The danger of symbols

By Peter Baumann
September 9, 2011

By Peter Baumann and Michael W. Taft
The opinions expressed are their own.

Ten years ago this Sunday, 19 madmen used commercial airliners as guided missiles to perpetrate what became the most influential act of terrorism in world history, generating mass fear, confusion, sorrow and rage on a scale that will not be forgotten. With the passing of a decade the reality of the attack—the smoke and the flames, the blood and the destruction—have receded into memory. Now the September 11th attack has become a concept, a symbol of the apex of terrorism in the new millennium.

Human beings evolved the capacity to generate symbolic thought over millions of years, a feat which allows us to predict and plan for potential threats and opportunities. For example, we put money in a 401k knowing that many years in the future we will have this money to live on. This aptitude is one ability that has made the human species uniquely successful among life on earth, as no other animal is capable of such complex future planning,

There is a downside, though, to this human capability: how we evaluate potential outcomes. If we are hunting for food and see a caribou, we get excited. Our emotional system signals us that an opportunity is present and it’s time to go after it. If, on the other hand, we see a bear, we become afraid, because our emotions are signaling it’s time to escape. This emotional evaluation system is probably similar in all animals, but the difference in humans is that we use this response pattern to judge imaginary scenarios as well.

We imagine various anticipated outcomes and choose the one that our emotions tell us is most desirable. The trouble is that some of these mental creations are completely fictitious. For example, have you ever laid awake at night worried sick about something that, later, never ended up happening? The emotions are just as real, the discomfort just as unpleasant, and yet the object of the emotions is only in our minds. Because complex planning works extremely well and has brought us tremendous success as a species, evolution moves us forward regardless of our biological weakness in responding emotionally to imaginary things. It’s an unfortunate side effect of natural selection—and yet it was a prime cause of the 9/11 attacks.

Like other human beings, the terrorists had a hard time distinguishing between real and imaginary threats when strong emotions were present. Bin Laden was greatly offended that the United States had troops stationed on Saudi soil. That some of those troops were Christian defiled the Holy Land of Islam and that some were women was an affront to Saudi manhood. The reality of American troops creating a physical barrier against the threat of an Iraqi invasion into Saudi homeland mattered far less than the imagined insult and desecration of cultural and religious icons.

Mohammed Atta, the leader of the hijackers and the man who flew the first plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center that bright September morning, was an architect by trade. Atta had written his master’s thesis on how skyscrapers symbolize the oppression and dominance of the godless West over the virtues of Islam. Thus in his act of ultimate terrorism, he demolished a symbol in order to vanquish a threat that was entirely conceptual, killing thousands of real, flesh-and-blood humans in the process.

Bin Laden and Atta are extreme examples of human beings exhibiting the brain’s evolutionary wrinkle of responding emotionally to an imagined threat. Such is the force of our imaginations that we will kill over symbols. Let us take this 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks to remember how dangerous such mental projections of the imagination can be.

Peter Baumann (pictured at right) and Michael W. Taft (pictured above) are the authors of the new book, EGO—The Fall of the Twin Towers and the Rise of an Enlightened Humanity.

 

12 comments

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The 9/11 attacks were among the most successful attacks in all of history. They were intended to harm America and instead succeeded in destroying it by activating our own domestic authoritarians and giving them the excuse they desired to destroy what remained of the freedoms our ancestors sought and fought for over 200 years ago.

Now we live in a garden variety authoritarian State that, like all such beasts, pretends to be “democratic” and to be acting for the benefit of the “Nation”. Checkpoints, Secret Police, surveillance, indefinite detention without charge or trial, blatant self-serving falsehoods common as dirt and a “free” press that remarkably all have the same opinions, support the same ruling class, and works for them too.

Yes, a very successful attack.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

It may be a little rash to characterize the 911 attackers as “madman”. Delusional maybe but so were many who are employed by states in what they claimed was legitimate warship.

Got to agree with txgadlfy in that for years I’ve been wondering who OBL really worked for. He was almost to convenient to be true. There are a lot of reasons why the US would want to get up close and personal in the ME and he didn’t have to be actively recruited or hired but just followed and allowed to strut his stuff.

No matter what one thinks, there are always doubts and trying to find a “saner” understanding (like what are the real issues in two wars and continued involvement in any of the region’s countries) of the last decade is largely a matter of personal conscience, aesthetic choice and the relative merits of either side. It could be argued that few or any of the ME countries don’t meet western definitions of democracy and liberal society. Does it mean that to agree to arguments supporting the take down of one regime might by extension mean the take down of all?

A lot of people in the ME may be wondering what the future has in store for them regardless of whether they think the west brings “spiritual pollution” as OBL seemed to think. Why does Israel need a “Jewish” state at such extraordinary costs to themselves, the US, and the UN? They have a sizable and influential population that believes in the issues of spiritual and even ritual pollution. OBL didn’t come from another planet. He was a religious conservative in a region of religious conservatives.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Atta and OBL were not delusional at all. Their anger at the US was logical and sane. Since the early 1900s the Mideast has been split up into fictional kingdoms and emirates to serve the oil needs of the US, Britain and France. While these western democracies provided their own population with increasing freedoms and standards of living, these oil exporting countries were cocooned in a middle ages nightmare of repression and religious orthodoxy.

The rise of Wahabite Islam in Saudi Arabia was supported by the west to confront the “socialist’ threat of the USSR. Any kind of democratic movement (Iran) was quickly destroyed by the west in order to maintain dominance over oil exports. OPEC was initially a threat, but soon the despots of these countries feared their own grass roots democratic movements more than their anger at Israel.

No one in the US would say it, but clearly the US blind support of Israel’s expansion into the West Bank and suppression of Palestinian rights led to the attacks of 9/11.

The scary thing today is “what has changed”? If anything, the rise of popular insurrection in the Mideast today (Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, etc.) is as much a direct challenge to 60 years of western foreign policy as it is to any reigning despot.

OBL and Atta knew exactly what they were doing and accomplished it: weaken Western power in the Mideast.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

The premises of this purportedly ‘scientific’ analysis of the causes of the 9/11 attacks are totally erroneous, but that is the past and there is nothing to be gained more by debating the point,considering that the lessons proffered by a slew of very insightful and very well-documented research projects on the subject (starting, notably, with the book by titled “Unholy Wars”, followed by numerous current-affairs analyses by Chris Hedges, Ray MacGovern, Jim Lobe and countless others) go unheeded. Let us look to the future. There is an illegal NATO-led military push for regime change in Libya that is on-going, and that evidences the same disconnect, on the part of NATO commanders and strategists between real and imaginary threats that the authors decry. It has been acknowledged (notably by the vociferous and viscerally combative John Bolton in his latest BBC HARD TALK interview with Stephen Sackur) that that NATO-led regime-change offensive in Libya is an embarrassment to NATO, not least because it empowers religiously-dogmatised extremists within the TNC. Unfortunately, America’s neo-conservatives and their allies have not learnt their lesson. What’s more, a report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahranoth asserts that, in retaliation for Turkey’s expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ankara over the inaction about the Israeli attacks gainst the Turkish aid flotiall a few months ago, the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, envisages arming the Terrosit group PKK — the Kurdistan People’s Army – to punish Turkey. Further, Lieberman envisages giving logistical and financial support to Armenian groups in the US that are agitating for US condemnation of post-WW I violence against Armenian victims of Turkish/Armenian inter-ethnic clashes to be declared a genocide. If NATO encounters difficulty in distancing itself from the Libyan TNC-embedded extremists and Lieberman carries through his envisaged retaliatory moves against Turkey, additional conflagrations will flare up. And these will exacerbate tensions worldwide, to the inevitable disadvantage of an already militarily overstretched and financially bankrupt West. Let nobody then say that the neutral observers did not issue a warning in good time.

Posted by MohamedMalleck | Report as abusive

The symbol of the all potent American flag as a symbol of freedom is worse now than previous to 911. It strikes distrust mass fear, confusion and rage in many nations touched by American foreign policy.

Even friendly countries like Canada were deeply offended and less ready to help when dictated “You are with us or against us”, if you do not join this unilateral war with Iraq”. Memories last a generation.

Previous to 911 American psyche was naive and short-sighted with how actions outside of the USA can affect us and how our internal view was always perceived as right – since we could not see past our borders.

Cave dwellers like Osama and Atta have years of experience with psychology, external awareness and quiet time to do strategy with few distractions. If they were indeed the main planners for 911 – they were brilliant military tacticians attacking symbolism and brick and mortar with extremely limited resources. Their one day strike still is being felt and costing us a decade later.

Their act was sick and inhumane, however very effective.

If we have studied their motives and strategies – it appears we have not learned anything about how to limit our future risk by proactive foreign policy or counter fundamentalist threats at a psychological level.

If anything – our internal views and actions have reduced our strengths and is proving their low cost warfare and recruitment based on our inability to adapt is winning.

Foreign policy has not changed. 911 has fast become a symbol of wasted old school country destroying wars, massive debt, loss of freedom (here and worldwide) and an omen to wall street ethics falling into dust.

I have no answers hear, other than trying to point out the enactment of 911 was not from foreign forces working on an imaginary threat within a wrinkled brain (as this article states). Imaginary or not – it is real and not being fought effectively.

Very few media articles (this one included) are able to talk candidly about 911 in a public forum.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

The premises of this purportedly ‘scientific’ analysis of the causes of the 9/11 attacks are totally erroneous, but that is the past and there is nothing to be gained more by debating the point,considering that the lessons proffered by a slew of very insightful and very well-documented research projects on the subject (starting, notably, with the 1999 book by John K. Cooley titled “Unholy Wars”, followed by numerous current-affairs analyses by Chris Hedges, Ray MacGovern, Jim Lobe and countless others) go unheeded.(In 2002, John K. Cooley published information that Jordanian intelligence had warned the American government “that a major attack was planned inside the continental United States. It said aircraft would be used. . . The code name of the operation was mentioned: in Arabic, Al Ourush al-Kabir, ‘The Big Wedding’”. ) But, let us look to the future. There is an illegal NATO-led military push for regime change in Libya that is on-going, and that evidences the same disconnect, on the part of NATO commanders and strategists between real and imaginary threats that the authors decry. It has been acknowledged (notably by the vociferous and viscerally combative John Bolton in his latest BBC HARD TALK interview with Stephen Sackur) that that NATO-led regime-change offensive in Libya is an embarrassment to NATO, not least because it empowers religiously-dogmatised extremists within the TNC. Unfortunately, America’s neo-conservatives and their allies have not learnt their lesson. What’s more, a report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahranoth asserts that, in retaliation for Turkey’s expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ankara over the inaction about the Israeli attacks gainst the Turkish aid flotiall a few months ago, the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, envisages arming the Terrosit group PKK — the Kurdistan People’s Army – to punish Turkey. Further, Lieberman envisages giving logistical and financial support to Armenian groups in the US that are agitating for US condemnation of post-WW I violence against Armenian victims of Turkish/Armenian inter-ethnic clashes to be declared a genocide. If NATO encounters difficulty in distancing itself from the Libyan TNC-embedded extremists and Lieberman carries through his envisaged retaliatory moves against Turkey, additional conflagrations will flare up. And these will exacerbate tensions worldwide, to the inevitable disadvantage of an already militarily overstretched and financially bankrupt West. Let nobody then say that the neutral observers did not issue a warning in good time.

Posted by MohamedMalleck | Report as abusive

All the comments here (5 so far) have been remarkably thought provoking and welcome. Thank you all for your contribution.

Posted by mahadragon | Report as abusive

Suppose liquid explosives that detonate in the stomach after an hour, undetectable by current bomb detection technologies, allow terrorists to do exactly what security advises them: “Please finish your water, sir, as water or food is not allowed passed this annex’s security checkpoint.” So he gulps it down and it sits inert in his stomach until an hour later, it reacts violently with stomach acid… at 30,000 feet.

Obviously a different kind of tech is needed, a social tech. Isn’t it ironic that when you pass a security checkpoint in a Federal building, as a case in point, you give up certain “rights” and the only way to retain those rights is to not enter. If airports are declared as Federally secured areas, then doesn’t it stand to reason those entering — like those entering the most secure Federal buildings — should require special clearance? Don’t like hearing this? Then why not drive or take a train… isn’t that far better than getting blown to kingdom come at 30,000 feet?

I’m all for Constitutional rights, but I’m all for living. How does one reconcile the two when baggage could literally be manufactured out of plastics with explosive properties — perhaps so explosive they could blow a gaping hole in an aircraft — that are indistinguishable by conventional detectors as inert harmless plastic itself?

Posted by DisgustedReader | Report as abusive

I am surprised that such intelligent discourse exists on this topic in the US.

Posted by diffperspective | Report as abusive

“The trouble is that some of these mental creations are completely fictitious. For example, have you ever laid awake at night worried sick about something that, later, never ended up happening? The emotions are just as real, the discomfort just as unpleasant, and yet the object of the emotions is only in our minds.”

So what happens when that fear is actually real?

This article is a little off the mark, and a bit contradictory. “Imagined fear” doesn’t make sense, because if you’re feeling that emotion, then it’s not really imagined is it? And what makes something a concrete fear vs. an “imagined one”? One person’s fears don’t always translate into another’s, not even “acceptable” fears like death. Fear is subjective to the individual and group, or at the very least prioritized differently. Is a monk who lights their body on fire “rational”? Shouldn’t they be scared to die like your average person?

What I think this article highlights, more than 9/11, is the consistency in which opinion pieces that use an evolutionary argument miss the point. We’ve evolved: we all don’t have the same animal fears that these papers keep generalizing us with, we don’t have the same goals, tastes, what not. We have people who don’t care about dying at all, who don’t see your fears as rational just as you don’t see theirs as rational, who live differently from the “people just want sex/survive” mantra we keep getting plastered with. Trying to use an example of “mmm, caribou, tasty” to understand the human of today is like trying to dissect a Model T to understand a hybrid car.

People have changed. We’ve evolved, even if most people seem like they haven’t, so please start factoring evolution into evolution.

Why did 9/11 really happen? Because some people were gorged on the idea of their way of life being superior to all others. Their very real fear was having to tolerate others and have their entire lives be proven wrong, and that fear was much greater than the fear of dying in an airplane.

The issue is not about “imagined” fear. The issue is about a group of people who never grew up inside.

Posted by ahms | Report as abusive

I think the attackers understood symbols very well……world trade center, pentagon…..and what they mean to us.

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive

the writer exhibits stark misreading of reality and like many others, seems entrenched in this macho, cowboy, let’s kick their butt, mentality.

When are we going to read reality as reality, not as sound bites to makes us feel good (presumable)?

Those who attacked us did not do it just because they were evil, hate our democracy, or hate America. They are evil for the mere fact that killing thousands, indiscriminately, of innocent people. But let’s also look inward. We went to them, to their land, to their homes, we kicked their doors, killed their husbands, orphaned their kids and plundered their oil, and for whose benefits? Not for the American walking in the street, but for the likes of Halliburton, Northrp Grumman, Booz Allen, and GE. Yet again, they own all the newspapers, the broadcasting, and our Congress.

Posted by TrulyAmerican | Report as abusive