Tribes and Crazy People

(This post contains material from a reply to another by Anson Burlingame in which he questioned whether Timothy McVeigh was “crazy” to have committed his heinous act in Oklahoma City.)

My dictionary says that “crazy” means either mental illness, or extreme foolishness or irrationality.  I agree then that “crazy” does not fit McVeigh.  A comparison with Nathan Hale is valid because both men were willing to give their life for a cause and remained convinced of the validity of their beliefs to the bitter end.  How then to explain McVeigh’s heinous behavior?

I believe the core reason for this kind of behavior is loyalty to one’s tribe.  I use the term “tribe” on purpose because I believe that is the history of our species, but the term could just as usefully be “platoon”, fraternity, team, political party, crew, militia, nation, or religion.

You (Anson) know as well as I that the effectiveness of a fighting unit depends on qualities of mutual support, loyalty and commitment among its members.  We naval persons would call it unit cohesion.  It is these qualities that carry the unit effectively through combat.  And, an important point, I do not think that such cohesion requires deep or abstract thought, although such is not precluded and is surely an essential element of select behavior like Nathan Hale’s or Jim Stockdale’s (under torture).  As we both know, rigorous training and shared hardships alone can accomplish cohesion (tribal identity).

I would suggest that all tribes, as defined above, are similar in their behavior in that they are naturally disposed to treat non-tribal members in an adversarial manner, or with suspicion, or at least with skepticism.  How powerful are tribal instincts?   Allow me to suggest some examples.

  • Nathan Hale behavior (for his country)
  • Suicide bombers
  • Kamikaze pilots
  • NFL and soccer fans
  • Soldiers who fall on grenades to protect their comrades
  • Fraternity brothers
  • Tea party members
  • PAC’s
  • Timothy McVeigh behavior (for his militia)

I agree with some social scientists who believe that religion represents one of the most powerful kinds of tribal behavior.   In researching this I came across an interesting concept called “memetics”, which is the study of “memes” (units of cultural ideas, symbols or practices which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, etc.).  There seems to be some validity to it.  Said in other words, concepts or themes are powerful and form the basis for tribes and loyalties.

So, what does all this mean in the context of McVeigh?  What is amazing to me is not what Timothy McVeigh did out of misguided loyalty to his militia tribe, but that in America we have a nation that stands among the forefront of very few that respect diversity and tolerate differences among its citizens.  Because of our Constitutional charter for tolerance, America has the image and the capacity to be the Anti-Tribe, swimming against the tide of human history.  For more than a century, immigrants have believed that, often with good cause and to lasting effect, as they sailed in past Lady Liberty. Tribes below the national level have the potential to weaken our national unity.

We would do well to apply this concept to our strategy in the Afghan War as well as well because their tribe is too different from ours.    I just saw an item on the evening national news about how at least one million Afghans, including many government officials and a great many children are heroin addicts.  It is hubris to think we can ever hope to convert such a country into a working republic like ours.  For more on this, please reference my post entitled, “Is Afghanistan the Next VietNam?”

The present divide in Congress is tribal and of great concern to me, as is the increasing tendency to unify the nation’s religious identity.  I wish the Congress had not introduced the phrase “under God” to the Pledge or put a reference to God on our money.  Those things best belong to private worship where, I believe, our founding fathers really intended them to stay.

Editorial addition, 4/26/2010.  The TV program 60 Minutes on CBS (4/25/2010) carried an item pertinent here.  It concerned a young Pakistani man raised in a secular family and British society. He became a Muslim radical as a teenager and later reverted to a Western viewpoint, thus giving him a unique view of both sides. He now makes it his occupation to give speeches at seminars trying to convince young Pakistani’s that the West is not the Great Satan. He said it is common among his audiences to believe in “The Narrative” which holds that 9/11 was a CIA plot to provide justification for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan! To me this is a good example of Tribal thinking. Either you embrace what the rest of your Tribe thinks, or you are OUT.

Also pertinent I think is Pat Buchanan’s ranting regarding the Arizona immigration law, posted by Duane. That amounts to racism and is the most destructive kind of rhetoric and appeals to Tribalism at it worst, in my opinion.

I also thought of an example of America’s apparent success as the Anti-Tribe.  It details the usually-successful efforts of Muslims and Jews living and working in Brooklyn.  Here is the link:

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Ethics / Morality, Federal Government, Foreign Policy / War, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.