Us and Them

I missed the memo about “Us” and “Them”. 

Throughout this weekend, I’ve been assiduously avoiding news of the massacre that occurred in Norway on Friday.  I’ve got the selfish luxury of being completely remote from these horrible events, so if I don’t read the stories, then perhaps I can pretend that such things happen only in nightmares.  Alas, the nightmare is real.

The inescapable comparisons between what happened in Norway and the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995 have already begun.  In both instances, there were early theories about foreign terrorists being behind the atrocities, and in both instances, it was quickly learned that the truth was actually a lot scarier.  Timothy McVeigh was a U.S. citizen, even an army veteran.  And it wasn’t some foreign enemy who murdered all those Norwegian kids; it was one of their own countrymen.

I’m no sociologist, but it probably doesn’t take a Ph.D to appreciate that there’s something close to hard-wired in the mentality of “us” and “them”.  I was a big fan of the show “LOST” and one of the spookiest things in  the very weird plot was the introduction of the idea of “The Others“…in the midst of everything else that the characters were experiencing, the most chilling was the suggestion that there other people on the island who were not like them. They were different.  “The Others” was such a complete description which spoke volumes about the fear and hostility that seem to spontaneously erupt upon the introduction of an “us” and “them” dichotomy.

It’s easier to process the notion of a threat coming from outside.  We expect no loyalty or compassion from “them”.  And when we think of danger coming from without, we can build walls and fences and do all manner of defensive things to keep “them” out.  So when it turns out the terror is coming from inside the country, the grief is compounded by an awful sense of vulnerability.    We can no longer reliably discern “us” from “them” and that’s scary as hell.

The thing that occurs to me is that our concepts of “us” and “them” are so very arbitrary and conditional.  Think of this…in almost every movie which imagines an alien invasion, the people of Earth put aside their differences in order to unite in the fight against the Martians.  Whatever defined “us” and “them” before no longer matters; once the flying saucer starts shooting laser beams, all earthlings are “us” and all non-earthlings are “them”.

There's nothing like the threat of annihilation by aliens to bring a species together..

I’m pretty sure nothing good ever really comes out of something as horrific as what has happened in Norway.  But the meaning I’m starting to distill from the madness is that as the world shrinks, we have to define “us” differently.  Clearly, “us” can’t just be blue-eyed blondes.  “Us” has to everybody who believes that no matter how vehement our disagreement about politics or religion or any other deeply held personal conviction, we don’t kill people as consequence.  “Us” has to be everybody who recognizes that crazy comes in every color in the big box of crayons.  “Us” has to be everyone who’ll denounce the homicidal maniacs who pretend to defend our values, whatever those values might be.

If we define “us” in these ways, then I’d like to think there’s way more of us than there are of “them.”  At least I hope so.  Prayers for Norway and memo received.