The True Believer Revisited
Tim Madigan on September 11th and on a longshoreman who understood the psychology of mass movements.
After the initial horrified reaction I experienced on September 11th, my first question was: How could the terrorists have sacrificed their own lives, and taken the lives of thousands of others, as well as causing such colossal destruction? What could lead them to justify in their own minds committing mass atrocities? This goes far beyond a debate over religious beliefs, to the very heart of human nature: what allows certain people to override any sense of community with their fellow human beings, and willfully cause death and destruction for the sake of a higher cause?
I was reminded of a book I hadn’t read in over fifteen years, and its observations on the rise of mass movements and the leaders of them, who called upon their followers to annihilate all who differed with their worldviews. The work, entitled The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements was written by Eric Hoffer (1902-1983), a very unconventional man and a freethinker. The son of Alsatian immigrants to the United States, he was born in New York City. Orphaned at the age of 5, he went blind at 7. Mysteriously, his sight was restored at the age of 15 – this period of blindness perhaps affected his own perceptions on the world, and made him appreciate the capriciousness of human existence.