Understanding Places like Iraq and Syria: Crowds, Belonging and Victory over Death

June 30, 2015

5 min read

Louis Rene Beres

To make genuine sense of world politics, it is first necessary to look behind the news. Only once this particular responsibility has been identified can observers and policymakers finally progress beyond narrowly second-order narratives of transient names and places. It follows that wherever this core responsibility has already been declined, humankind will remain unable to implement alternatives to growing global violence and chaos.

Ironically, the relevant forms of improved understanding are unhidden. For millennia, as anyone can already figure out, the lead engines of human destructiveness have been war and genocide. Reciprocally, these egregious collective crimes (in law, we usually label them “aggression” and “crimes against humanity”) have stemmed from starkly individual human needs and imperfections. In essence, therefore, while generally inconspicuous in world politics, the personal and the political have always been more-or-less intersecting and interdependent.

This form of understanding is absolutely vital to planet-wide reforms. Always, world politics is epiphenomenal. Always, it is merely a reflection of what is happening “underneath.”

As a timely example, the escalating sectarian violence continuously unfolding in Iraq, Syria and certain other places is not the root cause of regional chaos. Rather, it is a result of something else. It is the outcome or expression of much more primal and individual human needs. Among these needs, none is ever more harshly compelling than the historically unwavering desire to belong.

Sometimes, art can elucidate world politics. Pablo Picasso once reminded us that art is a lie that lets us see the truth. In this connection, Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s “Man Pointing” may offer an illuminating representation of human isolation and alienation, one that could lead to a better understanding of genocide, war and terrorism.

Normally, Giacometti hints, each individual feels empty and insignificant apart from membership in the crowd. Sometimes, this sustaining crowd is the state. Sometimes it is the tribe. Sometimes, as with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Hezbollah or Muslim Brotherhood, it is the faith (always, of course, the “one true faith”). And sometimes it is the “resistance movement,” as in the plausibly similar cases of Hamas or Fatah.

Whatever the particular aggrandizing group of the moment, it is a persistent craving for membership that ultimately threatens to subvert individual moral responsibility. Significantly, the relentlessly lethal consequence of such craving, as humankind has been witnessing from time immemorial, is a convulsive and sometimes even orgasmic triumph of collective will. The most easily recognized 20th-century case of any such presumed supremacy is Nazi Germany.

The most recent and ongoing cases of uncontrolled group murderousness are Iraq and Syria, in the fevered grip of ISIS.

Nonetheless, the United States and its assorted allies still seek safety and remediation at the limited levels of diplomacy and power politics. Inevitably, this search, so long as it remains confined to these expressly superficial realms, will fail. For the outcome to be any different, the search would first have to probe for more viable solutions at the irreducibly base level of individual human beings.

Art is a lie that may permit us to see the truth. Reading Giacometti’s emaciated figure between the lines, an insightfully pragmatic conclusion may present itself. It is that unless we humans can finally learn how to temper our overwhelming and nearly ubiquitous desire to belong at all costs, our military and political schemes to remedy genocide, war and terrorism will fall apart. Without augmentation by far more basic sorts of human transformations, these time-dishonored strategies for national security, collective security (United Nations) or collective defense (alliances) will remain largely beside the point.

To finally succeed in its indispensable planetary search for peace and justice, humankind would benefit from major national leaderships that are authentically learned. In this connection, however improbable, getting our own American political leaders to read real books would represent a good start. Significantly, such an optimistic expectation is not entirely fanciful. To wit, Ralph Waldo Emerson had once exhorted capable governance by “high-thinking” (and “plain living”) American leaders. Earlier, Thomas Jefferson, even without a computer, managed to read and understand Hugo Grotius, Emer de Vattel, Samuel von Pufendorf and John Locke — together, the cumulative intellectual mainsprings of his Declaration of Independence.

What might we reasonably expect today, in the state capitals, and, above all, in our national capital? To be sure, charitably, there are presently fewer than a half dozen senators or state officials who are even remotely familiar with this fact about the origins of the Declaration of Independence, let alone with the pertinent writings.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche longed openly for a world “beyond Good and Evil.” Sigmund Freud, who had preferred the term “primal horde” to Nietzsche’s “herd,” sought to identify a world in which this longed-for transcendence might actually have applied. Unsurprisingly, his discovery turned out to be his own lived-in world, one where Eros was still unable to play a world-unifying role, and, instead, only reinforced baneful or “narcissistic” identifications with the damaging mass.

The evening news about Iraq, Syria and ISIS is really about “disease” manifestations; it is not about any deeply underlying pathologies. Nonetheless, our most pressing dangers of genocide, war and terrorism continue to stem from the organized or unwitting combining of susceptible individuals into various mass-centered herds. Not every human herd need be insidious or destructive; yet, correspondingly, crimes against humanity can never take place in the absence of herds.

Whenever individuals join together and form a herd, certain latently destructive dynamics of mob psychology may be released. This dreadful fusion lowers each single person’s ethical and intellectual level to a point where mass killing may become acceptable. In the case of such rabidly barbarous groups as ISIS, murderous behavior is not merely agreeable. Here, rather, it is utterly ecstatic or lascivious.

On the surface, ongoing brutalities in Iraq, Syria and other area places represent fragmenting struggles between warring herds. In turn, these herds are themselves the product of certain critically underlying individual needs to belong. Arguably, in turn, these needs are themselves related to the most primary human search of all — that is, the search for immortality.

Everywhere in the world, but especially in the chaotic Middle East, there is no more revered or respected form of power than victory over death. For many of our current jihadist adversaries, war, terrorism and even a hoped-for capacity to unleash genocides are really an expression of religious sacrifice. As such, choreographed spasms of violence are intended to catapult Islamist fighters far above the insufferably mortal limits of a profane chronology. Above all, as indicated in their sacred writings, violence against infidels and unbelievers is the best way to escape the “terrors of the grave.”

What if ISIS and related death cults could begin to reject such catastrophic calculations?

Current events in Iraq, Syria and so many other places must remain only symptoms. But, as a start to more enduring solutions, Giacometti’s “Man Pointing” may be taken as an imaginative signpost of what is most genuinely determinative in spawning war, terrorism and genocide. Inevitably, such potentially remediating action must involve a conscious and thoroughgoing detachment of individual human meanings from membership in herds.

In the end, to make meaningful sense of current world politics, it will first be necessary to look behind the news.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Hill

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