Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Our Enemies are Stupid

Yes, this post is late. It's my birthday; I decided not to get up at 5:30.

I'm pretty sure I've talked about this before, but it struck me again this week, so here it is. TIME Magazine had an essay from an American writer living in France, talking about how her 9 year old son understood the Paris attacks. Ultimately, he was too young to really get what was happening and why, but she overhead him telling his friends, "they blew things up because they're stupid." Now that is a fine response from a nine year old. There's not a whole lot more this kid could to do process what's going on. At its core, violence like this is unfathomable. Adults aren't really equipped to process it either. At the same time, we are capable of understanding the people behind such events, if we make an effort to do so. I applaud this kid for making sense of things as best he could, but adults need to do better than, "they did this because they're stupid" (or evil).

We can't just take events or ideas we don't understand and make the people who espouse them "other." We call them stupid or evil. We differentiate them from ourselves, which helps us handle the trauma of an event, but it also makes "those people" easier to dismiss or kill. This very natural response increases the chasm between "them" and "us," rather than moving towards bridging it. We have to get beyond that first reaction - as humans, it's our unique gift to understand and override our instincts; it's what makes us human. Let's all try to be human as we deal with such horror.

Yes, there is a power dynamic behind terrorism, especially with a proclaimed group like Al Qaeda or ISIS. They want power and they're leveraging religion to do it. This is pretty much how religion has been used from it's inception, to manipulate and motivate people in power games.* Islam is not any more inherently violent than any other religion (they've all been used to kill - even Buddhism, which is pretty much built around not killing people) - the sins of explicitly Christian violence are deep and lengthy - but the terrorism we see in the news right now is carried out by some practitioners of an extreme interpretation of Islam. It's true that countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, where this interpretation is supported and revered are not as quick to address this violence as we'd like.

I don't believe this reticence is because they condone the violence (and we can't negate the reality that there's no reason to fight a war if the US will step in and do it for you), rather because they do, in fact, condone the interpretation that underlies it. Even extreme Wahhabism doesn't require violence, at least in the scale and scope we're seeing it from ISIS. It's a difficult proposition to oppose violence without opposing the rationale behind it. It's a tough spot.

I don't think Saudi Arabia wishes the western world didn't exist, but they'd certainly be happier if our culture was less materialistic, sexualized, and attractive. It's reductionistic and unfair to say Saudis don't want their women driving cars because they're afraid of Kim Kardashian, but I do think that statement begins to communicate the fear that fuels the religion that sometimes breaks out in violence.

The violence is wrong. The religion is difficult to understand, but the fear makes sense to me. I'm a parent. I get why freedom is scary. I'm terrified of my daughter making her own choices in the world because I don't want her to get hurt. I'd also be more comfortable with her making the exact choices I'd make, because that would solve a lot of tension in my life. This notion that the world and all its advantages will somehow make her life more painful or less content is terrifying.

We might see Miley Cyrus gyrating around the television and think, "how could her parents allow this to happen," or "what went on in her life that lead to this." But if we had the power to keep that from happening (not the causes necessarily, but the output, the effects) would we do it? And maybe not specifically that thing, but others - people who leave their dogs outside on cold nights or feed their children 68oz Dr. Peppers, what about people who picket abortion clinics or make it more difficult to own a gun? What sorts of freedoms would we curtail if we could. It's a moot question for us, sure, but it's not for the Saudi royal family. They can do just about anything they want. It's a really difficult power to have.

We know people who are ruthless with their children - maybe ruthless with love and grace, but allowing very little freedom and choice. It's certainly easy for me to shake my head at the parents of some of my college classmates, who found even a restrictive Christian college so liberating they made some really terrible choices. But then I look at my own kids and I have a lot of sympathy.

The first thing I thought when I picked up my newborn daughter was, "I'm responsible for this person," it was overwhelming, but it paled in comparison to the overwhelming feeling that came next. The second thing I thought when I picked up my newborn daughter was, "I have to give this person away." Our job as parents, from the very first moment, is to not hold on too tight. Our kids are human beings, individuals, and while we long to shape and form them over time, we have to work, VERY HARD to - gradually, mind you - give them away. We're responsible for making sure they can be self-sufficient, think critically, make sound decisions - but we don't get to determine what those terms mean. They don't belong to us.

This might seem way off course from a post about terrorism, but this is what I think of immediately when terrorists strike. They're trying to play on our fears, because those fears are so real for them. We think "they" don't understand freedom, but I believe they understand it very well, certainly as well as we do, if not more. They get what freedom means and it's scary.

I live in a western world and from my comments above, you can see where I come down on the freedom issue. I think letting go in love is the best way we can run a society (even if our western societies could improve the way we do it). But I've not so refused to examine that choice that I don't understand the other side of it. I get why some societies, countries, religions, people opt for control. It makes sense - it has to make some sense to any parent that's held a child in their arms. It's a tension parents live with every moment of every day.

Yes, this may not have that much to do with terrorism on the surface, but, I believe, deep down this is the divide between the West and the Islamic world. It's about fear. Our society gives the impression we're not afraid of anything - at least in the way we allow such reckless freedom - so terrorist try to instill that fear in hopes we'll change our ways. Perhaps they need to see more of the ways in which we do fear the freedom we allow; it would certainly provide a window into our world that could humanize us enough to prevent violence.

I just hope we can similarly see into the control they live out. It appears heartless and unloving (and maybe for those in positions of power, it is), but at the core I think there is genuine care and love there. No one takes such extreme action out of unfeeling. It's a choice. A different choice than I want to make, but a choice I do kind of understand. It's that understanding that makes truly different people human - and, hopefully, helps us understand enough not to answer violence with violence.

The problem with this back and forth between fear and freedom is that they're not operating on a level playing field. Fear breeds more fear; it's possible to share your fear with others and make them afraid; this is the point of terrorism. It's not really possible to make people free. We can't use force (violent or otherwise) to stop fear, to bring freedom. This is the folly of our "nation building" around the world. It doesn't work that way.

Only love drives out fear. The only effective response to fear is love. And we cannot love that which we consider wholly other. We can't treat people humanely who we've dehumanized. No one is truly stupid; that's just a cop out. People are simply misunderstood. We can disagree without dehumanizing and we can get beyond our fear reactions to love people to freedom. I really believe that. It's the only reason I think this life is worth living.

But we have to get beyond the separation. We have to know each other, or at least make the effort. We can't rely on making someone else evil or stupid to let us off the hook. We may have opponents or adversaries, but we don't have enemies. Life doesn't work that way.

*Now, this isn't the only use of religion, so my statement shouldn't been seen as a condemnation of religion. I do have real concerns about the place of religion in our lives and society and, if you're an avid reader here, am pretty sympathetic to the notion of "religionless Christianity" as expressed by Bonhoeffer and explored currently by people like Peter Rollins - but I don't think the argument that "religion hurts people," so often espoused by prominent atheists makes sense, at least not for the reasons they so often use.

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