Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On Aggression--Thinking About the Psychology of Terrorists

While aggressiveness may serve a useful function for lions and other predatory creatures, in the human population it serves a distinctly counterproductive function.  If you are chasing down a gazelle or scaring away a larger animal hell bent on eating you, being the most outrageously aggressive works wonders--it may even save your life or the lives of your family members.

Living in the 21st century, a time in which we buy our food processed in well lit and clean supermarkets and need only run to catch the next elevator, things have greatly changed.  While early humans lived in small clans with peer groups little larger than 30 to 50 individuals, inter-tribal aggression was a real concern.  Suspicion, paranoia, and stereotyping served a valuable function--it kept you alive.  But now we live in a hyper connected digital age in which the global has been made local.  We live in cities with dense populations of diverse groups.  Aggression in these settings--such as the acts of horrific terrorism we saw in Boston this week--only highlight the point that aggression now threatens our survival as a species.  Indeed, where once humans could only inflict relatively small injuries using rocks and spears, we now have the capacity using nuclear weapons to literally make the planet uninhabitable for all but a few million cockroaches who may indeed inherit the earth.  

As a lawyer, I work in an adversarial role.  The legal system is essentially the use of the civil system to avoid self-help measures by individuals to resolve their differences without resorting to violence.  That is why it is called "civil" procedure.  Unfortunately, however, I run across many individuals who fail to understand this basic premise.  While they aren't advocating violence, they foolishly believe that only through the most extreme, rude, vile, and unpleasant tactics, they can win their case.  In their minds, a lawyer who yells the loudest is the most effective.  If you aren't abusing the other side, then you aren't "aggressive" enough.  

The problem here is that aggression in the legal system almost always backfires.  Judges are not morons.  Yelling and screaming doesn't persuade them.  When opposing counsel swears at me, screams, or acts abusively, it NEVER works.  Instead of working toward a resolution, such behavior inevitably leads to the matter being dragged out longer and the parties paying more money.  I am totally unmoved by Rambo litigators.  Other lawyers I know are the same way.  As lawyers, we weren't born yesterday.  We have been around the block a few times and know how the system works.  Bullying only serves to make things more unpleasant for everyone.  When I have clients who demand such behavior, I refuse to engage in such behavior.  If you are looking for a paid asshole that is going to run up your bill by being difficult, you can look elsewhere.

Much of this has to do with the nature of legal problems themselves.  Some people have constant legal troubles because they themselves are too aggressive. When interacting with their loved ones or with business associates, their aggressive behavior leads to legal problems.  Instead of recognizing this antisocial behavior and remedying it, they then believe that their lawyer should use the same tactics to help them resolve their problems.  In this sense, such people lack the social intelligence to realize that the source of their problems oftentimes is their aggressive behavior.  If they were able to put themselves in the place of others and imagine what they must be thinking, they would already be on their way to acting in a manner that might resolve their problems.  

Lack of such social intelligence is also rampant amongst the terrorist types.  Throughout history, radicals have believed that if they commit some shocking act of violence, people will change their minds about the current political or social system and change will result.  Such radicals often believe that governments may change the behaviors they don't like if some shocking act of violence is committed.  Yet history has proven them wrong.  Most of the time, it actually causes the governments to behave in even more repressive ways, ways that the radicals were originally trying to eliminate.  If Osama bin Laden thought pre-911 was bad, the Bush doctrine, the Patriot Act, and the Obama administrations are much, much worse.  Jihadists in Egypt believed that by killing President Sadat that the people would have been inspired to rise up and overthrow their secular leaders and impose a fundamentalist type government.  The opposite actually happened.  

Of course, that is why some people become terrorists.  They are usually frustrated social outcasts who have a warped sense of reality.  They are excessively paranoid, tribal, and unwilling to engage in civil society.  They are our modern day predators. 

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