The Paris Attack and the Power of Destructive Beliefs

Death by ideology

Posted Nov 14, 2015

On November 13, 2015 ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) terrorists mass murdered 130 people in the city of Paris, France, and wounded hundreds of others. This was an extension of a war started in Iraq and Syria. The war now came to France.

ISIS established its caliphate with guns and canon. ISIS had credibility as a terrorist operation with no compunction about committing crimes against humanity: beheading people, burning people alive, mass murders, killing children, rape, enslavement, homicidal bombings, forcing mass migrations, etc. 

Controlling people by controlling their beliefs appears to be a coequal weapon in the ISIS arsenal. ISIS leaders know that you can control large populations by controlling their beliefs. By causing people to feel terror, they cause many to feel powerless against atrocities. People who feel powerless are an easily dominated people. Converting to the ISIS brand of Islam, or migrating, is preferable to dying.

Since the early days of human civilization, rulers understood that you could do much to control people by controlling their beliefs. For example, the Babylonian King Hammurabi (1810 BC – 1750 BC) told his people that they must obey the 282 laws of the god Shamash. Otherwise, Hammurabi’s agents and the gods would punish violators. Many of the people feared their gods.  Hammurabi knew what he was doing to reduce violations. Egyptian Pharaohs called themselves gods to control their population. (Who wants to oppose a deity? Of course, not everyone at that time bought into this belief.)

Some beliefs trump survival instincts. Near the end of World War II, Japanese leaders sent pilots (The Kamikaze) on suicide missions to crash into US ships. They lined up people and asked for volunteers. A superior officer told those people on the line, that they would go to heaven on a divine wind. About 3600 volunteered and died. (Some became Kamikaze because they were more afraid of looking weak and disgracing themselves than they were of death. I'm confident that some acted as if they believed that they were in a powerless position.)

The Heaven’s Gate Cult is another example of how beliefs trump survival. Cult leader, Marshall Applewhite, brainwashed vulnerable people into believing that they were space aliens who could abandon their vehicles (bodies) and ascend into heaven by getting onboard a space ship that was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. Applewhite convinced his followers that the time to get to the spaceship was running out. To get to heaven, they needed to release their spirits and that meant abandoning their vessel by killing it. About thirty-nine people killed themselves, many with the help of Applewhite. (Most cult members appeared  driven by the same pressure toward conformity that some Kamikaze volunteers felt. Like the pilots, I'd be willing to bet that the majority of the Heaven's Gate cult members acted as if they believed they were in a powerless position.)

ISIS leaders convinced--and will continue to convince--some carefully groomed people to strap on bombs and murder others as they kill themselves and presumably head to heaven because of the blood on their hands.  However, no one has returned to validate this belief. (I suspect that many homicidal bombers are vulnerable and influenced by group pressures to conformity.)

Beliefs are powerful when it comes to convincing one group to kill members of another. ISIS depersonalizes and dehumanizes people by calling then infidels who must convert, pay tribute, or die. In this context, empathy for others quickly goes out the window. It is easy to justify killing disparaged and dehumanized people.

The Stanford Prison Study shows how ordinary people habituate to causing pain and suffering. Psychologist Phil Zimbardo used “ordinary” college students as volunteer guards and volunteer prisoners in his famous prison study. Zimbardo instructed the guards to control the prisoners by keeping them powerless. Within days, the guards became increasingly brutal to the point where they subjected the prisoners to dehumanizing abuse. The results were so destructive that Zimbardo terminated the experiment. ISIS operatives play the role of the “guards.” But there is currently no meaningful force to stop the experiment.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi understands this simple principle: By taking advantage of the power of belief, you can control large masses of people. Beliefs and terror are tools to this end.

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©  Dr. Bill Knaus  2015. All rights reserved.