(Second in a series; first part here.)

The brain’s alarm circuits are clustered in an almond-shaped neural structure called the amygdala, known colloquially as the "lizard brain." When it receives warning that a threat may be present, it sends a chemical fight-or-flight signal.

The prefrontal cortex, source of higher cognitive functions, assesses whether the threat signals (which are frequent, as the amygdala operates on a bit of a hair-trigger) are worthy of attention. It acts as a check; it has to, or complex thought would be impossible. We’d always be fighting or flighting.

This simplifies things quite a bit, obviously. But it’s no mere metaphor to say that fear (flight) and anger (fight) are pre-rational — or if you prefer, arational. They are the deepest and most fundamental dispositions, what we share with every creature, amoeba and up. We humans flatter ourselves about our intellectual powers, but in the end we are animals, and hormonal danger signals can quite easily overwhelm all rational thought. Fear and anger are prior; reasons, justifications, and evidence are posterior.

There is great political benefit in being able to reach and stimulate the lizard brain directly — to bypass, short-circuit, or just overwhelm the prefontal cortex. People in the throes of fear/anger seek safety and reassurance, and will follow anyone who offers them. That’s why every authoritarian movement in history has begun with the deliberate stoking of fear: of enemies Out There, plotting to destroy us, and enemies In Here, sympathizing with our foes and undermining our efforts to fight them. (For a pristine example, see yesterday’s Michael Barone piece on “Our Covert Enemies.” Or listen to George W. Bush: “It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America. … We’ve taken a lot of measures to protect the American people. But obviously we still aren’t completely safe.” Translation: You have much to fear, but I will protect you.)

Back in the day, it was simple: you distracted people from your misrule by stoking their fear of some other nation; you raised an army, and you marched over to crush said nation. You crushed or got crushed. Violent, but simple.

But with the rise of easy, cheap transportation and communication, modernity has seen the slow emergence of a new phenomenon, a mirror image to authoritarianism: terrorism.

The crushees now have a new strategy available, what has come to be known as fourth generation warfare (4GW to the hip). Though weaker in numbers and military might, small, non-hierarchical groups can fight back against much larger foes by, in essence, skipping most of the fighting part of war and focusing instead directly on the fear part. They can use targeted violence (which appears random to the victims) and fast global communication to deliberately stoke fear in enemy populations. They don’t need to win, conventionally speaking. They just need to not lose — to keep the random violence coming.

In this way, authoritarians and terrorists are perfect compliments. They give each other power, like so:

  • Terrorist acts stoke civilian rage;
  • enraged civilians demand strong leaders to protect them (read: increase police powers) and take violent revenge;
  • violent revenge inevitably involves “collateral damage,” i.e., harm to innocents;
  • harmed innocents (or their family or friends) vow revenge and become terrorists.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

This vicious, self-reinforcing cycle of fear and reprisal between states and non-state groups is the central feature of geopolitics in the 21st century. (See: Iraq, Chechnya, Lebanon) It is pushing us toward a world of increased authoritarianism and more frequent terrorism alike.

How, in this milieu — in the grip of fear/anger, lead by people who rely on our fear/anger to retain power — can we hope to address long-term, slow-moving, accumulative, imperceptible environmental problems?

More on that next post.

(PS: Listen to Ze Frank on terrorism (warning: explicit language). He states all this much more succinctly than I do.)