Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability.
From time to time, I’ve wondered what it must be like to live in a truly tribal society. Watching Iraq or Syria these past few years, you get curious about how the collective mind can come so undone. What’s it like to see the contours of someone’s face, or hear his accent, or learn the town he’s from, and almost reflexively know that he is your foe? How do you live peacefully for years among fellow citizens and then find yourself suddenly engaged in the mass murder of humans who look similar to you, live around you, and believe in the same God, but whose small differences in theology mean they must be killed before they kill you? In the Balkans, a long period of relative peace imposed by communism was shattered by brutal sectarian and ethnic warfare, as previously intermingled citizens split into unreconcilable groups. The same has happened in a developed democratic society — Northern Ireland — and in one of the most successful countries in Africa, Kenya.
Tribal loyalties turned Beirut, Lebanon’s beautiful, cosmopolitan capital, into an urban wasteland in the 1970s; they caused close to a million deaths in a few months in Rwanda in the 1990s; they are turning Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, into an enabler of ethnic cleansing right now in Myanmar. British imperialists long knew that the best way to divide and conquer was by creating “countries” riven with tribal differences. Not that they were immune: Even in successful modern democracies like Britain and Spain, the tribes of Scots and Catalans still threaten a viable nation-state. In all these places, the people involved have been full citizens of their respective nations, but their deepest loyalty is to something else.
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