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Our lizard brain lives in 9-11

September 11, 2012

Last week in our school district, a kid brought a gun into the classroom. He held a class hostage for about 10 minutes before a teacher – his second week on the job out of college – got the gun away from him. In his bag were two more guns, a hatchet, and a small bottle of kerosene. Reports differ but he said he wanted people to “listen to him”.

The big flaw in that plan is that listening is a cerebral-cortex thing; fight and flight are lizard-brain things. It’s hard to do both.  After the Columbine shootings, one of my sons said “This will bring out the stupid in everyone”, and that will almost certainly be the result here. Now our cash-thin school district is talking about guards, metal detectors, and just generally bringing the delightful airport terminal experience into school.

That does not mean there are not real threats to our existence. But they are slow; subtle. For political purposes it’s hard to motivate people, for example, with graphs correlating carbon dioxide and Arctic ice-cover loss. A person with a gun or a bomb is much more effective. So much more so if they are “other”.

We’re less apt to fear when we can reason. And very much less apt to reason when we’re afraid. Immediate fear makes people stupid, and stupid people are easier to control. Politicians who want power know this, and so do terrorists. After 9-11 the extreme right wing – AND the terrorists – got just what they wanted. Interestingly, it was the same thing on both sides.

On this anniversary, I’m just asking. Any chance we could Stop Giving Them What They Want? Is there any possibility we can show a little courage and keep the cerebral cortex in charge? For a change.


  • In fact, the more different the “other” can be made out to be, the less actual threat is needed for the fear effect; look at “Pro-Family” institutions’ constant demonization of gays.
  • Right-wing politicians and other terrorists don’t need to worry about a sudden popularization of rational risk assessment; there’s very little historical precedent for it.
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