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Happiness in the proximity of faith and death

Monday, August 1st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — the emotional impact of faith, from a nun present at the Normandy attack to a failed suicide bomber in Syria ]

According to this IB Times article, Tragic last words of Catholic priest killed by Isis terrorists revealed, Sister Helene Decaux, one of the nuns who was present at the killing of Fr Jacques Hamel, reported his last words thus:

Jacques shouted at them, ‘Stop! What are you doing?’ It was then that one of them struck the first blow to his throat.

What caught my attention more forcefully, however, was the following:

Fearing for her life, she added: “Thinking I was going to die, I offered my life to God.” The nun then described how Petitjean and Kermiche had at first been aggressive, but quietened down after they had cut Jacques’ throat. Showing remarkable calm, Helene asked the two terrorists if she could sit down. “I asked for my cane, he gave it to me,” she said. One of the attackers asked: “Are you afraid to die?” To which the nun replied no. “I believe in God, and I know I will be happy,” Helene said. Sister Huguette Peron, who was also in the church, told Catholic newspaper La Vie: “I got a smile from the second (man). Not a smile of triumph, but a soft smile, that of someone who is happy.”

Not only is Sister Helene happy in the face of death because she believes in death, but Sister Huguette reports that one of the attackers gave her a smile, “Not a smile of triumph, but a soft smile, that of someone who is happy.”


Compare those two descriptions of people who are happy with this, from Murtaza Hussain‘s Intercept piece, New Documentary Pierces the Psychology of Modern Suicide Bombers:

In a scene from Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal’s new documentary Dugma: The Button, Abu Qaswara, a would-be suicide bomber, describes the sense of exhilaration he felt during an aborted suicide attack against a Syrian army checkpoint. “These were the happiest [moments] I’ve had in 32 years. If anyone had felt exactly what I felt at that moment, Muslims would want to go through the same feeling and non-Muslims would convert just to experience it,” he enthuses to the camera, visibly elated by his attempted self-immolation.

Abu Qaswara’s attack failed after his vehicle was blocked by obstacles on the road placed by the Syrian military. But speaking shortly after he returned from his mission, it was clear that his brush with death had filled him with euphoria. “It was a feeling more than you can imagine,” he says. “Something I cannot describe, it cannot be described.”

My primary purpose in recording these instances of happiness is to emphasize how strongly religious faith exerts what to the modern secular mind must be an unexpected and perhaps even unimaginable emotional impact on those who possess it. And even if the Normandy attacker’s ‘soft smile” had more to do with a blood lust slaked, the same cannot be said either for Sister Helene or for Abu Qaswara.

If we are to understand the motivations of suicide bombers and other jihadists, comprehending not just intellectually but viscerally the emotions involved will be a task of some importance — and one for which many of our analysts will not be prepared.


There’s a second point to be made, however. Hussain goes on to write:

Only the few Syrians who appear in the film speak at length about their grievances over the crimes of the Syrian government. In contrast, the foreign volunteers appear largely driven by personal motivations. Liberating the local people from oppression appears at best a secondary concern. Perishing in the conflict and reaping the existential rewards of such an end takes precedence. Both Abu Qaswara and Abu Basir gave up comfortable lives to come to Syria, knowing that certain death would be the outcome of that decision. But rather than deterring them, the prospect of a rewarding death was a primary factor motivating their decision to fight.

That para sets the scene for the following one, in which Mustafa Hamid, as reported in his book with Leah Farrall, notes how contrary this motivation is to the practical pursuit of victory:

This impulse toward self-destruction is actually seen as selfish by some fellow insurgents. In his co-authored 2014 memoir The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, Mustafa Hamid, a former high-ranking Egyptian volunteer with the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, described his own frustration with many of the later waves of volunteers arriving to that conflict. “One of the negatives that emerged from the jihad, and which continues to have severe consequences today, was the tendency for the youth to focus not on success and achieving victory and liberating Afghanistan, but on their desire for martyrdom and to enter paradise,” Hamid wrote. This overriding preoccupation with becoming a martyr meant that participation in the conflict, “became individual instead of for the benefit of the group or the country where the fight for liberation is taking place.”

That’s one of the more striking of Hamid’s observations in The Arabs at War in Afghanistan — itself an astonishing book, product of the collaboration between Hamid (aka Abu Walid al-Masri) the man who brought bin Laden‘s oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar, and Farrall, a respected scholar-analyst who was the Australian Federal Police al-Qaida subject matter specialist at the time of the Bali bombings.

It is an extraordinary book, and one I cannot recommend too highly.

Of Blood and Bride

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — concerning the tidal pull of two words on the emotions, in considering Hamzah bin Laden’s recent message ]

quote-blood-sin-and-desecration-of-the-race-are-the-original-sin hitler


In the Jewish book of Leviticus [17.11], we find:

For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul.

For Christians, the early Church father Tertullian has the appropriate quotation:

Plures efficimur quotiens metimur a vobis? semen est sanguis Christianorum.

This translates to “We multiply whenever we are mown down by you? the blood of Christians is seed” and is often quoted in the form “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The American equivalent comes from Thomas Jefferson‘s Letter to William Stephens Smith of November 13, 1787, and is no doubt familiar to ZP readers:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

The terrible significance of “blood” to the Nazis is illustrated by the Hitler quote at the top of this post.


In the beginnings of the jihad fought by the Al-Qaida and its secessionist successors in the Islamic State, Abdullah Azzam‘s words are foundational. In a document which has been titled Martyrs: The Building Blocks of Nations — shades of Tertullian and Jefferson — Azzam writes of both blood and ink:

The life of the Muslim Ummah is solely dependent on the ink of its scholars and the blood of its martyrs. What is more beautiful than the writing of the Ummah’s history with both the ink of a scholar and his blood, such that the map of Islamic history becomes coloured with two lines: one of them black, and that is what the scholar wrote with the ink of his pen; and the other one red, and that is what the martyr wrote with his blood. And something more beautiful than this is when the blood is one and the pen is one, so that the hand of the scholar which expends the ink and moves the pen, is the same as the hand which expends its blood and moves the Ummah. The extent to which the number of martyred scholars increases is the extent to which nations are delivered from their slumber, rescued from their decline and awoken from their sleep.

Again — though I cannot say for certain who gave that title to this compilation of Azzam’s words — we see the importance of blood as the prime sacrificial element on which a world is built.

Indeed, one commonly cited hadith found in the collection of Bukhari states:

Anyone who is wounded in the path of Allah comes on the Day of Resurrection when [his] color is the color of blood, [but] his scent is the scent of musk.


I trust I don’t have to belabor the reasons why the word “bride” — particularly in combination with the word “blood” — is also fraught with enormous archaic, archetypal pulling-power. If we are in any doubt, we should consider the ravishing bridal poetry of the Tanakh’s Song of Songs which is Solomon’s:

Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; Thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, With one bead of thy necklace. [Song of Solomon, 4.9]

— not to mention the eucharistic “bridal supper of the lamb” in that most poetic, visionary, and well-nigh inscrutable book of the New Testament, the Revelation of John of Patmos:

Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God. [Revelation 19. 7-9]

and in the fullest and final revelation of that revelatory book:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. [Revelation 21.1-4]


Bear this double call of “blood” and “bride” on the emotions in mind, utilizing whichever of the above examples strikes the deepest chord in you to confirm their trance-like appeal, as you consider this message from Bin Laden‘s son, Hamzah, issued just a day or two ago:

Thomas Joscelyn posted a breakdown of the message content at Long Wars Journal yesterday:

  • Osama bin Laden’s son says jihad in Syria key to ‘liberate Palestine’
  • I trust this post of mine will add to our understanding of the emotional force on which Bin Laden’s son is appealing.

    Creating a web-based format for debate and deliberation: discuss?

    Friday, December 12th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — Talmud, hypertext, spider webs, Indra’s net, noosphere, rosaries, renga, the bead game, Xanadu, hooks-and-eyes, onward! ]

    Let me firmly anchor this post and its comments, which will no doubt shift and turn as the wind wishes, in discussion of the possibility of improving on current affordances for online deliberation.

    Let’s begin here:


    There are a variety of precursor streams to this discussion: I have listed a few that appeal to me in the sub-head of this post and believe we will reach each and all of them in some form and forum if this discussion takes off. And I would like to offer the immediate hospitality of this Zenpundit post and comment section to make a beginning.

    Greg’s tweet shows us a page of the Talmud, which is interesting to me for two reasons:

  • it presents many voices debating a central topic
  • it does so using an intricate graphical format
  • The script of a play or movie also records multiple voices in discourse, as does an orchestral score — but the format of the Talmudic score is more intricate, allowing the notation of counterpoint that extends across centuries, and provoking in turn centuries of further commentary and debate.

    What can we devise by way of a format, given the constraints of screen space and the affordances of software and interface design, that maximizes the possibility of debate with respect, on the highly charged topics of the day.

    We know from the Talmud that such an arrangement is possible in retrospect (when emotion can be recollected in tranquility): I am asking how we can come closest to it in real time. The topics are typically hotly contested, patience and tolerance may not always be in sufficient supply, and moderation by humans with powers of summary and editing should probably not be ruled out of our consdierations. But how do we create a platform that is truly polyphonic, that sustains the voices of all participants without one shouting down or crowding out another, that indeed may embody a practic of listening..?

    Carl Rogers has shown us that the ability to express one’s interlocutor’s ideas clearly enough that they acknowledge one has understood them is a significant skill in navigating conversational rapids.

    The Talmud should be an inspiration but not a constraint for us. The question is not how to build a Talmud, but how to build a format that can host civil discussion which refines itself as it grows — so that, to use a gardening metaphor, it is neither overgrown nor too harshly manicured, but manages a carefully curated profusion of insights and —

    actual interactions between the emotions and ideas in participating or observing individuals’ minds and hearts


    Because polyphony is not many voices talking past one another, but together — sometimes discordant, but attempting to resolve those discords as they arrive, and with a figured bass of our common humanity underwriting the lot of them.

    And I have said it before: here JS Bach is the master. What he manages with a multitude of musical voices in counterpoint is, in my opinion, what we need in terms of verbal voices in debate.

    I am particularly hoping to hear from some of those who participated in tweeted comments arising from my previous post here titled Some thoughts for Marc Andreessen & Adam Elkus, including also Greg Loyd, Callum Flack, Belinda Barnet, Ken (chumulu) — Jon Lebkowsky if he’s around — and friends, and friends of friends.

    What say you?

    Bashar the Vampire-Slayer

    Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — pop messianism, Syria, 2013 ]

    The caption for the Bashar al-Assad image reads:

    Bashar the Wahhabi Slayer [ image ] Has killed more than 40,000 Wahhabi terrorists who came from all over the world to destroy Syria

    and Phillip Smyth, who tweeted it, commented:

    This photo has been uploaded onto many pro-#Assad & pro-Shia (in #Syria) militia pages. Note how dead are characterized


    How the dead are characterized?

    Why, as Wahhabi terrorists, explicitly — and implicitly as vampires.

    FWIW, I’d argue (broad strokes) that “Wahhabi terrorists” is directed at the conscious mind, and “vampires” at the emotions.

    The Sounds of Silence and Your Own Mind

    Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

    Scott Shipman had an excellent book review post An Unknown Future and a Doubtful Present: Writing the Victory Plan of 1941 — a review-lite and a few questions in which he discussed the intellectual seriousness and evolution of war planner   Major Albert C. Wedemeyer as a military officer and strategist:

    ….Wedemeyer was an honor graduate of the Command and General Staff College, and his performance earned him the opportunity to attended the Kriegsakademie, the German staff college. However, coupled with impressive academic preparations, Kirkpatrick writes that Wedemeyer’s curiosity exposed him to a “kaleidoscope” of ideas and methods. Kirkpatrick summed-up Wedemeyer: “Competence as a planner thus emerged as much from conscientious professional study as from formal military education…” Going on to say:

    In common with many of his peers, much of Wedemeyer’s professional and intellectual education was less the product of military schooling than of personal initiative and experience in the interwar Army.

    Wedemeyer’s intellectual development was purposeful and paid off. In Wedemeyer’s deep study of his profession he used the prescribed paths, but also explored on his own. How common is that today? 

    As often happens, the discussion can take an unexpected turn in the comments section. Lexington Green weighed in with this:

    Think about George Marshall in China, traveling around on horseback.  No cell phone, no email.  The man could actually think.  Or Eisenhower meeting with Fox Connor to talk about the books Connor had him read. Telephone calls were not even common.  The military might do well to have two days once a quarter of silent retreats, only emergency communication permitted, with literally no unnecessary conversation, for groups of officers and non-coms, with some assigned reading and some self-selected on the same theme, then an open discussion after dinner. It would cost virtually nothing and would be an intellectual and mental oasis, and some good ideas might come out of it.  Religious silent retreats which last a couple of days and are truly life-restoring. This would probably be useful as well.

    That in turn provoked this response from Marshall:

    My sense is that many of us live, work, and fraternize in a culture of crisis. Everything is urgent. One response is to just shut off the moment we get some downtime. TV, drinking, schlock fiction, immersion in pop culture, video games, blog reading are some of the ways I’ve coped. I grew out of those as timewasters as I realized that I no longer had time to shut off if I wanted to do something.

    But I still live in a culture of crisis. Almost everybody around me “has no time”. It doesn’t really matter what is being proposed, the sense of urgency kills all ambition toward progress. Defending myself and my space form this is a daily challenge – and some days I lose.

    I’m visiting family this week on a long-scheduled “vacation” that has been interrupted by my office several times already, but always with the promise, “just this thing, Marshall, we don’t want to take you away from your family”. And these are the people I choose as my allies!

    The culture of crisis doesn’t believe in people’s choices. It says that time will only be wasted, so we have to keep our people busy. After all, see how they spend their “free” time? Dissolute wastrels the lot of them. And then the culture of crisis tells us that we need to recharge by shutting off our minds. You need to vege out, man, you’re stressed; turn on the TV and have a beer, mate. Or else fire up your e-mail and write six more. And, hey, sorry about your insomnia, but it lets you get a jump on the day, amirite? [….]

    The discussion moved on, but I have been mulling upon this exchange ever since.

    The first thing that came to mind is that what we mean by “silence” really isn’t silent, what is really meant is that there is an absence of human voice pulling at our limited capacity for attention. Cognitive load is probably a real, if variable, limit on human cognition and the nature of hyperconnected information society is that all too frequently we are -and feel – “overloaded”.

    When human voices are absent the “background” environmental noise comes “forward” , natural (wind through trees, animals etc) or mechanical (various humms and clicks) that we unconsciously tune out as a matter of routine focusing on conversation or distracting hearsay, broadcasts and so on. The processing in the brain is significantly different depending on what kinds of sounds you are listening to, for example:

    1. Listening to Music

    2. Listening to Language

    3. Listening to unpleasant sounds (nails on chalkboard etc.)

    So eliminating human speech from your environment but not hearing (earplugs) itself allows other regions of your brain to become more active than usual, depending on whatever else you may be doing at the time (walking, chopping wood, smelling a flower, scanning the horizon and so on).  Your brain’s performance and how it varies when thinking under conditions of different combinations and levels of sensory stimuli – “crossmodal processing” – is not yet well understood as research is in early stages of investigation.

    I will speculate here that what is important for enriching your thinking is that taking your brain out a linguistic-saturated environment (let’s include the “soundless noise” of intruding textual symbols as well from smartphones, iPads, laptops)  gives it an opportunity to operate differently for a time and establish new neuronal network patterns of activity. Various forms of meditation – which involves both silence and an intentional modulation of attention – also  alters normal  brain activity.

    I will now go further out on a data-free analytical limb and hypothesize that making a practice of “silence” and/or meditation might improve your thinking by making moments of creative insight more likely. Studies on insight tend to show that as a cognitive event, insight  comes about as a kind of a “pulse” of activity and relaxation in the brain:

    ….Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past fifteen years trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight. Jung-Beeman became interested in the nature of insight in the early nineteen-nineties, while researching the right hemisphere of the brain. Mentions Jonathan Schooler. Jung-Beeman decided to compare word puzzles—or Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A. Problems)—solved. He teamed up with John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexler University, and they combined fMRI and EEG (electroencephalography) testing to scan people’s brains while they solved the puzzles. The resulting studies, published in 2004 and 2006, found that people who solved puzzles with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity. A small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), becomes unusually active in the second before the insight. Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight. As Kounios sees it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections. Mentions Joy Bhattacharya and Henri Poincaré. The brain area responsible for recognizing insight is the prefrontal cortex. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., spent years studying the prefrontal cortex. He was eventually able to show that it wasn’t simply an aggregator of information, but rather it was more like a conductor, waving its baton and directing the players. In 2001, Miller and Princeton neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen published an influential paper laying out their theory of how the prefrontal cortex controls the rest of the brain. It remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot. An insight is just a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge.

    Another interesting data point to consider re: “silence” and insight is that the mental illness of schizophrenia, where delusions and other mental “noise” exists is significantly negatively correlated with insight.  Researchers are currently investigating if meditation can ease the symptoms of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

    For myself, I find my best ideas come via insight when I am doing something primarily physical requiring steady but not all of my concentration and I am alone – working out, walking the dog, a household chore and so on. Relatively useful ideas can happen when I am reading or writing or debating (i.e. interacting with a text or a person), but they tend to be analytic and derivative, sort of an intellectual “tweaking” or “tinkering” but not ones that are fundamentally creative or synthesizing.

    Lexington Green may be right – Silence is golden.


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