Research shows that when confronted with a new piece of information, a person will use the information to support previously held beliefs rather than as an opportunity to open his or her mind.
How does this relate to last night’s events?
When people are faced with a horrifying reality such as last night’s attacks in Paris, they go through two processes: alienation and justification.
If they are right-wing and against immigration, the attacks will strengthen their beliefs that immigration from Muslim countries is dangerous and sets the grounds for such attacks (even though most of the refugees are running away from the exact same terrorist groups).
But what if they are left-wing? Are they going to change what they think about Islam in Europe, and about the challenges Israel is facing when dealing with terrorism on a daily basis?
Let’s look through the lens of alienation and justification.
Alienation comes out of fear, out of the needs to believe that “this couldn’t have happened to me.” The alienation instinct exists in all of us, sometimes we are open about it and sometimes we keep the thoughts to ourselves.
Sometimes, it will be as innocuous as saying “well, I don’t go to public places often” (… so this can’t happen to me). But it can also promote racism towards the victims. I remember about 14 years ago, there was a suicide bombing in a club in Tel Aviv. 21 teenagers were killed, 120 injured. It was a party attended mostly by Russian immigrants. I remember for us, as teens, it created some alienation towards the Russian immigrants – we desperately wanted to feel that the horrible attack wasn’t against us, that it didn’t happen to us, it happened to them.
In Europe in the 30s and 40s, following anti-Semitic legislation and persecution, the more miserable the Jews seemed, the less mercy and empathy the non-Jews exhibited. Non-Jews did not want to feel the pain of those people, so one of the ways to distance themselves was to feel more alienation. In their eyes, they had less and less in common with the Jews.
A few months ago when terrorists took hostages in a kosher mart in Paris, the thoughts about the alienation effect came to me. I felt like any action against Jews in Europe could only increase anti-Semitism, and for sure not decrease it.
The second process I mentioned is justification. As humans, we strive to find sense in the world around us. We try to find cause-and-effect. When something horrible like last night’s terror attacks takes place, the world doesn’t make sense anymore. We unconsciously need to justify to ourselves why it happened.
With an event like the kosher mart attack, some people can (consciously or subconsciously) rationalize, “well, the Jews shouldn’t be surprised that they are targeted by terrorists in France when Israel is doing so and so.” Thus, in people’s minds there is a reason, so the world makes a bit more sense. This justification also helps with the alienation, process; the targets for these attacks are Jewish people, not “me”.
Last night, I’m sure some people had thoughts along the lines of “well we had it coming, since we interfered in things we shouldn’t have been involved with.” Or, “well, what can we expect, when we oppress those populations, there is no reason why they wouldn’t raise their children to kill us.”
But all this rationalization is flawed. Why? Because at the end of the day we’re all monkeys, and the differences between us are pretty random. And because terrorist attacks have no justification. Never.