The danger of symbols
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.