PROBABLY the most
striking comment in recent coverage of the ever-worsening problem of
Somali piracy was that by a BBC World Service expert who observed the
pirates "had no fear of dying" whatsoever.
The expert also reminded listeners that a ragged band of the pirates'
countrymen had succeeded in chasing America's elite soldiers from
Mogadishu in 1993 (an ignominious piece of recent "peace-keeping"
history that was memorably depicted in the film, Black Hawk Down).
And to emphasise the ferocity of the Somalis, on the same day the most
significant item in the printed media's coverage of the piratical
contagion was a report that an Indian warship had been attacked by a pirate
"mothership" which was then
(predictably) blown out of the water.
Such indifference by those
responsible to the risks to life or limb would seem to be a mysterious
but fantastic aptitude in any army, but it is not quite as inexplicable
as it might at first seem.
The diagnosis is simple enough:
easily available weaponry and drugs.
In the case of the exceptionally
violent, wealthy and gun-toting young brigands of the Horn of Africa,
the intoxicating culprit is khat - the
local trance-inducing leaf that is a
staple of daily life in that part of the world, and which might be
thought of as a kind of African coca leaf.
Remarkably, for those of us who have to contend with really serious
violence in Ireland, the worsening
anarchy around the Western reaches of the Indian Ocean is actually
frighteningly comparable with the drug-induced violence that is
spreading virally around this little
And the reason for being so fearful is that most of the violence
reported almost daily is now clearly "limbic" - a descriptive medical
word which sadly resonates with cities like
Limerick and Dublin in more ways than one.
The "limbic system" is a
neighbourhood of brain structures (with intriguing 19th century names,
like hippocampus, amygdala and
nucleus accumbens), which are
crucially concerned with regulating "higher" human functions like
emotion, behaviour, long-term
memory, and smell.
As with all brain science, a precise understanding of the system is
decades away, but what seems to be emerging is of profound importance to the
contemporary debate about violence in the human world, and most
importantly in contemporary Ireland.
Put crudely, the limbic system is a crucial "relay station" between
higher brain centres and the hind brain and spinal cord: in a nutshell,
it connects the primitive impulsive nervous
system with the evolved self-reflective human "mind".
And it is increasingly thought to be pivotal in the way emotional
behaviours are self-regulated.
Originally, the basis of this discovery was postmortem studies of the
brains of emotionally-disturbed individuals, but recent scientific
research has placed the system at the root of a great deal of bizarre,
aggressive and highly excitable behaviour.
Unsurprising too is the particularly intimate place in all of this of the
nucleus accumbens, the brain's so-called "pleasure centre", which plays
a role in sexual arousal and the "high" derived from recreational drugs.
The growing body of research
findings regarding the limbic system is fascinating in itself, of
course, but the practical implications should be of
immense interest to policy-makers, politicians and people in general. Why?
Well because science now explains what advertising executives have
understood for so long: men really can't help acting on impulse.
And messing with the limbic system means that men (and women) will be
driven - uninhibited by normal "thoughtfulness" - by the most primitive
The results can be devastating, as Dr Harry Barry, an inspiring Louth
general practitioner, recently argued at a conference in Cork on
depression and suicide.
He cogently explained that many of our young male suicides (especially)
had absolutely no prior intention of taking their lives but the
compromise of their limbic systems, induced by any assortment of
intoxicating agents, from alcohol to cannabis, magic mushrooms or
cocaine, meant that they acted lethally purely out of
primordial instinct or impulse. In
other words, no thinking was
Of course, precisely the same
impulsivity applies in many homicides.
Indeed, the more unprovoked,
brutal, or inexplicable the killing is, the more likely that limbic
system malfunction has caused the literally "sub-human" behaviour.
Such malfunction can occur after head injury, severe infections or
malnutrition and it can occur
congenitally (as in foetal alcohol
syndrome or in association with
maternal smoking), creating "terrible toddlers".
However, the vast majority of cases of consequence are due to
intoxication in young adults. And the more drugs - particularly alcohol,
cannabis and cocaine - that are
consumed, the more likely that limbic system malfunction will occur,
with catastrophic consequences.
Taking these drugs together can produce a terrifying synergy, which may
kill the user suddenly or lead them to kill others, abruptly.
None of this comes as any great
surprise to historians of warfare who have long understood that the
"destructive instinct that impels men to war... is a weak one, and often
requires a great deal of help".
So Alexander the Great's Greek
hoplites drank copious amounts of wine before battle, as did Chinese
troops in the era of Sun Tzu; Aztecs drank pulque (a beer made from the
cactus-like maguey plant), Yanomamo Indians of the Amazon ingested an
hallucinogenic concoction and the Ancient Scythians smoked marijuana.
The net, predictable result was a kind of "limbic trance" which enabled
the unthinking warrior to "mimic the devouring wild dog".
Perhaps the best cinematic example of the awesome power of "limbic
trance" is seen in the movie Zulu, which depicted the Battle of
Isandlwana in 1879, when 20,000
Zulu Impi warriors sprinted through a hail of bullets to ritually
disembowel 1,300 well-armed British soldiers.
Historians believe that this stunning victory
was enabled by a fear-aborting cocktail fed to the Impi, of high-potency
cannabis snuff, pain-killing "Bushman Poison Bulb" and
hallucinogenic red mushrooms.
Two centuries later and a
hemisphere away, similar limbic system behavioural predominance is
occurring all over this island.
The usual suspects (maternal, paternal, fraternal) are at work but
critical new elements are industrial quantities of cannabis, cocaine and
The recent appalling murders of Shane Geoghegan and Roy Collins -
classics of the impulsive, indiscriminate, "limbic" sort - led some to
describe the perpetrators as "scum".
Such language is understandable, but ironically it is itself impulsive, and
distracts us from the core issue.
"Scum" is an unhelpful word
because violence is not about the "worth" of a person, moral or
otherwise, but is primarily about
And the prevention of violence must focus on restoring the natural and
necessary regulation of impulsivity by the normally working mind.
This of course means impulsivity uncontrolled by both on-off and
perpetual intoxication (which means that the violence becomes part of
the drug-using community's standard behavioural "norm", even at times
when a drug hasn't just been consumed).
As a society, we can take comfort
in the knowledge that few humans are innately homicidal. But we must
learn from history: from Vietnam to
Isandlwana, from the Congo to Croom, homicide, massacre and
genocide are rarely committed by the completely sober.
They are fuelled - often at the
behest of cunning commanders - by a toxic impulsivity that lurks beneath
the higher brain structures in all of us.
Understanding this offers prospects for progress through calibrated
treatment of identifiable deficiencies, whether they be nutritional,
educational or, above all, toxicological.
But to any lawyer or libertarian who might seek to explain away this
predictable, self-inflicted malfunction, I would advise against formally
blaming the limbic system just yet.