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There’s a simple theory that explains new bloodshed in the Middle East

Last week in Jerusalem, a Hasidic rabbi in a long black coat waited for a bus. Suddenly a white car hurtled down the road and crashed into the bus stop, knocking the rabbi to the ground. Security-camera footage shows the driver emerged from the car brandishing a sharp blade and began to stab the victim, hacking at a heap of black on the ground.

This scene, posted online shortly after the stabbing, was one of more than 20 attacks allegedly committed by Palestinians across Israel and the West Bank since the beginning of this month—a wave of violence that some are calling the “knife intifada.”

Palestinian violence is typically portrayed as either an inevitable outgrowth of Israel’s policies in the West Bank or as the direct result of Palestinian leaders’ incitement. But although we cannot dismiss the relevance of these big-picture explanations, neither perspective can quite explain the recent spate of stabbings.

[pullquote]The stabbings appear to be disorganized and relatively spontaneous.[/pullquote]These attacks are markedly different from suicide bombings in the region. Suicide bombings are typically planned by organized terrorist groups and require some degree of expertise, forethought and access to explosives. By contrast, the stabbings appear to be disorganized and relatively spontaneous, set in motion by by a single attack that became a starting shot. Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of the tipping point—a phrase that initially referred to the critical moment at which an infectious disease morphs into an epidemic—may help us understand this outbreak.

In a New Yorker article published earlier this month, Gladwell suggests that the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, gave rise to the contemporary epidemic of school shootings.

“The sociologist Ralph Larkin argues that Harris and Klebold laid down the ‘cultural script’ for the next generation of shooters,” writes Gladwell. “They had a Web site. They made home movies starring themselves as hit men. They wrote lengthy manifestos. They recorded their ‘basement tapes.’ Their motivations were spelled out with grandiose specificity: Harris said he wanted to ‘kick-start a revolution.’”

There are parallels in the Oct. 2 Facebook post by Muhannad Halabi, a 19-year-old law student from the outskirts of Ramallah. The next day, he fatally stabbed two ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and wounded one of the men’s wife and 2-year-old son in the Old City of Jerusalem.

“The third intifada has begun,” Halabi posted on Facebook. “The people will rise up; indeed, we are rising up.”

The subsequent surge in stabbings can be traced back to Halabi. Peter Beaumont, The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent, wrote this week that if there is an “element of imitation” in the recent attacks on Israel’s streets and buses, Halabi’s actions appear “as much as anything to have served as trigger.”

[pullquote]Several studies have shown that social epidemics can transmit such seemingly non-contagious ailments as substance abuse and suicide. [/pullquote]Behavioral contagion has been a popular way to explain social trends since late-19th-century France, although empirical research didn’t begin until the 1950s, according to an overview by British consumer psychologist Paul Marsden.

“The implications of this social contagion research are radical,” Marsden wrote. “The evidence suggests that under certain circumstances, mere ‘touch’ or ‘contact’ with culture appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur.”

People don’t even need to be on the same continent to catch this kind of disease. Its spread depends more on the influence of your reference group than your neighbors. Several studies have shown that social epidemics can transmit such seemingly non-contagious ailments as substance abuse and suicide. Adolescents may be particularly susceptible to peer influence, according to a 2007 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

A similar kind of social transmission has been documented with mass psychogenic illness, in which many people report the same symptoms but no medical or environmental cause can be found. During the Persian Gulf War, for instance, 38% of Israeli civilians in the immediate vicinity of the Iraq’s first missile attack on Israel reported breathing problems, though fears of chemical weapons turned out to be unfounded.

As for suicide, a 1989 American Journal of Epidemiology study was the first to document that suicide outbreaks occur more frequently than chance would predict, demonstrating significant clustering of suicides in the same time period and location among 15- to 19-year-olds. Subsequent research has also found evidence of suicide contagion, with one American Sociological Review study last year showing that teenagers with no history of suicidal thoughts or attempts are vulnerable to developing new suicidal thoughts after a friend or family member commits suicide or attempts to do so.

[pullquote]Frequency and familiarity can turn inconceivable acts into dangerously common events.[/pullquote]In The Tipping Point, Gladwell writes about a suicide epidemic among boys and young men on the South Pacific islands of Micronesia, where by the late 1980s there were more suicides per capita than anywhere else in the world. There was a formula to the violence—suicide by hanging—just as patterns have repeated in US school shootings and in the stabbing attacks in Israel. In Micronesia, hanging oneself had become an accepted response to a minor argument with friends or parents. The frequency and familiarity of these acts turned what had been an inconceivable response to an insult into a dangerously common reaction.

Israel is now undergoing precisely this kind of unwelcome transformation. Israeli Jews, particularly those in more frequently targeted places like Jerusalem, have added self-defense accessories like pepper spray, umbrellas and selfie sticks to their wardrobes, and may feel they have reason to fear any Arab who stands too close.

Arabs have reason to be afraid too. They could be killed by a mob, like the innocent Eritrean bystander who was beaten by a crowd and shot by an Israeli security guard who mistook him for a Palestinian attacker. Or they could be stabbed on sight, as was the case when a Haifa-area Jewish man was attacked by another Jewish man for the crime of looking too much like an Arab. As the contagion here in Israel spreads, the unthinkable is all too quickly becoming the commonplace.

We welcome your ideas at ideas@qz.com.

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