The Devil You Know is Always Better–Except That He Is Not

Rational Americans are surprised that no one sees the danger of underestimating domestic right-wing terrorism by the general public. In this recent article, CNN rightly documents why this is so illogical and dangerous, why domestic terrorism is a far more significant threat. Yet no one is locking down major cities like Boston when such domestic terrorist events occur.

The answer to why Americans are like this is as simple as it is dangerous. We are always felled by the Devil we know, because he is one of us, and we are taught from childhood to trust ‘us’ and fear ‘them’. Depending on who has raised you, the categories of ‘them’ and ‘us’ will change. But everyone, as a normal part of human maturation, has an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, a safe world and a world that is unknown and possibly dangerous. But most domestic violence, most murder, will be by someone you know, as most terrorism is by someone who is likely to look like you. It is impossible to live with this knowledge and feel safe every day. So we do what we did as babies and then as children, and which our parents helped us to do: divide the world into the safe space that you know and the dangerous space that you do not. 

What is happening is that our natural protections against danger are fooling us. We are looking for a way to function normally and safely every day, but it makes us fear the outside world too much, and not have enough healthy criticism of our own people, our own community, our own religion, our own country. 

There are two simple antidotes to this problem: Reason and Empathy. Reason teaches us to look at facts and figures, more than emotional impressions of the world. Our eyes, emotions and cultural habits may move us to think that someone of a different color, race, or nationality is inherently more scary, but our brains can look at facts on violence and prove to us otherwise. Reason is not about just a good education. You can get the highest degrees and still not have your prejudices challenged. It is about a certain kind of knowledge and use of reason that can be taught if we as a society choose to. Secondly, empathy, through books, films, social media, and communications, expands vastly our sense of humanity, and of what it is realistic to fear, and what is fantasy, where the true dangers are, and where the true opportunities for safety are. We are simply smarter about danger when we know and come to understand a much greater diversity of people and places on this planet. 

© Marc Gopin