Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

If you’re not in the line of fire, terrorism can be a stimulant, like caffeine. It’s psychosomatic. Mind and body send alarm signals back and forth, converting flight to fight and pumping up the daily grind to invigorating readiness. Terrorism makes the map of everyday rules and inhibitions feel unsafe—but fresh. Vigilance fixes on shock jocks and politicians that give you permission to hate a particular enemy.

Many people enjoy fear. Day One at the gym makes you feel weak, but you enjoy building muscle. No Pain, No Gain.  The more TV you watch, the more you overestimate how dangerous your neighborhood is. But the TV faithful enjoy the delusion of discovering danger. Fear and hatred focus the mind. Since there’s safety in numbers, you can join a crowd that feels as you do. As Howard Stein and Vamik Volkan have demonstrated, we need enemies for our group—“us”—to bond.

You don’t want to be too safe, because then you’d be back in the daily grind. Too terrified, and you might be paralyzed or lose control. This is why, whether you know it or not, there’s a quality of play about hot button issues. In play you can be serious and unserious at the same time.  Like irony, it can be subtle, even invisible. And it keeps things conditional, so you can always “walk it back” later.

Play allows the conscious self to relate to unconscious motives. Maybe EZ-Flu “with real orange flavor” won’t really cure your flu, but you buy it with a sense of play, as in a game or wager, that allows you to hope. But play can be strategic too, as when news media and politicians keep squeezing a terrorism story for more attention and profit—in which unconscious motives become hypocrisy.

The crowd looks for thrills as in an action movie. In a televised debate (12.15.15) one politician barked that “We’re at war folks, they’re not trying to steal your car, they’re trying to kill us all. The next 9/11 is coming soon.” It’s the Holocaust! It’s World War 3! [1]

Play is as natural as breathing. A terrorist act generates shockwaves that spread in every direction. Everyone touched by it has to interpret what happened and frame a personal story that protects morale and makes the world livable again. The anguish may be real—but it’s also a story. The story has a quality of role-playing when it’s arousing (“Wipe out the Muslims”) but unrealistic. You’re serious but also, objectively speaking, just playing.

Since the likelihood of being killed by terrorists is miniscule, why does it have such inflammatory power? The bigger the demagogue (“Ban all Muslims”), the more popular he is. Here’s where play behavior helps to clarify things. Enemies make your life more meaningful and heroic. Someone thinks you stand for something important enough to envy and hate. Addressing the Congress, President Bush Jr. claimed that “They hate our freedom.” When he uttered the words, nobody in Congress called it nonsense. People wanted to feel good about themselves. They were playing.

By flattering our heroic importance, play can magnify the impact of terrorism. It’s kill or be killed. We’re all survivors.  News cameras and political vows pump up the attackers and you. As your group goes viral, it gets bigger than ISIS.

The crowd looks for thrills as in an action movie. In a televised debate (12.15.15) one politician barked that “We’re at war folks, they’re not trying to steal your car, they’re trying to kill us all. The next 9/11 is coming soon.” It’s the Holocaust! It’s World War 3!

To be big, significant, death-defying: it’s a universal motive.  It’s the way we’re built.  Look at us: to make an impact on the world, we build skyscrapers, empires, reputations. To make no impact is to be socially dead: not even despised. Nothing. So rampage killers dress up as soldiers with military firepower, and as pseudocommandos, kill record numbers of victims. In 1914, half of Europe rushed play soldiers and, since even soldiers play soldier, died by the real millions.

On yet another level, each side was playing warrior lest “the enemy” sense fear and attack them, as animals are said to do.

Terrorism behaviors, then, are tools for manufacturing meaning. Rallying for Donald Trump, say, you share his heroic spotlight. Like terrorists or rampage killers, you and the hero command the world’s attention. You escape the grind of boring ordinary life, immortalized in headlines, “history,” or on God’s Facebook wall. As hero, he turns your puny fear into wrath and delicious self-confidence, and he supplies scapegoats to give you a target.

To some extent, of course, the politician and you are playing at heroism. And so, in order to maintain conviction, you have to keep the impact building. His slogans get grander. They give you permission to throw off everyday inhibitions and show some outrage.

It’s magic. You’re bigger. More alive. You’re a crowd chanting slogans as in a religious rite. But you also glow in the hero’s aura. You understand each other. Love each other. The strong parent lifts the ecstatic infant out of the cleansing bath water. And of course the voice in your head approves of you and your convictions.  In the back of your mind you know that it’s all a little exaggerated. But it feels right.

Don’t forget: at this moment, even as macho politicians are recruiting you to slay dragons, the infamous killers in Paris and San Bernadino are inspiring ordinary nobodies all over the globe to dream commanding the spotlight. Even dead, terrorists are supposed to be martyrs, and heaven enjoyable as a dude ranch. After a rampage, even American heroes rush to buy guns like flashlights to check for monsters under the bed.

As murder or heroic rescue, that is, death is a tool: a prop in the play.

To some extent, of course, the politician and you are playing at heroism. And so, in order to maintain conviction, you have to keep the impact building. His slogans get grander. They give you permission to throw off everyday inhibitions and show some outrage.

The question is how to use it. Terror is a source of terrific energy. You can use it to lop off heads or to build a civilization. [2] It helps to understand that whatever we do involves an element of play. When actors present Richard III or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, everybody knows it’s play. The behavior onstage before you is conditional: real and not real. You can feel the impact of the action and yet also be free to think about what it means. If all the world’s a stage, what about today’s heroes riding the airwaves? Do they know what they’re saying? Or are they helping to make the neighborhood “a wilderness of wolves”?

And come to think of it, if all the world’s a stage, what roles are we taking? What do you say when it’s your turn to add to the script?


1. In a sharp report on the 12.15 debate in the Guardian, Richard Wolffe recognizes play without directly analyzing its significance.

2. Ernest Becker gives this insight breathtaking scope in his last book, Escape from Evil(link is external).To appreciate the plasticity and scope of play as a means of control, seeThe Psychology of Abandon, (link is external)which relates slang terms (talk about flipping out, running amok, losing it, etc.) to terrifying yet also alluring fantasies of gaining access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Abandon has affected many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare and business to politics, sports, and intimate life. What often goes unnoticed is the role of play in our uses of fear and rage.

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