In my regular column in Haaretz, my new article: “The Fundamental Flaw Behind the Cyber Attack”
The best way to secure cyberspace has nothing to do with computer technology and everything to do with human nature.
The massive cyber-attack the world has been under for several days now is a serious wakeup call for all of us. It is still unclear how many facilities and individuals have been affected and to what extent, but this is clearly the most widespread ransomware attack in history.
For the most part, the $300 US ransom those affected were required to pay were more symbolic than actual financial damages. Yet, the extent and speed of the spread should teach us several things: 1) no agency is hack-proof, not even the National Security Association (NSA), whose stolen software, WannaCry, is used in this ransomware; 2) today, inflicting widespread damage requires only a computer geek with plenty of ill-will; 3) there is no way to completely guard from such attacks.
Incomprehensible Capability to Harm
Consider this scenario: A terrorist hacker simultaneously infiltrates the computer system of several large hospitals in Iran and installs malicious software. The malware changes the prescriptions of drugs to thousands of patients causing a mass poisoning that kills hundreds of patients. The malware is built in such a way that it points to Israel as the perpetrator. How Iran would retaliate is anyone’s guess but the risk of starting an all-out war is evident.
Consider another scenario: A hacker breaks into the navigation system of a passenger jet, causing it to crash into a crowded residential area. With today’s hacking capabilities, a 9/11 type scenario would not require terrorists to hijack planes. They could simply hijack their systems in midair and cause the same damage without risking themselves.
Hacking can also hit us on a very personal level. Imagine that one morning you wake up to find that your bank account with all your savings has been emptied by what seems like a legal withdrawal. When you call the bank, they tell you that you made the transaction; it is even documented in their computers.
Train derailments, uncooling of nuclear reactors, traffic lights turning green all at the same time, drugs and dosages being changed in hospitals so as to cause harm, records of government decisions deleted or changed… In an age when everything is controlled by computer networks, anything can be hacked and sabotaged. We should know: No firewall or anti-malware is hack-proof.
Machines Control Us, but Unhinged Narcissists Control Them
Globalization and the internet provide endless opportunities for happiness. Think of all the people you can meet on Facebook, all the places and things you can see on Instagram, and all the products you can buy at huge discounts on eBay. Also, today there is no need to go to stores when you can order literally everything online.
But instead of enjoying ourselves, exploiting these possibilities for pleasure, these developments only increase our loneliness and pain. Social media has become a replacement for real friendship, and people use it to broadcast the most sickening acts that humans can do to one another. According to CNN, Facebook is planning to hire thousands of people to help review users’ posts following multiple incidents of people sharing videos of suicide and murder. The WannaCry ransomware has demonstrated that instead of benefitting from our interconnectedness, we fear it.
We have turned over control to virtual machines, but unrestrained narcissists control these machines and use them to manipulate and exploit us. The virtual arena not only reflects our ruthless, callous nature, it even emphasizes it because the relative anonymity of the virtual realm allows us to show our true, pitiless hearts. If anything good is to come out of the online realm we have developed, it is the recognition of evil—the acknowledgement that our nature is evil to the core, and without taming our very nature, we can forget about peace or peace of mind.
An Anti-Malware for the Ego
There is a way to tame the ego, if we are only willing to open our minds and hearts to it. It is thousands of years old and stems directly from the cradle of civilization. The progenitor of the method is Abraham, father of Isaac, Ishmael, and subsequently all Abrahamic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In the days of Abraham, his town of Ur of the Chaldeans—a bustling city in the Babylonian Empire—was struggling with a similar problem to ours: excessive egoism was destroying the social order. Some sources, such as Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer (Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer), detail the extent of the enmity among the ancient Babylonians. The book writes that at some point, the builders of the Tower of Babel became so hateful toward each other that they hammered their plowshares into swords and their pruning hooks into spears, so to speak, and slaughtered one another. Naturally, the building of the tower was never completed.
When Abraham saw the hatred among his townspeople, he reflected on this day and night, writes Maimonides in Mishneh Torah (Chapter 1). Maimonides also writes that Abraham discovered that there is only one, uniform force in the world, which always manifests through opposites: heat and cold, expansion and contraction, giving and receiving, life and death, etc.
Abraham also discovered that in nature, everything is harmonious and balanced because the two opposites manifest equally. Yet, in humans, the negative manifestations have such dominance in society that the positive ones barely show. This is why the Torah writes, “The inclination of a man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).
Additionally, the sage from Babylon realized that forcefully suppressing the ego was hopeless. His father, Terah, was no ordinary man. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah) tells us that Terah was a high-ranking priest in the Babylonian Empire, who built and sold icons for a living and had contact with the Babylonian king, Nimrod. Abraham, who grew up with him and stood in for him at the shop, knew about the ways the Babylonians dealt with their problems and recognized their futility.
Therefore, instead of fighting with the ego head on, Abraham suggested something so radically different that to this day it is a novel approach. He said, “If you can’t suppress your hatred, use it as a tool to increase your love for others, and that way cover your hatred with love.” Several generations later, King Solomon capped Abraham’s method with his adage, “Hate stirs strife, and love covers all crimes” (Proverbs 10:12).
How Hate Increases Love (if used correctly)
Abraham’s idea was revolutionary, but implementing it was quite easy: Every time the ego increases and people become more hateful toward each other, use this enmity as an indication that it’s time to increase unity. When there is no hatred, people mind their own business and have no need to unite. They get along but they are basically indifferent to each other. But when hatred manifests among them, they can either part ways or strengthen their unity and brotherhood to match the increased hatred. The result of such work on unity is that brotherhood among people increases proportionally to the intensification of the hatred.
Think of it this way: If you build a house where there are hardly any winds, you do not need to make the walls exceptionally strong. But if you build it in an area that is prone to hurricanes and fierce storms, you must build it that much stronger in order to withstand the weather. As a result, your house would be much stronger.
Abraham realized that the intensifying hatred was therefore an opportunity to restore the balance between positive and negative that exists in nature but is absent in humans. Moreover, the conscious effort to unite made people aware of nature’s modus operandi and granted them wisdom that they could not otherwise acquire.
With this knowledge, Abraham’s descendants built the social system by which the ancient Hebrews were arranged. That system was so perfect, just, and balanced, that it became the basis of human justice to this day. Historian Paul Johnson wrote in the prologue to his book A History of the Jews: “No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. At a very early stage in their collective existence, they believed they had detected a divine scheme for the human race, of which their own society was to be a pilot.” Even the most notorious anti-Semite in American history, Henry Ford, noticed the importance of the ancient society of the Hebrews to humankind. In his book The International Jew—the World’s Foremost Problem, Ford wrote, “Modern reformers, who are constructing model social systems, would do well to look into the social system under which the early Jews were organized.”
Restoring Abraham’s Method
When Abraham’s descendants and followers achieved a sufficient level of unity, they were declared a nation, after committing to unite “as one man with one heart.” For more than a thousand years, they struggled with their growing egos and overcame them, all along improving their method of unity above hatred.
Yet, 2,000 years ago, the Jews succumbed to their egos. Awash with unfounded hatred, they helped the Romans overtake the Land of Israel and were exiled and dispersed. But worst of all, they have forgotten the true meaning of Judaism—to exalt love over hatred, to love your neighbor as yourself.
Today’s world has become worse than Abraham’s Babylon. We are not only killing one another like the builders of the Tower of Babel, we relish our selfishness and take pride in our narcissism. We want more of everything not because we need more, but because we need to have more than others! The need for superiority is the sovereign of our hearts. And as we are fighting one another, we are destroying ourselves just as cancer destroys the healthy cells around it until it kills its host and at the same time itself.
Despite its widespread damage, the WannaCry ransomware is but a tiny sample of the harm the human ego can inflict. It is a warning sign that no one is protected. All of humanity is in this together. The more humanity becomes technically interdependent, without correcting our attitude toward each other, the more suffering our interconnectedness will cause us.
We have failed at suppressing our egos, so now we must learn how to use them to increase our unity, just as Abraham did almost four millennia ago. This may seem like a formidable task, but the history of the Jews proves otherwise. If we rise above our cynicism and resignation, we will achieve such powerful solidarity and mutual concern that our unity will dwarf even that of our ancestors.
In the process, we, too, like Abraham, will reveal the unity that drives all of nature into harmony. We will find that meaning in hatred can be found only when it is turned into love of others, and that love of others does not exist unless through our efforts to unite above our hatred. If we choose to meet the challenge, we will emerge united and triumphant over our egos. If we capitulate, we will be tormented beyond belief.