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Acts of Violence, Fear of The Unknown, Xenophobia

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Last week’s tragedy in Norway once again raises important questions about ethnic hatred and violence. Norway is known for being one of the most peaceful nations in the world. It’s people are tolerant, gentle and generous. It is for these reasons that they happily accepted and embraced immigrants into their country. It seems that this is what led to the violent bombing and shootings that caused so many deaths and shook Norwegians and other Europeans to the core.

According to news reports, Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect, professes anti Muslim, pro white and pro Christian beliefs and politics. His plan was to incite similar minded people around the world to rise up and commit similar violent acts against foreigners. His professed fear was that Europe and the world were being colonized by Muslims.

Why do violent acts as those based on ethnic hatred, occur?

The answer has a lot to do with the term, xenophobia. We know that a phobia is a fear of something to which we have been exposed that had an aversive impact on our lives. For instance, I have known people who, after having been stuck in an elevator, cannot enter any other such conveyance because of a deep seated fear that they cannot control.

Xenophobia is much the same except for the fact that the fearful response is to people who are foreign or alien. After the 9/11 attacks, some Americans become xenophobic to anyone perceived to be Arab or Muslim. Airplane passengers refused to fly with them, others demanded that Muslims be deported and a few even perpetrated violent acts upon completely innocent American Muslims and Arabs. In at least one case that was reported, someone from India was mistaken for being Muslim and was attacked almost ending his life.

A unique reality of life today is that modern travel and communication has brought the world together as never before. Through the internet people communicate with each other from the most distant places possible. Internet communication comes not only through E. Mail but through internet telephone service that has made calling inexpensive. More than a telephone call, people can use Skype and other video services, to have face to face contact with one another without leaving their office or home. Several years ago, I received an E. Mail inquiry from someone in George…the former soviet state and now an independent country. I was startled when he told me that he wanted to see me about couples counseling for him and his girlfriend. The appointment was made with information about my address, etc. I was even more startled when he and his girlfriend appeared for the session. Speaking perfect English and with only the slightest of accents, they told me about their problems. Several weeks later they flew back to Georgia.

This is the paradox of today. The fact that modern technology has brought the world close together, that very close proximity has spurred fear and hatred. 

This fear of anyone foreign is irrational and dangerous. Yet, in a time of great anxiety about the world’s economy and acts of terrorism, it’s important that everyone resist the appeal of demagogues who want to prey upon our worst nightmares.

It is too easy, as it always has been in troubled times, to pick a scapegoat and use them as a target for all of our frustrations. This is not healthy and can lead to dreadful consequences.

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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