Wednesday, September 4, 2013


There is more to the question about who drew the red line than meets the eye. The news media seems to be obsessed with the idea that it somehow is Obama’s red line. During the recent Senate hearing, Secretary of State Kerry talked about “it” not being Obama’s red line but the red line “drawn by humanity”. In the Swedish conference, President Obama himself made the statement that the world can not be silent in the face of “barbarism”. The important thing about the use of that expression is recognition of the need of the concept that there are things that man does to man that are not acceptable.

The source of this imaginary red line over which many of us feel we should not step clearly has a biological basis. It is a cultural universal. I expect anthropologist could find it even in the most primitive cultures. Where the “red line” is drawn may be vastly different but the idea is prevalent that there are things one person should not do to another person. The line will exist in every culture in multiple and complex ways including extensive modification in relationship to gender. After we strip away all modifications, the central theme is that “self-preservation” is our most treasured sense, which seems to be an innate human emotion as deeply buried in our genome as fear, hunger, or reproduction. The ultimate in “red lines” we should never step over is that we should not take another persons life but we obviously do. To overcome emotions violation of this premise makes we use reason. Unfortunately, in using reason, people often tend to come to wrong conclusions especially in their private lives. We must kill anyone who is trying to kill us and execute serial killers to protect ourselves, fight religious wars, etc.

Reason was something not available to animals. The human brain started to developed 2.5 million years ago and transitioned from pure animal or bestial instincts through barbarianism on to what we are today; what we think is a sophisticated human being.

In the transition period, it seems we developed senses or emotion such as pride, shame, jealousy, and envy for example, to maintain our deeply held sense of self-preservation. We refined our sense of “survival of the fittest”, which included hierarchy dominance—“peck order”.  It was no longer just good enough “to be” but we had “to be top chicken”. Being the top chicken gave some of us pride while being the bottom chicken gave others of us shame, and envy, which drove jealously motivated, and sometimes outlandish, behavior. Obviously, not everyone can be the leader; therefore, most of us accept our position as followers. Others are never content to accept anything other than being in the top position—like the movie title, Top Gun. This is where Bashar al Assad finds himself; he will do anything it takes to remain there.

Inherent in hierarchy dominance is organization: politics. For centuries, people have been organizing and reorganizing within the context of family, tribes, states, and nations. In our nation, we have centered our organized on political parties. As a person interested in evolutionary psychology, I see our political parties as a reflection of three basic instincts: conservatism verses liberalism with a small group of libertarians who somehow believe they are not part of society. I identify conservatism with those who believe in bestial individualism driven by selfishness, individual choice, while family and group dynamics drives liberals. I use the term ‘selfishness’ for conservatives  not in a pejorative sense but as a biological fact, a necessary trait for bestial survival, which is the very heart of Darwinian natural selection. In contrast, I use the term altruism for liberals or progressives, who base their political life on consideration for other: helping those who cannot help themselves. The result of altruism is the much disputed group selection in contrast to individual selection; natural selections made that help the group at the expense of the individual.

Bashar al Assad is the leader of a country torn by civil war. If he loses the war, he looses his top spot in hierarchy dominance, which for him would a devastatingly emotional event, which has caused him to resort to faulty reason. To insure that his followers know he is committed to win, he committed a crime for which he knew was over the “red line”: in addition to using brutality, he committed a heinous crime against humanity; he gassed his own people. If he loses the war, he will suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein, if not at the hands of his own people, then in the hands of the world community. He has created a position in which he and his Shia Alawite minority (13% of Syria population) must win—it is now a life or death struggle for not only him but his followers as well. He used nerve gas in a district that “rebels” controlled to clear it of women and children. He is now prepared to use heavy military force against the remaining “rebels” in those districts.  His behavior is precisely what authors Bueno de Mesquita and Smith predicted in their book, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. (Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC called that book to my attention).

We are waiting to see how the Congress of the United States will respond to our progressive President Obama’s wish to punish al Assad. Everyone in the world will see what al Assad did as a crime against humanity; clearly, he stepped over the red line. However, will the conservatives, the knuckle dragging individualists in the United States Congress see his crimes as none of our business? In contrast, will progressive see his crime as one more instance where we as human beings can put our bestial barbarianism behind us by punishing him so all the world can see that we as human beings do not accept animal behavior?

Irrespective of what congress does, I think Stephen Pinker was right when he documented that human violence is declining in his book, Better Nature of our Angels: Why Violence has Declined. Nevertheless, there is one certain conclusion; Obama did not draw the red line; humankind drew it along in the road of our transition from barbarism to being human; thus, separating our bestial existence from what we are today; the red line is an indelible mark of social progress.

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