One factor motivating Islamic radicals is a deep sense of grievance. A feeling that Muslims are victims of injustice, disrespected, a grievance crying out for expression and expiation. Humans have a pre-installed injustice detector (mine is set on “high”). These are powerful feelings.
We traveled as usual to my wife’s family for the holiday. My daughter flew in from Jordan. On Christmas eve I got left at the hotel, waiting for my wife to fetch me around 2 PM. Well, two came, then three, and four, and the next one. I could have called her but somehow got it in my head that she should call me. So instead I chose to wait and nurture a grievance, feeling disrespected. This grew to prodigious proportions by the time she arrived at 5:20.
Turned out she’d had a very rough day, chauffeuring people through terrible traffic. Oh, and by the way – the previous day had been her mother’s funeral. But none of that trumped my sense of grievance. I expected my wife to fall on her knees in contrition. When instead she pointed out what I should have done, my umbrage multiplied.
I think of myself as cool, rational, reasonable. And while I fumed, I did carefully analyze whether my intense feelings were truly justified. Yup, they were, I concluded.
But my truculence was making my beloved wife very upset, and finally, remorse for that overcame my sense of grievance, fortunately before it could ruin Christmas. And once the boil was thusly lanced, in the cold light of reason I could see how unreasonable and petty I had been. Indeed, I was kind of shocked at how such a demon of fierce feeling had seized control of my brain. While in its grip, no mitigating factor mattered.
It made me think of Muslims and Palestinians and the sense of grievance. And of the late Edward Said, whose all-encompassing “blame the West” perspective on the Middle East remains influential. I could grasp in a new, personal way just how powerful such emotions can be – how impervious to reason – and to any other considerations, least of all consideration for the other side. Without dismissing Muslim and Palestinian grievances, there is indeed a lot to be said on the other side; and the grievance mindset can betray one’s own best interests. But when that demon gets hold of you – as it did me, briefly at least – it won’t listen to reason. This is how you get suicide bombers.
Well, my wife likes to chide my supposed belief in rationality, and this episode certainly scored one for her. But of course I don’t believe humans are always rational. Rather, it’s that we are capable of rationality (as I was, in the end). And (go ahead, cynics, have fun scoffing) I believe we are getting better at being rational — and thusly making a better world.