Tribe mentality disguises individual wrongs

By Tibor Machan: Syndicated Columnist

LONDON — The little hotel, Sanctuary House, where I stayed this time was located, unbeknownst to me, just the other side of the New Scotland Yard. So when I arrived Thursday after my flight from New York, I felt some relief. Terrorists probably will not do their vicious deeds in the back yard of the cops.

I was invited to speak on “The free market and its moral foundation” at a small classical liberal-conservative institute, Civitas, by my friend and fellow philosopher David Conway.

It was ironic — the very day I was laying out the moral case for a free society, four new attempted bombings occurred in London, based in part on the terrorists’ conviction that nothing about western societies is of any moral worth. Of course, the big question is what is to count as moral? They believe duty to tribe is, whereas in fact self-perfection as human beings is our true moral purpose in life.

As I left Civitas and did some walking about London while experiencing plenty of jitters, I recalled some similar feelings from when Budapest was bombed in my very early youth. I reflected on why these terrorists have such a warped view of human morality. (I also stopped to call my mother, who brought up that very thing, about how living in Budapest during World War II felt much like it feels living in the shadows of terrorism now.)

I was also assisted in my reflections by a novel I was reading, by Daniel Silva, “The Prince of Fire,” which is all about terrorist activity throughout Europe, all in the name of their warped sense of morality.

The bottom line is that terrorists believe in the virtue of tribal loyalty. It is, for most of them, a matter of us against them, as a group. No, it’s even worse — as in a beehive or an ant colony. For these terrorists a baby is not some innocent individual but something that’s part of an evil body, a body of the infidels who are not with them.

It is all “we, we” and “we” again, or “us.”

Individuals do not matter to them. Even parents and siblings are just part of the tribe — if they are hurt or killed it is because this was an act against the tribe that it is a bad thing, never mind them as individual persons. That is why revenge needs to be carried out against anyone deemed as part of those bad others — children, neighbors, relatives, people who look like them, who eat the same kind of food, what have you.

What is so outrageous as well as frightening about this is that much of the world has viewed human affairs along such lines throughout history. Individualism, while far more true than tribalism, has not been fully appreciated by people. Even in much of Europe, the idea of the Serbs vs. the Croats or the Irish vs. the English, the Jews vs. the Christians, or the immigrants vs. natives is still very prevalent, even dominant.

It is no wonder that so many Europeans feel more “understanding” toward the terrorists! The distinctive American view of individualism, wherein it’s the individual’s actions that establish who someone is, not where someone comes from, what tribe one belongs to, is novel, unfamiliar. Even in America it is mostly a matter of the gut, not of the mind — too many people are philosophical collectivists or communitarians, not individualists.

Yet, of course, it is individualism that is truer about us, and it is also this viewpoint that encourages more peace and harmony among people. With any individual there lies only a tiny bit of power, whereas tribes, even small ones, pack quite a punch. So if individuals within some tribe get crazy angry about something, chances are considerable that major damage will be done. An individual is relatively impotent in these matters and the risk of angry outbursts and barbaric temper tantrums are thus minimized.

In the end, of course, tribes are mainly disguised ways for some members to gain and keep power. They are nasty factions behind which the few who are privileged and unjustly favored hide their vested interests. They are the ones who are most threatened with the idea of individualism, of a rejection of collective duty and guilt. So they will carry on with their terrorism, seeing that without it they have nothing left and nothing of value to fake.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at