Like schoolyard bullies, terrorists are cowards

The best way to hijack a person’s capacity for broad thinking, connection to others, creativity — all of our magnificent qualities — is to place that person in a state of fear. In this mode we shut down and run our survival circuitry; we’re relegated to fleeing, fighting or freezing. We are no longer our whole selves. Our energy for life is usurped, and we are easily controlled.

This is how the Islamic State pursues both victims and recruits. But it’s not terrorism; it’s cowardism. It’s the way of bullies controlled by their own fear, which fuels their aggression and desire to create fear in others.

Perpetual fear encourages identification with the aggressor, a subconscious survival tactic in which peaceful people adopt qualities of the perpetrator and more people start to look like “enemies.”

Omar Mateen — the man who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, then killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando — apparently believed the Islamic State’ propaganda to a point where he possibly feared even himself. Reports are coming out now that he may have been gay, like those he shot.

How about we change the language? What if we heard “cowardism” 20 times a day instead of “terrorism”? I don’t profess to know enough about those who do these kinds of things, but I do know we are all human beings, and as such, we are infinitely more similar than dissimilar. All of us were pristine infants who at one time relied purely on our innate capacity for connection, curiosity and fearlessness to make it in this world.

How about we talk of cowards’ basic desires for connection and how they lash out from their own place of fear? Wouldn’t it shed a different light on things if we used terminology like “misguided and scared”? For starters, I wonder how appealing it would be to join a group known for cowardice. It certainly might dissuade those looking to fight. Gang membership occurs because of wanting to belong, to feel safe; leaders prey upon these desires for connection and meaning in a twisted way, promising inclusion and purpose while actually abusing their own for personal gain.

None of this is brave. It is symptomatic of an immature, self-serving psyche.

Might talk of cowardice also reveal a wider array of solutions? In “Blueprint for a Revolution,” Srdja Popovic explains we must be on the offense rather than defense, and the offense should be rooted in “greater good.” According to Wharton School professor and writer Adam Grant, “research demonstrates when we’re angry at others, we aim for retaliation or revenge. But when we’re angry for others, we seek out justice and a better way.”

Ironically, our constant attention to “terrorism” chips away at the personal freedom we are trying to protect.

I’m not the first to suggest new terminology. Recently in The Huffington Post, Fabian Markl renamed terrorism “Egoic Extremism,” providing insight into the root cause of what makes people do these things: unrequited egos. The ego blames, judges and becomes hostile when defending itself against hurt.

These are the central components of cowardice; a failure of character wherein fear and excessive self-concern override doing what is good and helpful to others or oneself in the face of a challenge. Cowards lack the courage to directly face difficulties.

In this light, we no longer fear the “terrorists.” We pity them.


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