Renee Garfinkel

20 Years After Oklahoma City…What do We Understand?

The Oklahoma City bombing was the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil until 9/11. At first, the perpetrators were judged to be simply evil individuals, lethal losers with Right-wingnut delusions. Only much later did we come to understand this mass murder as an act that fit the paradigm of violence sanctioned by a group with an ideology – like so much global mass murder today.

The precursors of group violence have been discovered through the work of people like Ervin Staub, the premier researcher in this area, whose professional life has been dedicated to understanding the origins of evil, to preventing it, and to helping with reconciliation and recovery from its results ( (link is external)). His dedication was born out of personal trauma: Dr. Staub is a Holocaust survivor. He is intimately, as well as intellectually, acquainted with violence on a massive scale.

The ideology from which mass violence grows is typically one that begins with an emphasis on how the group has been harmed and victimized (that becomes the umbrella justification for their violence). The group is tight and encompassing; its members turn to the group for the source of their identity. The group respects authority within its ranks, rejects pluralism, and strongly discourages independent thinking and dissent. The ideology devalues – and scapegoats – an “out” group.

Groups with these characteristics and ideologies generally move toward violence gradually. First, hate speech is tolerated – the out-group can be mocked, stereotyped, devalued, taunted, treated with contempt and threatened …with impunity. Verbal abuse occurs in social settings, and in mass media, with no objection. Harm-doing may incrementally increase – one might begin to see more vandalism and more personal attacks. If the group with a malignant ideology is a state, laws may be passed that limit the out-group, isolate it, ostracize it, or even imprisons its members. Ultimately the out-group is driven out or killed.

As I write this, ISIS, with half its army comprised of foreign soldiers (per today’s NY Times), is blazing a bloody path through the Middle East. It fits the paradigm. Its out-groups are Christians and other “infidels,” including other Muslims. ISIS is just one of several extremist Muslim groups operating today (Al Qaeda and its offshoots, Hezbollah, Hamas, and others) whose expressed goal is ethnic and religious cleansing of territory they control – and elsewhere, as well. The size of that territory continues to increase, and the death toll mounts.

What can we do? Dr. Staub’s work emphasizes the role of bystanders in either enabling or preventing/stopping the road to violence. We know that in the playground or at the office, a bystander’s objection to bullying and harassment can be very effective. In the international community, bystander nations’ decisions to be active or passive are similarly powerful. We must not stand by in the face of evil.

When Al Shabaab separated Christians from Muslim students in Kenya earlier this month, to single them out for slaughter, there should have been worldwide response.

There wasn’t.

Yesterday, in the midst of international negotiations about sanctions relief and nuclear development, Iran televised its Army Day parade. The parade featured a massive banner reading “Death to Israel,” and a crowd that shouted “Death to America, Death to Israel!” over and over again. There should have been a loud and unanimous worldwide response.

There wasn’t.

The actions of bystander nations make a real difference in the progress of evil. Bystander nations’ passivity enables those with lethal intentions. Bystander nations’ passivity is toxic: it encourages terrorist groups, and nation- states with terrorist ideologies to feel confirmed in the rightness of their cause. Passivity changes the bystanders themseves, too – their inaction confirms their distance from the victims and their suffering: “What’s it got to do with us?”, they ask. We’ve got problems of our own right here.”

This is too important an issue to leave to politicians alone. Let’s talk about it together on the air. Meet me here:

Tuesday evenings 6-8 PM Eastern Time
SiriusXM radio channel 126, The Urban View
The Armstrong Williams Show, followed by Renee on Tuesday

About the Author
Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D. is a psychologist, television commentator and podcast host of the Van Leer Series on Ideas with Renee Garfinkel
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