Murder, martyrdom and the fear of enemies among us

An individual whom I have known for many years came to see me last week in my practice, where I offer services as a clinical psychologist. As long as I have known her, she has remained truly open minded and holds democratic values and convictions in which she strongly believes.  This remains true even though she has experienced much adversity in life, including the loss of her fiancé in the World Trade Center catastrophe on September 11, 2001.

A few months ago, her seventy-five year old father was killed by a reckless driver who had multiple previous arrests. The driver was also black. My patient has been struggling with a depressive mood since her father’s tragic death and many of her post traumatic symptoms from after the attack on the World Trade Center have re-surfaced. She is once again afraid of going into New York City for work. She is uncomfortable on the subway, experiencing anxiety, anticipating a terrorist attack in these very crowded places. She is also scared while driving, watching the cars around her with dread, hoping none of them will drive into hers, causing her to meet the same fate as her father.

Most of all, my patient is disturbed by certain emotions and thoughts that she has begun to experience, specifically a fear of Muslims and black people. She has never felt such emotions before, as they are profoundly foreign to who she is and in sharp contradiction to the values she endorses. Clearly, this fear is fueled by the traumatic personal losses that she suffered. But it is still disquieting to her.

Interestingly, I have recently begun hearing many other Americans expressing similar feelings, individuals who had not sustained personal injuries like my client. Until recently, these individuals viewed themselves as open-minded, immigrant-friendly and egalitarian. Now, they shamefully confide in the safe confines of the therapy room that they are finding themselves feeling fear of certain fellow Americans, whom they never feared before.

They know that it is totally unfair, and they wish they could disown these feelings, but they don’t know what to do with their concerns about the enemies who hide in plain sight among us.

The Twin Towers were brought down by men who learned how to fly a plane while attending an American pilots school. A regular student at a local university became the Boston Marathon Bomber. There are reports that American and European students are joining ISIS. Nowadays, terrorists are often individuals who grew up, or were even born and raised, in America or Europe.

These murderous “others” are indistinguishable from peaceful Muslim fellow citizens. So, how can one tell the difference between friend and foe? How do we fight the unintentional biases that these new realities, these new fears, give rise to?

Fear has a survival value and the fear-response is deeply ingrained in the brain. The human brain has evolved to be immediately and automatically capable of detecting any sign of danger in order to escape that threat and survive. The ability to rapidly detect danger was particularly important in human adaptation due to the relative disadvantage in physical traits that bigger, stronger and faster predators possess. Humans also evolved in adaptation to their social environment.

The human brain is, as neurobiologist Cozolino (2014) puts it, “a social organ,” highly attuned not only to physical dangers but also to social dangers and to cues that might indicate their presence. The automatic scanning and categorization of the social environment to ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ members is a process based on the perception of the stranger as dissimilar and different from those who are like oneself. Social discrimination is a quick method of highlighting the difference between those who are perceived as related to us and those who might represent a potential enemy.

But what does the human brain do when threatened by a new kind of danger that is perpetrated by some of those perceived as members of one’s own group? How does the brain grapple with its task of detecting such potential “hidden” enemies, who may look like friends, who may, in fact, have been friends? A recent tweet showed an ISIS flag displayed on a smartphone in front of the White House, and underneath: “#AmessagefromISIStoUS We are in your state We are in your Cities We are in your streets You are our goals anywhere.”

How will these new realities change the perceptions and the values of well intentioned, egalitarian individuals and groups towards neighbors, co-workers and professionals of particular ethnic and religious affiliation?

One of the most honest, courageous treatments of the issue of terror committed by westernized, highly educated, assimilated recruits against the society in which they live was offered by the movie “The Attack” (2013), from Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri. Filmed in Israel, the movie addresses one of the most tragic issues of our times, that of the human cost of terrorism, while touching upon some exceedingly difficult issues of life on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film does so in an intelligent, understated, and penetrating way. It would seem inconceivable that such candid treatment of the subject would be possible for anyone who lives within that reality, because some of the points it illuminates are outrageously, uncomfortably “too close to home” for any insider.

Yet, such honesty is hard to own even for relative outsiders. The movie was rejected by the Lebanese government, so it could not be sent as a potential candidate for the Foreign Film category at the Oscars. Having won accolades and awards at prestigious film festivals in Telluride, Toronto, San Sebastian and Marrakesh, the film had a high chance of being nominated, but in order to submit a movie to the Oscars, it must be sent in as an official selection from its country of origin.

Perhaps the rejection was related to the very qualities that make it such a good movie, namely its nuanced, truthful, brave look at some of the very real questions that the reality of terror raises for intelligent, well educated, good people who are caught in intractable conflicts.

To the viewer, the cinematography almost seems to lack the polished camera angles, the swift pace, the dramatic facial mannerisms and voice intonations of a commercial movie. It has the less-perfected quality of real life, where events of enormous significance take place not necessarily in the full focus of the camera, and are not staged in the most compelling photographic composition to maximize their effect. To an Israeli viewer, it seems like real life, like it could have been reality TV. The issues, however, are poignantly relevant to Americans and others grappling with the new reality in which terror is a possibility, and terrorists might be the neighbors next door.

The lead character in the film is the Israeli-Palestinian Dr. Amin Jaafari, an award-winning, assimilated trauma surgeon who lives in Tel Aviv and works in an Israeli hospital. Dr. Jaafari is married to the lovely Siham, and the sophisticated, modern, secular couple seems deeply in love and enjoying life together. All that changes after a devastating terrorist suicide attack at a restaurant that leaves 17 people dead, including 11 children who were celebrating a birthday party, and 8 others maimed. Some of the casualties are brought to the hospital where Dr. Jaafari works. One of the wounded frantically refuses to be treated by Dr. Jaafari, and demands a non-Palestinian doctor.

Siham is found among the dead at the restaurant, her injuries indicating that she was most likely the bomber. The real genuine friendship between Dr. Jaafari and his Israeli colleagues is portrayed in its many shades, as both authentic and also challenged by the revelation that his wife was the terrorist who carried out the murderous attack. The interrogation of Dr. Jaafari by the Israeli intelligence, while remaining constrained and avoiding extremes, is still disturbingly abusive and powerfully communicates the completely altered sense of his place in the society in which, until then, he was an equal and esteemed member. Before the attack, Dr. Jaafari was a highly respected surgeon who saved lives. Following the attack, he is treated as the potential killer of children and innocent civilians.

When finally released from jail, initially still shocked and refusing to believe that his wife was the suicide terrorist, Jaafari receives full confirmation in the form a letter from his wife mailed to him after her death from the Palestinian city of Nablus. Jaafari is determined to discover what led to his wife’s immersion in something that she had kept completely secret from him, for which she chose to give up her happy and loving life with him.

Jaafari travels to Nablus, not very far from Tel Aviv but across the border, in the Palestinian Authority. At the crossing points between the Palestinian territories and Israel, the mutual fear and violence of some young Israeli soldiers at the border, and a few Palestinian men of about the same age, is portrayed in several brief images and a short exchange that go by as if on the periphery of the story, perhaps as they had been thus far on the periphery of Dr. Jaafari’s life in Tel-Aviv.

In Nablus, Jaafari embarks on a difficult search for answers.  In the process, he comes face to face with the painful other side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it is lived by Arab Palestinians in what used to be called the occupied territories and is now the Palestinian Authority. In his encounter with his Palestinian relatives on the other side of the “green line,” those who do not have Israeli citizenship, and with members of the terrorist cell of which his wife had became a member, Jaafari comes to see the dire reality of their existence.  What had seemed an unequivocally unacceptable murder to the humane, assimilated surgeon is seen through the prism of another political agenda and ideology as martyrdom.

The conflicting views are juxtaposed as irresolvable in the words of the Christian priest that was Siham’s mentor, who tell Jaafari that the two of them will always see it differently.  The priest tells Jaafari to leave, that there is nothing more for him in Nablus, that he does not belong there. However, upon returning to Tel Aviv, Dr. Jaafari no longer belongs there in the same way he did before. Although he now has information about the terrorists in the cell his wife belonged to, he refuses to turn on them, thereby drawing a profoundly different demarcation between himself and his Israeli friends, as well as expressing his internal ambivalence and conflicted selves.

The movie does not shy away from portraying many difficult facets of the issues it touches upon. Jaafari’s assimilation and humanitarian attitudes, his horror at the suicide attack, much like that of his Israeli friends, are confronted with feelings of desperatation for the fighting to end, as expressed by his relatives and by Siham’s terrorist mentor.  What Jaafari had previously seen as his wife having been manipulated into suicide and murder, his terrible personal loss, is gradually perceived from another perspective as he apprehends the conviction of his wife and her sacrifice, and as he is trapped in an irresolvable conflict between the two worlds in which he lives.

About the Author
Dr. Irit Felsen, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist, and an adjunct professor at Yeshiva University's Ferkauf School of Psychology.