My heart is breaking for Paris right now. I think most of the world’s heart is breaking for Paris right now. My heart is also breaking for Raqqa. My heart is also raging, because I’m sure that the official response is going to include violence, and one of the reasons that guerrilla tactics are effective is that there’s no head of the snake or body of the lion in the way there is with traditional fighting forces. Innocent bystanders will be killed in the course of a military response, and those deaths will not all be caused by the terrorists we’re fighting.
The most difficult piece for me personally is that I understand why there will undoubtedly be a “show of force” in response to the attacks on Paris. When people that are included in our sense of tribe are hurt, we want to return the favor to the people who did the hurting. We want to make the people who did the hurting incapable of hurting anyone else again, so we hurt them. To death, if we can find them.
I struggle with my emotional understanding of this inclination, because it’s very much at odds with something that I have come to believe with increasing strength as an adult: life is better when we can all see each other as part of the same tribe. And as much as the violence in Raqqa and Paris makes me sick to my stomach, as much as the epidemic of school shootings makes me clench my fists, as much as the egregious misuse of police force against black people makes me ashamed of the brokenness of our law enforcement system…those terrorists and lone gunmen and undertrained cops are still part of our tribe.
And we are failing them.
I was watching Phantom of the Opera a few weeks ago, and this scene hit me like a ton of bricks:
For those of you who don’t know the story, the Phantom was treated very badly as a child because of his deformity and found solace in both the opera and his love for Christine. His connection to both is threatened. At this point in the movie, he has kidnapped Christine and trussed up her beloved and told her that she either has to agree to marry him or her love will die. She manages to find compassion for him, and her kindness in reaction to his violence is what persuades him to let both her and her lover go.
This moment is the reason I love the Phantom of the Opera: that rare story that has the bravery to suggest that maybe, just maybe, there is a solution to terrorism that doesn’t involve gunning down those who have harmed us. And maybe, just maybe, it starts with trying to understand what has caused the terrorist to feel so thoroughly divorced from the tribe of humanity. Why does the terrorist feel demonized to begin with? How do we change the world so that the terrorist might have grown up feeling like a worthwhile part of a community instead of a spat-upon villain whose voice is never heard?
I’m not a politician, I’m not a military commander, I’m not a historian, I’m not a sociologist. Off the top of my head, I can’t speak to historical case studies or make plausible predictions about how any “strong response” will play out. I won’t try to make some blowhard statement about what the world should do in response to the ongoing issue with terrorism because my broken heart just doesn’t know. What I am is a writer and what I can offer is the work of my imagination. So here are some ideas about what we can do, at home, ourselves, on a local scale, to try to make the world a place where every single piece of our tribe feels like they are welcome and cared for and important and part of us.
The plight of the families trying to flee Syria and reach safety is appalling. Relocating a lot of people quickly is always going to be a hard logistical challenge, but kicking them when they’re down is a great way to make them think that the very people they’re fleeing might just have a point about the rest of the world. Let’s feed them, shelter them, hire them, and get to know them. They are human beings. They are part of our tribe. Let’s not isolate them.
People who have the means to make a decent living (and that means pretty damn far above the minimum wage even in the U.S.) are less likely to feel marginalized and desperate. I’m assuming: it seems like a common sense assumption, though, so I’m going to go with it. Poverty is a real problem. If I were young and hungry and watching society slap my family with demeaning labels in exchange for barely enough to get by on, I’d probably listen to anyone who offered me hope of something better. So let’s be the solution. Let’s end poverty. Let’s end hunger. Let’s build a world in which it’s actually possible for all people to both do valuable work and earn enough to support themselves and their families. (Personal political opinion: I have more hope that Bernie Sanders could support this goal than any of the other U.S. presidential candidates, so…let’s make “Elect Bernie Sanders” an action item under “End poverty.”)
Better access to education is part of ending poverty and creating wealth. Education can be tough to improve, especially for those who need it most, because poverty has some tough impacts on learning too. But I CANNOT stress this enough: EDUCATION MATTERS (pdf). It opens doors to a quality of life and it opens channels for communication, for spreading the idea that we all thrive when we manage to treat each other with kindness and dignity. So let’s make education possible for every human being.
Cherish the difficult people.
I joke sometimes about starting a Church of Enlightened Self Interest. Our only piece of dogma: life is better when we all do our best to be nice to each other. I hear the news coming out of Syria and Hungary and Paris, and I wonder if I should stop joking and take action, because this inability to see Self in Other is hurting us all. It’s like stabbing ourselves in the eye with a hot poker and pretending we didn’t need that eye anyway because it was twitchy or it had cataracts. So here’s a personal challenge for you: ask yourself who you’re most afraid of, who you would be most likely to strike out at with an animal’s sense of self-preservation if you met them in a dark alley. Make an effort to get to know more about that person and what makes them operate in the ways that scare you. Find some small piece of human connection that let’s you feel even an inkling of compassion. I won’t pretend I’m good at this: it’s damn hard to find a way to take the perspective of people who are willing to hurt me. But I think if we all practiced changing our habits of mind around people we have a hard time understanding, we’ll get better at imagining ways to prevent these violent people from turning violent in the first place.
In the service of ending on a note of hopeful imagination…what if we used our capacity to drop stuff at remote locations to send care packages to our enemies? What if we responded to violence with, for example, coloring books and colored pencils? I’m not saying that the positive benefits of coloring would improve the outlook of ISIS or change anything meaningful, but I am positive that dropping bombs on them isn’t going to make the world a kinder place on the whole. So why not try sending them little presents? Nothing important, nothing that would make it easier for them to carry on killing and raping and maiming…but little tokens to say that we want to find a way to communicate. That we want to be able to find a compassionate way to live together on the same small planet.
We cannot tolerate the violence of terrorists, I know, and I will never suggest we should sit idly by and ignore gross violations of human rights. But neither should we tolerate a world which systematically fails to treat human beings as human beings. Maybe, just maybe: if we work harder at the latter, the strength of the former will start to shrivel.