Thursday, November 19, 2015

Fearing Fear

“And argue not with the People of the Scripture [Jews and Christians] unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with which of them as do wrong, and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is one, and unto Him we surrender.”   Qur’an, 29:46

Fear. It is our most potent and driving emotion, from which comes much of our most destructive behavior. We fear most that over which we have minimal control, and that includes a great deal of Life itself. Fear is also a marketable commodity. Fear buys votes for politicians, generates dollars for fundraisers, and sends sufferers to the pharmacy for pain-numbing drugs. Fear is also the fundamental basis for terrorism.

Terrorism is a war of a different sort. Conventional war is all about maximizing overwhelming power in order to take things – territory, riches, resources or people. The terrorist does not pretend to have the sheer numbers of his enemy. Rather, terrorists optimize their small numbers by the disproportionate power of their impact. They strike the most vulnerable and innocent targets close to their enemy’s home, thereby destabilizing the confidence and security of everyday life. Eight terrorists kill 120 and injure hundreds in Paris as they come together to eat and play. 20 terrorists kill 3000 people in New York’s Twin Towers. The few overwhelm the many, with the hope of winning by creating panic in the masses. A panic that will then demand a retreat from the terrorists’ insidious war of attrition.

Modern urban terrorism is not a new phenomenon. It was given birth by the Irish Republican Army a century ago as a tool to gain Irish independence from hundreds of years of subjugation by mighty England. It succeeded for most of Ireland in the 1920s, but was continued by minority Catholics in the Protestant bastion of Northern Ireland into the 1990s. Thereby, it spawned a legion of imitators the world over, the equalizer between the powerless against the powerful.

In the wake of the Paris slaughter, am I now prone to fear? Yes, but not in fear of my life, even though I am as vulnerable to a terrorist killing as much as any other American. Statistically, I am far more apt to be killed by a drunken driver careening into my car, or some hate-filled or drug-crazed individual going on a shooting spree for attention or revenge. No, my fear is that terrorism – whether internal or abroad – will succeed in creating enough fear in America that we will lose ourselves, and our very meaning as a nation, to our irrational fears. That the terrorists will succeed in getting America to turn on itself and allow the worst of our emotions, thoughts and actions to emerge and dominate our character and our decisions.

We have been here before, when fear, along with its partner anger, have taken the helm. The fear of slave rebellion drove the legal and social code of the American South for 200 hundred years, and the anger at the loss of that code generated another 100 years of violence and oppression against African-Americans. The Ku Klux Klan, our own homegrown Protestant terrorist group, used violence and intimidation against Blacks, Catholics, and Jews to try to preserve a way of life not worth preserving. Following Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese-American citizens were stripped of their homes and legal rights, and arbitrarily sent to “relocation camps” for the duration of World War II. In the 1950s, fear of Communism and “the bomb” caused Americans to turn on their neighbors and gave rise to Joe McCarthy and Congressional inquisition. Today, more Joe McCarthys continue to lurk in our shadows.

Our fear today is directed towards all those who seem intent on destroying “traditional America,” be it the violence of the armed terrorist or the evil forces of social change. We have a Christian preacher in Iowa hosting a “religious gathering” in which he called for the killing of all homosexuals “as the Bible demands.” Three presidential candidates elected to attend that gathering, implicitly endorsing the event and its message. Facebook is replete with pictures and words stating that Islam is an evil religion out to kill Americans and install sharia law. Yet it is highly doubtful that even one in 1000 of the people creating or “liking” these postings has ever read the Qur’an, talked with a Moslem, or has any idea what sharia law even is. (Has anyone read all of the Old Testament laws in their entirety lately?) Advocates of the view of Islam as an intolerant and warring religion, based upon the history of oppression and conquest by many of its leaders, fail to look at the similar history of many leaders claiming to be of the Christian faith. The mirror we choose to look into often fails to send back a true reflection.

We post pictures of ourselves overlaid by the French tricolors and claim solidarity with the citizens of Paris. But we post no such solidarity when 43 people are killed by terrorists in Beirut, or 200,000 Syrians are systematically annihilated, or 224 people are killed in the bombing of a Russian airplane. Are Lebanese or Russian or Syrian peoples somehow unworthy of our similar concern? We freak out when 10,000 Middle Eastern refugees are invited to America, even as Germany is accepting 800,000 such refugees. The land of immigrants closes its borders, and over 20 state governors vow to slam their doors shut, all because of fears of a chance that a few terrorists will hide in the mix. Fear of a potential of 10 terrorists trumps the moral challenge to us of the 9,990 who are themselves victims of terrorists.

Our enemy is not Islam. Islam clearly instructs its followers to have no quarrel with the faithful of non-Islamic religions, an instruction ignored by today’s terrorists. Moslems who follow the true practices and spirit of Islam are themselves victims of terrorism, by terrorists who violate the fundamental teachings of Islam. Our true enemy is hopelessness. When people lose hope (as many Middle Easterners have over this past century), when people believe they have lost the power to direct the results and security of their life and their family, that is when all people are at their most dangerous. Without hope, consumed in fear, desperate people are capable of doing the worst things – including resorting to terrorism as a last resort. Bombs and prudent and appropriate security measures are certainly necessary in the short-term. But bombs and bullets alone will never solve our terrorist problem, as 14 years of unending war against terrorism have shown. Until we alleviate disrespect and hopelessness caused by the historical subjugation and exploitation of the Middle East, our problem with terrorism will be our continuing future.

For their crimes against humanity, terrorists must be defeated in all nations for the benefit of all peoples, because as ISIS and their likes have shown, terrorism is no longer place bound. But in choosing our actions we need to act out of thoughtful decisions of what will be truly effective in the long term, rather than following misguided reactions driven by ill-informed fears.

This is the real fear I have for America. A fear of our looming descent into ethical chaos, as many who complain about their supposed inability to practice their own religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment simultaneously seek to deny adherents of a different religion their guaranteed freedom of practice. A fear of our growing tendency to judge people by labeling them as a group instead of meeting them as individuals. Reactions like these are occurring too frequently in America. From fear, we are turning our back on the very promise and idea of America. Our fear needs to stop. We must be the ones to stop it.

©  2015   Randy Bell