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October 11-18, 2001

Stilling the ‘Romance’ of Violence

It was Tuesday, Sept. 11th, and I was waiting on the long check-out line at my Manhattan supermarket, when disagreement erupted over the number of virgins Muslim suicide terrorists are promised in the paradise they ascend to as martyrs. "As many as they want," I said. "Oh no, it's 12," said the woman in front of me. A man ventured, "I heard 36."

Whatever the correct number - if there is a correct number - the fact is that in addition to being applauded as heroes, part of the terrorists' compensation for killing innocent victims is the promise of an afterlife of impersonal sex with large numbers of virgins. They are guaranteed they will "score."

Does anyone doubt that the firefighters who rushed into the crumbling, burning twin towers to save lives (and the volunteers who risked their lives in hope of finding survivors) represent real heroism - built on extraordinary courage, empathy, and altruism? No sick "Spur Posse" style promises needed here.

The terrorists and the fire fighters have only one thing in common. They are practically all men. Boys and men exhibit fearlessness and crave excitement, adventure, and danger in far larger numbers than do girls and women. There is considerable evidence that this difference has a basis in biology, as does the greater upper body strength that makes men more adept at rescuing people.

(This in no way denies that some women are stronger, more fearless and adventure seeking than some men. The difference, however, is statistical and considerable.)

Since we are the only superpower, survival of life on earth may well depend upon the direction in which we Americans choose to channel this male energy. The firefighter and the terrorist represent its two most extreme versions. Will the horror of real death and destruction move us away from our traditional concept of masculinity which, while light years ahead of that of the terrorists, is still based on toughness, repression of empathy, and a romanticizing of violence?

Will the courage and daring of our firefighters make it clear that to be empathic and caring, to be able to put oneself in the other guy's shoes, does not make a man become a wimp? Will it keep us from a mindless macho political version of the behavior of the man in Mesa, Arizona, who apparently murdered a man for looking Middle Eastern?

When I interviewed former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1987 he spoke of "the necessity of looking at your actions through the eyes of your opponent - that is absolutely fundamental and we don't do that." If we had been capable of empathy, if we had had an awareness of how our acts influenced the Soviets, we would have realized that "much of what the Soviets have done [in the nuclear arms race] is reaction to what we've done."

As a condition of this interview, I had agreed to not mention Vietnam, so I was unable to ask if that disastrous war could have been avoided had he, and other political leaders, shown a greater capacity for empathy, and for putting themselves in the enemy's shoes before acting.

Now we are faced with a different, more complex, and dangerous situation.

If we retaliate in a traditional macho manner - eager to prove our toughness, without the empathic ability to think through the consequences in terms of the enemy's behavior -we could be making mistakes as dire as those made by previous administrations.

Those earlier administrations led us into a decade of futile and tragic war in Vietnam, and enraged Iranians by allowing the C.I.A. to play a role in the overthrow of their prime minister Mossadegh, and his replacement by the Shah. These actions eventually led to the U.S. hostage crisis, and takeover of Iran by U.S.-hating Muslim fundamentalists. Let's not forget that we lent our support to the fanatical extremist Taliban - including Osama Bin Laden - to force the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

If our main goal is to protect American lives, rather than show our macho muscle, our leaders must have the empathic ability to look at the world from the perspective of the perpetrators and their supporters - however skewed and horrendous it may seem to us. If we fail to do so, we may be inviting terrorist attacks even worse than those of September 11th.


Myriam Miedzian, Ph.D., a New York-based researcher, is the author of BOYS WILL BE BOYS: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence (Anchor Books.)

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