Segal: The fanaticism trap |

Segal: The fanaticism trap


In the aftermath of the manhunt in Boston that yielded two bombing suspects, questions about their motivation dominate the public conversation: Why would they do something like this? The answer seems to start somehow with a radical Islamic worldview, intent on punishing the West for our involvement in the Middle East. How the marathon bombing will have any productive impact on the apparent problem is an absurdity that shows how far from sense these perpetrators wandered.

Thomas Friedman framed the issue recently in The New York Times with a question: “If you were upset with U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, why didn’t you go out and build a school in Afghanistan to strengthen that community or get an advanced degree to strengthen yourself or become a math teacher in the Muslim world to help its people be less vulnerable to foreign powers? … (In) America … if you’re upset about something, you have many ways to express your opposition and have an impact — from organizing demonstrations to publishing articles to running for office.”

According to Israeli writer Amos Oz, who has declared himself “an expert on comparative fanaticism,” terrorists’ horrifically nonsensical and shortsighted actions shouldn’t surprise us, for fanatics always lack imagination, humor and empathy. To this point, Oz offers a powerful story:

A dear friend and colleague of mine, the Israeli novelist Sammy Michael, once took a long intercity car drive with a chauffeur who was giving him the usual lecture on how urgent it is for us Jews to kill all the Arabs. Sammy listened to him, and rather than screaming, “What a terrible man you are. Are you a Nazi? Are you a fascist?” he decided to deal with it differently.

He asked the chauffeur, “And who do you think should kill the Arabs?”

The chauffeur said, “What do you mean? Us! The Israeli Jews! We must! There is no choice. Just look at what they are doing to us every day!”

“But who exactly do you think should carry out the job? The police? Or the army? Or maybe the fire brigade? Or the medical teams? Who should do the job?”

The chauffeur scratched his head and said, “I think it should be fairly divided between every one of us, every one of us should kill some of them.”

Sammy, still playing the game, said: “OK, suppose you are allocated a certain residential block of your hometown of Haifa and you knock on every door, or ring the doorbell, asking, ‘Excuse me, sir, or excuse me, madam, do you happen to be an Arab?’ and if the answer is yes, you shoot them. Then you finish your block and you are about to go home, but just as you turn to go home, you hear a baby crying. Would you go back and shoot this baby? Yes or no?”

There was a moment of quiet and then the chauffeur said to Sammy, “You know, you are a very cruel man.”

It is all too easy to slip into the guise of the fanatic, slowly at first, even imperceptibly. Who among us hasn’t voiced an opinion with smug self-righteousness? Who hasn’t overgeneralized some group or oversimplified some situation? Who hasn’t ever insisted on changing someone else’s mind rather than expanding his own?

Herein lies the most insidious trap set by this enemy, the fanatical terrorist: our tendency to become like him in our very fight against him. As Oz says, “Be careful: Fanaticism is extremely catching, more contagious than any virus. You might easily contract fanaticism even as you are trying to defeat or combat it. You have only to read a newspaper or watch the television news to see how easily people may become anti-fanatic fanatics, anti-fundamentalist zealots, anti-jihad crusaders.”

In an open, democratic society, it is impossible to prevent every fanatic from hurting us. We cannot be perfectly safe, all the time. But we can avoid becoming like them. We can guard against that impulse driving us to be singleminded and self-righteous, blinding us to the view from our opponent’s eyes. Imagination and empathy help inoculate us against the contagion of fanaticism. We should try sharing stories rather than dealing in dogmas. We should cultivate our ability to laugh at ourselves, for humor builds immunity to extremism. Although we can’t defeat fanaticism completely, we can keep from being its unwitting accomplices.

Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or He blogs at, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month in The Aspen Times.