Why can’t we just live our lives? What is it about human beings – supposedly the top branches of the evolutionary tree – that makes us abandon those ‘normal’ things that most of us find enough – home, family, community, responsibility, personal satisfaction – in favour of creating mayhem, destruction and chaos?
Robert Ardrey – of whom I am a great fan, despite his ideas being comprehensively pooh-poohed by the erudite – suggests in his book The Territorial Imperative that man’s three basic needs are for identity, security and stimulation: the need to know who we are and where we belong, to have the security to go about our lives, and enough happening to stop us getting bored. This makes absolute sense to me.
At a personal level, a lot of things can get in the way of attaining the first two: conditioning, injustice, inequality, chance, circumstance… And social history is littered with examples of individuals exacting revenge for individual wrongs, real or perceived. But none of that leads to global chaos: to a plan to snatch a random bystander off the streets of Sydney, wrap them in your flag of choice, behead them on camera and post the footage online.
The obvious answer is ‘ideology’, but the way I see it, this isn’t enough. Most of us have ideologies of one sort or another, and if we feel fiercely enough about them, we’re likely to ram them down the throats of those we consider misguided. But we don’t kill for ideologies alone. The Irish Troubles, for example, were the product of poverty, injustice and inequality, as much as religious conflict. Which brings me back to Ardrey’s third basic need: stimulation.
The Western World certainly reeks of all sorts of unsavoury things that we should be thoroughly ashamed of, but on the whole, those most affected by them are too busy surviving to create chaos in the name of an idea. Look at it this way: the Crusades in the Middle Ages, undertaken in the name of religion, were organised and led by lords and knights – those well supplied with the good things of Mediaeval life, looking around for something to do. It’s also interesting to note that while the riots in the UK a few years ago were triggered by perceived injustice, the looters targeted shops selling not food, but entertainment – TVs, sound systems etc.
So while I in no way underestimate the supreme importance of ideology – or the blind stupidity of Western greed that has trampled its uncaring hobnail boot across Eastern culture – I do have to wonder what makes it so easy to persuade young men and women to abandon the ‘normal’ instincts of mutual care and personal safety, and undertake acts that violate both so spectacularly. Or is it really very simple: they have nothing better to do.
I mean, it’s not as if Osama bin Laden had to earn a living, is it.