Free will and mass terror

Summary: Totalitarian and terrorist movements make a direct, explicit attack on the idea of free will.  Read how intimately connected the 9/11 Twin Towers attack and the issue of free will are, even moreso than you might think.

The previous post identified the kinds of mental patterns at the root of destructive and criminal behavior.  First, the mind is de-focused, so that the context of the consequences of an act is blurred or obliterated.  Next, various thought patterns are employed to justify and sanction the behavior, further shielding the actor from the nature and consequences of the action.  The actor even thinks of himself as a good person: He engages in acts that simulate moral goodness based on a substitute standard that he adopts to help him pretend that he is not the monster he is.  Once the mind is reduced to a state of fog by all of these means, and only when that state is induced, repetition of the criminal acts becomes tolerable to the felon.

In keeping with the theme of these posts, all of these mental patterns are chosen.  If a person has a normal brain, he has the capacity to focus his mind, to choose to see the nature of his actions, or not.  Piling on mental defenses and substitutes for self-esteem is chosen as a means of, first, avoiding effort, and second, blocking the pain that would result from awareness of his true character and the nature of his actions.  This person’s actions are both explainable and chosen, in the sense that the defenses help explain the lack of awareness, yet fundamentally the defenses themselves are chosen.

Despite all these mechanisms, the choice to adopt awareness, to focus one’s mind, to repudiate and change past thinking patterns and past actions, is always possible.

There are actions, however, that are so morally repugnant, and require planning over such a long time with a sustained effort, that there are repeated reminders to the actor of the nature of his actions, reminders that threaten to break through all the defenses so far discussed. One such action of this type is mass murder and/or mass terror, characteristic of totalitarian movements such as communism, fascism and Islamic fundamentalism. In these cases, further mechanisms are adopted to help the actor in his effort to block awareness of reality, lest he see what he is doing and recoil from the sight.

What are those further mechanisms?

Terror requires first and foremost a moral sanction of mass murder.  Each of these movements has an enemy, and grudges, that it claims justify the movement’s actions (similar to the criminal described in the last post, but on a much wider scale).  They derive the sanction for their horrific actions from fully developed ideological systems.  Such ideologies do not always originate with these movements.  They may derive from the writings of an “ivory tower” philosopher of previous decades or centuries, whose thoughts are only now being translated into their logical conclusions.  Hegel, with his argument for the primacy of the State, led to both communism and Nazism. Nietzsche’s emphasis on the Superman and the remaking of the human race also contributed to both movements.

A very powerful and necessary adjunct to a moral sanction is an explicit rejection of free will.  These movements tell their storm troopers:  You are both justified in engaging in murder and you cannot do otherwise.  Each of these movements actually makes a concerted attack on the idea of free will.  Communism has as part of its ideological foundation Hegel’s historical necessity, by means of which history unfolds in a predetermined pattern and requires (in the Communist’s view) the deterioration of capitalism and its development into its opposite.  Fascism has various flavors, but the Nationalist variety practiced by Hitler, Mussolini and other Nationalists requires the unfolding of a historical plan or “destiny” to justify the plunder and expansion by conquest.  Islamic fundamentalism takes literally and fully seriously those (many) passages in the Koran that speak of Allah as all-powerful, and history as evolving according to His plan for Islam to conquer the earth.

Few people realize it, but the issue of free will was of fundamental importance in the lead-up to the 9/11 Twin Towers attack.  The worst terrorist attack of the fundamentalist Islamic variety (communism has done much worse), 9/11 involved a group of four terrorists who were managed by their leader, Mohamed Atta. The personal effects of Atta contained what the FBI called a “spiritual manual,” a numbered instruction sheet in which he exhorts the other terrorists to stick to their purpose and not let the difficulties or any moral repugnance deter them.  This document, full of quotes from the Koran and references to past battles in the history of Islam, contained these words under the section titled “Last Night”:

(#9): “…remember that you will return to God and remember that anything that happens to you could never be avoided, and what did not happen to you could never have happened to you.”

(#14) after suggesting some practical steps to succeed in their plan, says “[…although God decrees what will work and what won’t] and the rest is left to God, the best One to depend on.”

These instructions, given to followers who were presumed to be committed Islamists, testify to the fact that the planners of the carnage were themselves worried that those who implemented it might change their minds at the last minute, either aborting the mission or compromising it with weakness and lack of resolve.  The propagandizing in Islamic fundamentalism had been progressing for these men all their lives, and certainly in recent times before the attack.  Yet they were still subject to choice.  And the planners, knowing that, needed extra tools to continue the “instruction,” and to further sustain the acolytes in continuing their out-of-focus submission to the plan.

Although the most dramatic example, 9/11 is not unique.  Suicide bombers have testified when their plots were foiled that they believed they were already dead – even before the act.

It was explained earlier that choice is axiomatic.  Even in the act of denying it, free will is confirmed to be true.  The example of the 9/11 attackers illustrates a further aspect of this point:  The choice is not a one-time event but continuous.  Each and every moment, a person has the choice to assert mental control, process data rationally, think – or to refuse to do so.  Danger lurks around every corner for those who choose the foggy state of mind, with an unyielding reality ever-present and threatening to break through the fog, stopping the deliberately unaware individual in his tracks.  Continuing evasions are needed at each moment.

The philosophic systems that reject choice, and build into their ideologies justifications for doing so, are merely using weapons to trap the mentally passive, giving such individuals excuses for further evasion.  Such evaders, when confronted with the order to imprison, torture and murder enemies, carry out the instructions without conscious qualms.  That is why those philosophical ideas are so dangerous.  The systems can’t make terrorists perform their acts but they provide terrorists with ready rationalizations for choosing to do so.

Comments are closed.