When Homo sapiens evolved tens of thousands of years ago, we acquired the powerful skill of cooperation within our group. But a side effect was the belief that our group was special. We were The People (a common translation of group’s names for themselves all across the globe). Other groups were The Other, and, by definition, less than/and or a threat to The People. As a result we demonized all other groups and fought them when necessary. Over the millennia we have gotten extremely sophisticated in the arts of demonizing The Other as The Enemy. In addition we believe that our survival and, often, the future of the human race, depends on our vanquishing The Enemy.
As a modern example, what is the purpose of the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen if not to eliminate every single member of Al Qaeda?
Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our wisest president, had an enlightened view on the idea of “enemy.” Dr. Scott Atran, an anthropologist who wrote a book called Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists in 2010, told this story to Krista Tippett on her show “On Being”:
You know, Abraham Lincoln is making a speech during the latter stages of the Civil War where he's describing the Southern rebels as human beings like anyone else.
An elderly woman, a staunch Unionist, abrades him for speaking kindly of his enemies when he should only be thinking of destroying them. Lincoln says to the woman, "Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" If you think about it, wars are truly won only in two ways. You either exterminate your enemy or you make them your friends. I think that we have not thought very deeply about the latter alternative, especially when I see how we're reacting to these young [potential Islamic terrorists] around the world.
Dr. Atran went on to discuss the transformative power of the Internet; how it is breaking down those ancient barriers of group and forging a new global identity.
I see the vast possibilities of this world, of a social brain. Just think about the networking possibilities of knowledge and access to knowledge that people have now. I mean, again, people now in New Guinea can link up with what people in New York are doing and work together with their different experiences and come up with new possibilities for human life. And this is happening at an incredibly fast rate and it's something that I don't think our traditional political establishments are at all capable of dealing with and I think there will be huge upheavals as a result, economic and social.
My favorite example of this transformation: watching a cat video on YouTube and realizing the language being spoken isn’t English…the Iranians and Japanese play with their cats just like we do. We are all members of one family, the human family.
[Krista Tippett, "On Being," “Demonstrations, Hopes and Dreams,” Feb 10, 2011.]