. By contrast, I see the root in everyday life – where we quite often place Unmentionable things “in storage” in a Second Path that can have a life of its own – sometimes erupting in ugly ways.
(*) The full title of the book is: “Our quest for effective living: A window to a new science / How we cope in Social Space”.
The background: How could the Holocaust, with its grotesque character of mass murder happen in a country as “civilized” as modern Germany? Was it due to Germans being brought up to be obedient to authority – thanks to German authoritarian fathers, who set them up for it? Surely Americans, with their very different upbringing, would not be so prone to obedience. Stanley Milgram, a young psychologist, set out to test this hunch in what became known as a series of famous electric shock experiments in a laboratory at Yale University, starting in 1961.
To Milgram’s surprise his American participants in the experiment behaved just like the proverbial Germans – they obeyed orders when a person in authority demanded that they perform horrifying actions. Milgram believed this indicates that obedience-to-authority is not merely a matter of the German character but that, on the contrary, it is a distinctly human attribute – one we all share.
It occurs to me that Milgram failed to recognize a fundamental feature of his experiments. Yes, there was obedience-to-authority. But something else took place as well. In his experiment Milgram unwittingly, but in reality, created a Closed Moral World. It contained a specific set of values and rewards. These persuaded the participants that by their own actions they were making very important contributions to science, even if these actions were difficult for them. And they were doing so under the umbrella, and tacit approval, of a famous university. At the same time their outside morality, their moral upbringing, was emphatically excluded.
Perhaps the saddest outcome was that the participants accepted the new moral system, this “Closed Moral World”. Despite diverging from their own upbringing, they felt good about taking part in it.
I explore such “Closed Moral Worlds” — how they happen in the real world, not only in artificially contrived laboratory experiments – in my book, Fred Emil Katz, OUR QUEST FOR EFFECTIVE LIVING: A WINDOW TO A NEW SCIENCE / HOW WE COPE IN SOCIAL SPACE.
From Amazon: “CONFRONTING EVIL describes Fred Emil Katz’s two journeys in response to surviving the Holocaust. One journey is that of a survivor who tries to come to terms with his own survival, and who must cope with survival guilt as well as the sense of rootlessness that can go along with it (From Fred Emil Katz: What does my “sense of rootlessness” refer to? Here is an example — shown in my moving form place to place: I had moved 36 times, when I stopped counting my movings. I hate moving). The other journey is that of a behavioral scientist who, after years of psychological denial, develops new ways of understanding and addressing genocide and other acts of social evil.
In an attempt to respond constructively to some of the major horrors of the past one hundred years, Katz emphasizes the moral context under which we live, which he calls “The Local Moral Universe.” This Local Moral Universe can provide the umbrella for the most magnificently humane activities, yet it can also underwrite horrendously evil deeds. Therefore, it is crucial to understand how the Local Moral Universe comes about, how it exists as a distinct and identifiable entity, and the impact it has on human behavior. Only then can societies hope to prevent such horrors from happening in the future.”
The book also examines personal careers that defy the obvious:
—How an exceptionally sensitive and caring Christian physician — who secretly treated Jews in his medical practice when other Christian physicians shunned Jews — came to contribute very substantially to the Auschwitz concentration camp’s campaign of horror.
—How the head of the Auschwitz concentration camp could (and did) persuade himself that he is appalled by the cruelties at Auschwitz.
They teach us about journeys to evil.