Butterflies, and constructing terror narratives
by Rob Tiller
On Saturday morning I ran 5 miles, up Hillsborough Street and back. It was humid. I went slower than usual, and struggled to finish. That afternoon I went out to Cary for my monthly haircut with Ann, and we talked about our families and cars. Then I drove west to Jordan Lake. I stopped at Horton Pond and took some pictures of a spicebush swallowtail (above). (The other butterflies here were taken this week at Raulston Arboretum.) Afterwards, I put Clara in sport mode and had a lively drive on the winding country roads.
It’s so interesting how intensely we insist on fitting disasters into familiar narratives. After the horrible Bastille Day truck massacre in Nice this week, leading politicians immediately dubbed the act “terrorist,” despite knowing nothing of the driver’s motivations. Now, three days later, there is still no evidence that the driver had any particular ideology, and there’s some evidence that he was just a sad, mentally disturbed, violent loner. Yet the press, including the NY Times, continues to characterize the mayhem as “terrorism” and to raise the alarm on the need to escalate the war on it.
Narratives are our way of making sense of the world. We create meaning by imposing a cause-and-effect ordering on events. But our compulsive drive for understandable narratives can also cause us to see things that aren’t there. When acts of deranged individuals or small, not-very-powerful groups are attributed to a single powerful force of evil, our fear level rises. Strong emotions make us less capable of careful analysis, more susceptible to demagogues, and more liable to overreact and do harm to others and ourselves.
This is, in fact, what the real terrorists, like Osama bin Laden, hope: that we’ll react to their crimes by killing innocent people, whose relatives will swear vengeance on us and join the radical cause. Al Qaeda had remarkable success in provoking us this way. Our endless war in the Middle East allowed them to extend their influence and spawned even more bloody-minded imitators.
In the face of a heinous mass killing, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by grief and fear, and hard not to grab at a handy possible explanation. But more times than not, we can’t really know all the causes of such crimes, and sometimes we can’t pin down any of them. As much as we like stories, we need to accept that some things don’t fit into our familiar narratives. Fear narratives may feel satisfying, but by not exaggerating fear and avoiding overreacting, we are less likely to cause harm, and ultimately safer.