The Language of Blood and Death: Terrorists, Militants, and Attackers Then and Now

Narrating war and terror. A historical perspective.

For those of us in developed societies, it is hard to overstate the importance of words and images and the effect they have on our lives. Although we live in a world in which many people don’t have the time or energy to read much in the way of books or hard news, words and language are as important now as ever before. Whether we’re aware of it or not, those of us in modern, developed societies are immersed in an ongoing narrative that’s constantly swirling about us, informing and transforming perspectives. Powerful forces in over-extended economies desperate to generate infinitely increasing profits focus tremendous energy on creating and broadcasting information to influence how we should feel about ourselves, others, and the world in general. While the Shakespearean stage has never and will never really exist for many of us, an unceasing flood of commercially-generated narrative holds us transfixed in a rush of words, images, and archetypes that are constantly chiseling away at our brains: shaping, directing, urging. We exist within and are caught up in this narrative even though most of us are merely observers and bit players in it.

To better understand the problem with terrorism and mass shootings (or extremism and radicalism) in the world today (and why much of it is either somehow tied to or directed at the developed world), we will look at some examples of the language used to describe these tragic events. To provide a little perspective, it may be useful to compare some of the language used to write about terrorism in the past with that in the present.

The following excerpt describes an Indian attack on a U.S. cavalry troop at the Pine Ridge Agency (Bureau of Indian Affairs) in South Dakota on December 30th, 1890:

Another Indian Battle. Thirty-three of the Hostiles Bite the Dust…“.1

A few paragraphs down:

“The attack was sudden and unexpected, but the cavalry men returned a brisk fire and succeeded in keeping the savages in check until the arrival of a company of infantry… . The Indians were then repulsed with the loss of thirty-three killed. They fled to the hills without stopping to pick up the dead.

“No attempt was made to dislodge them from their position in the hills. The agency is in a state of siege, and another attack is expected at any time unless reinforcements are received soon.”

Even in 1890, The New York Times was a major American newspaper. As was common for the time, the above dispatch is crafted in a way that depicts the Native Americans as savages who attack unexpectedly when their opponents aren’t looking; they are too cowardly or devoid of human feeling to bother to “pick up the dead.” The language reinforces this by refusing to admit that thirty-three Indian men were killed–it merely states “thirty-three killed.” The dispatch also grabs the reader’s attention by painting an exciting and horrifying picture of soldiers alone on the prairie, like set-upon homesteaders, surrounded by ruthless, surging barbarians (essentially the image of Custer’s Last Stand that the media often recycled and played back over and over).

The dispatch’s opening paragraph (not shown above) further corroborates this interpretation by relating that “a number of soldiers [italics mine] were killed and wounded and thirty-three of Two Strikes’ band were killed.” Again, it’s not thirty-three human beings who are killed, as is the case with the soldiers, a term that clearly signifies people. As regards those (i.e., Indians) whom the soldiers kill in what is portrayed as an act of self defense, the human signifier is absent. We are left only with the barest allusion to their humanity through the use of the word “band”, which was commonly used to distinguish different groups of Native Americans at the time. The word is also the root of “bandits” or “bands of outlaws”.

For those who’re interested, Two Strikes was a Brulé chief of the Hinhan Sunwapa band.2

This skirmish occurred one day after another, much bigger, confrontation between soldiers and Native Americans. Known to history as the “Wounded Knee Massacre”, more than 200 men, women, and children of the Lakota Indian Tribe were gunned down by mounted cavalry and heavy artillery near the Bad Lands of South Dakota. It’s considered the last major battle of the Indian Wars.

The Times evening dispatch that describes the Wounded Knee event refers to it as an “Indian outbreak” that “cost the lives of about 230 Indians and the killing or wounding of 25 or 30 soldiers.” The language clearly implies that the Indians weren’t just responsible for the soldiers’ deaths but were, in fact, the cause of their own, as well. The dispatch then promptly offers a partial list of some of the wounded soldiers, some of whom were mortally wounded while others, such as Lieutenant Kinzie, it diligently informs us, “received but a slight wound in the cord of an ankle.” Noticeably absent from the list is any mention of the Indians who die as a result of this latest outbreak–a term, it is interesting to note, which is associated with the modifier “Indian” instead of something more impersonal (and objective), such as violence (as in, there was an outbreak of violence–a common construction still in use today). By associating “Indian” with outbreak, one is free to imagine whether it connotes something malignant, like a virus or disease.

The New York Times more fully covered this sad event earlier in the day in its morning edition in a piece entitled, “A Fight With The Hostiles. Big Foot’s Treachery Precipitates a Battle.3 In retreat to the Bad Lands, after ongoing struggles with U.S. troops, a group of over 300 Lakota (some of whom included Sitting Bull’s people4) were forced to surrender and give up their arms (an assortment of rifles, pistols, and knives, mostly). The group was composed of men, women, and children, many of whom were starving or in the words of the Times, “suffering for food”. They were all “in a sullen and ugly mood.” In a companion piece on the same page that describes the details of the surrender, we learn a little about its terms:

“Dismounting the latter walked out [i.e., Major Whiteside] (brackets mine) and met the chief [i.e., Big Foot, the Lakota chief] (brackets mine). As they came forward Big Foot extended his hand in token of peace. ‘I am sick,’ he said. ‘My people here want peace and–‘

“Major Whiteside cut him short with: ‘I won’t talk nor will I have any parleying at all. It is either unconditional surrender or fight. What is your answer!’

‘We surrender,’ said the chief.”

Two battalions totaling 500 soldiers surrounded the Indian encampment. Hotchkiss M1875 Mountain Guns (heavy artillery) also encircled the camp and were mounted in positions of command. Fear was running high among the soldiers that the Indians might resist. Lakota braves, led by Chief Spotted Elk (Big Foot), were summoned to the center and formed a half circle, squatting. Two companies encircled them. 20 braves were ordered to go back to the tepees to retrieve their rifles so they could surrender them. Only two guns were brought back. A detachment of soldiers immediately searched the tepees discovering thirty-eight more rifles. Just then something happens–there’s disagreement about what exactly–and the next thing Indians and soldiers are firing at one another.

Or in the words of the dispatch’s opening paragraph, “…and a bloody and desperate battle at close quarters followed, in which the Indians were shot down ruthlessly and in which the lives of several soldiers were sacrificed.”

Big Foot’s men, along with their women and children, attempt to flee, but the battery of artillery starts “firing rapidly at them as they run.” The dispatch goes on to relate:

“Soon the mounted troops were after them, shooting them down on the wing on every side.

“They took cover in a ravine and fired back at the soldiers, who replied, picking off the redskins at every opportunity. The Hotchkiss gun was also run up so as to command the ravine, and a withering fire was poured upon the reds.

“The Indians were shot down wherever found, no quarter being given by anyone.”

Big Foot, including many women and children, as well as the braves who tried to protect them, died that day in the snow and were buried in a mass grave at Wounded Knee Creek.

It’s later revealed that not all the braves were even armed with rifles, many of them had only “pistols or knives and clubs.” Apparently this made little difference at the time when it came to depicting the soldiers as heroes. According to the Times: “The members of the Seventh Cavalry have once more shown themselves to be heroes in deeds of daring.” At least 29 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. It was not until 2001 that Congress finally condemned the awards and called for their rescission.

The point of this post is not to rehash the well-known mistreatment and indiscriminant slaughter of Native Americans, which is a well-documented and tragic part of U.S. history. The intent is to demonstrate the type of language (akin to cheap, pulp fiction) that the news media customarily used to describe skirmishes and battles between U.S. forces and Native Americans. This is important because there was a large disconnect between the picture that the news reporting in the 19th Century attempted to draw and the actual facts as they really existed. News reports, like the one above, are clearly so biased that they’re unable to provide an informative and objective version of events. The question I’m posing is whether the bias of contemporary news media distorts reality in similar ways and, if so, how and to what degree? More importantly, what effects do such distortions have on the broader society when repeated over time?

It should also be noted that many Indian Wars’ news dispatches, like the ones above, make little or no reference to the underlying reasons for the conflict. Although these may not have been written to be analysis pieces, the type of language and the way it is used to describe the events, as demonstrated above, preempts the need to ask questions and therefore ends up replacing the analytical function without ever delving into cause and effect. This can be observed in the headline, “A Fight With The Hostiles. Big Foot’s Treachery Precipitates a Battle”. The implication is clear: the battle was caused by hostile reds who were led by a treacherous and cowardly chief. No need to search further for a cause or underlying reasons. Past history, including mass expulsion from ancestral lands, broken treaties, and lack of good faith dealings need not be referenced to properly comprehend the truth. The headlines say it all.

From the standpoint of an oppressor who has stripped an entire continent of indigenous people of virtually everything (land, means of making a living, way of life, etc.), this is strategically and tactically important if the object is to evade responsibility and continue to pursue business as usual. As Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn have pointed out, this type of characterization is a way of shifting blame from the victimizer to the victimized, and is still commonly practiced by the Western news media today–albeit in more subtle ways, as discussed below.

 

Narrating war and terror. Flash forward. Words that kill.

While the language used nowadays is often (but not always) much more politically correct, the media and authority figures are still very adept at demonizing certain groups. The press or politicians may not refer to people as “reds”, “redskins”, or “savages” anymore, but they often repeatedly use language (or its absence) in ways that can imply savagery or barbarism. This repetition is very powerful because it can be used in ways that attach multiple meanings to certain words or phrases. This is not a modern invention and was even a common device throughout the Indian Wars. For example, most people today normally think of “redskin” as an ugly word, but it communicated an array of various meanings to the average white American a century ago that it probably wouldn’t today. This method allows an entire set of mutually reinforcing meanings to be tacitly communicated just by implication through a single word.

Using language in this way is one of the most powerful tools for shaping public discourse and thought. It is insidious and perverts an important human device from what it was originally intended to do: words as symbols for efficiently enabling thought and communication of an accurate–not distorted–version of reality. For mass cultures in the developed world that rely so heavily on communications today, this type of accuracy and efficiency is crucial to the smooth functioning of society. Used in the wrong ways, intentional and continuous distortion can reap terrible consequences.

To more fully comprehend this, it may be helpful to briefly address a point concerning how the human brain works. Scientists have learned in recent years that there are different types of human memory. Procedural (or implicit) memory is distinct from declarative memory (the memory typically associated with learning and what we usually think of as memory). Procedural memory can be thought of as the memory of habit. It is so fundamental to the human mind that it can persist intact in people with Alzheimer’s Disease long after declarative memory has become thoroughly impaired and unreliable.

Habits or routines are formed through the repetition of certain activities. For the average person, routine and habit make up roughly half of daily life. Given enough repetition, even words and their meanings can also become habits in the way that they inform our thinking. Through priming and cuing, one literally can be trained to associate certain ideas and traits with symbols, images, or words. Like Pavlov’s dog, humans are very susceptible to procedural learning.

Behavioral phenomenon, such as “social proof”, is a very powerful means of establishing and spreading what I’ll call for the sake of convenience “word-habits”. Social proof means that people believe those they trust. This can be authority (or famous) figures observed in the media or friends and neighbors with whom one communicates. In today’s world, where we spend so much time absorbing information through our various mobile communication devices, figures in the media who speak to us and those with whom we converse are often seamless activities woven into the fabric of our daily lives.

Once entrenched among groups or in society generally, word-habits (or better yet, “thought-habits”) can be extremely difficult to overcome. This can be further reinforced by what’s known as “motivated reasoning”, another type of behavioral phenomenon that states that people think what they like to think. Procedural memory (habits), social proof, and motivated reasoning can help fix within society certain ways of seeing or experiencing the world. Academics and other writers have sometimes referred to crises created by these processes as “mass hysteria”. Under chronic conditions in which certain modes of thought are accepted by a population for long periods, they can even become ingrained in the culture.

Adolph Hitler used the mass media to exploit this [vulnerability] to the most hideous extent possible. Hitler essentially distilled a range of preexisting ideas and conditions (e.g., natural selection, competition between peoples, historic prejudices, economic and social upheaval, etc.) into a language that intentionally demonized certain groups, most notably Jews. Hitler’s language was repeated over and over by the mass media until it became generally acceptable. Similar to what the phrase “hostile redskin” might potentially imply as a “normal” range of responses, it eventually became permissible to kill or, at least, imprison a “dirty” or “blood-sucking Jew”. Perhaps a bit unpleasant on the one hand, imprisonment was, so the reasoning went, necessary for the protection and self preservation of the German people (in some ways a 20th Century version of what white America felt they needed to do against their own population of “hostiles” in the 19th Century–with certain differences, of course). The motifs and implications of Hitler’s propaganda eventually became so ingrained in the German psyche, that, as with Native Americans, it became permissible not just to imprison but to even kill all manner of people, including women and children as well as the old and the infirm. The fact that this took place in a nation, like Germany, where science and the arts had reached such lofty heights, is not merely ironic but should be remembered always as a warning of the most serious kind.

Unfortunately, it has again become commonplace nowadays to hear about military and police forces killing civilian people. The actors may not be Hitler or even fascists; and there are also differences surrounding much of the killing–at least with respect that carried out by developed nations. But there is a lot of killing going on nonetheless. Yet at bottom at least some of the rationalizations justifying it is quite similar: protect one group of people from the barbarism or savagery of another.

Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was not common in countries like the U.S. to hear politicians and pundits openly talking about who will or should be killed. This changed significantly after the September 11th terrorist attacks. A common metaphor used repeatedly in the ensuing war on terror has involved the image of “hunting”, as in we will hunt you down and kill you. As we all know, hunting is something humans do to animals; or something greater animals (predators) do to lesser animals (prey).

Back in the days before 9/11, it was more common to hear the “good guys” talking about bringing the “bad guys” to justice. There may have been just as much cynicism and intent to kill (as the Persian Gulf War and Vietnam nicely demonstrates), but the unfettered way that authority figures openly talk about the need to kill this person or that person became much more common practice after 9/11.

To help justify the broad and ongoing application of lethal force, as well as the loose talk that supports it, politicians have learned that declaring informal wars can be a useful expedient. As in, the “war on terror” (a war but not really as in the case of the “war on drugs”). The use of the word “war” implies the need to utilize extreme means and even deadly force, if necessary, to defend one’s country. In recent years, the word has been invested with such meaning that it, seemingly on its own, effectively excuses the use of maximum force while allowing an environment in which minimum responsibility is permitted. For example, in an attempt to legitimize the ensuing use of extreme military force, French President Francois Hollande disposed of any qualification after the Paris terrorist attack in November, 2015, and simply declared that France is now at war–much like George W. Bush did 14 years earlier after September 11th (and just prior to the invasion of Afghanistan). After Hollande’s grand declaration, French warplanes quickly joined U.S., British, and Russian counterparts in further bombing into pieces the small, war-ravaged country of Syria.

There is perhaps nothing more illustrative of the self-declared right to kill than what has come to be termed a “drone strike”. It’s surprising how well accepted by the general public this term and the type of action it represents has become. A phrase that did not exist before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it chillingly connotes a robot-like machine that kills human beings by remote control. The operator, like a god on Mount Olympus, rains down death (Hellfire as the CIA has termed it) with impunity on the mortals below (who are supposedly but not always terrorists). Nothing more clearly illustrates the value of life placed on two the roles involved (subject and object). The subject, the drone operator (who, for example, acts on behalf of U.S. or French or British citizens) must be protected at all costs, while the object (terrorists, jihadists, Islamic militants, extremists, etc.) needs to be hunted wherever they are–even if that means in cities full of ordinary civilians. As in the case of the Native Americans, the field of battle can easily extend to individuals’ homes where the hunted (the prey) are thought to reside (or hide).

In a piece cheerleading American boots on the ground shortly after the [“shock and awe”] invasion of Iraq in 20035, David Brooks of The New York Times offers a glimpse into the American perspective on the heroism of its soldiers, on the one hand, and the savagery of the people whose country they had just invaded, on the other:

“Soldiers in all wars are called upon to be heroes, but our men and women in Iraq are called upon to define a new sort of heroism. First, they must endure the insanity of war, fighting off fedayeen ambushes, withstanding the suicide bombings and mortars, kicking down doors and searching homes.”

Aptly capturing the exaggerated sense of patriotism back in those heady days of the war on terror, Mr. Brooks goes on to state that American soldiers “are John Wayne, but also Jane Addams”.

He equally well seizes on the general feeling toward backward, half-savage Iraqis when he writes:

“At spontaneous moments, when order threatens to break down, the soldiers, aviators and marines jump in and coach the Iraqis on the customs and habits of democracy. They try to weave that fabric of civic trust that can’t be written into law, but without which freedom becomes anarchy.”

Or when he relates an incident in which an American soldier brought gifts to an orphanage:

“He brought a pile of toys to an orphanage, but the paid staff at the place rushed the pile to grab the toys for themselves — ‘like sharks in a feeding frenzy’, he writes. He has learned that if he stations himself with an M-16 over the toys, things go smoothly.”

Perhaps the icing on the cake is Brooks’ overt condescension and obtuseness toward the people whose country has just been smashed to pieces by the most powerful military in the world when he offers toward the end of his article the following:

“Another soldier writes of his dismay at seeing Iraqi parents give their kids toy guns as presents after Ramadan. He wonders, Haven’t they had enough death? Don’t they realize how dangerous it is for a kid to wander the street with a piece of plastic that looks like an AK-47?”

Putting aside the utter tragedy that the Iraq War was and is for the Iraqi people, Brooks’ article when viewed purely as a piece writing (particularly when read after the fog of war) would be downright comical if it weren’t so damn pathetic to think that this was written without any irony intended. Yet it nicely summarizes how completely caught up in the prevailing rhetoric of the moment one can become–even a presumably sophisticated and educated individual like Brooks, a long-time columnist for The New York Times.

The problem is not just whether suspected terrorists should be routinely targeted for killing outside the boundaries of law and justice. (Though prior to George W. Bush’s war on terror, there used to be U.S. laws that explicitly prohibited members of the government from engaging in assassinations. These laws have been systematically relaxed under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Of course, the very idea of war, as embodied in propagandistic lexicon (e.g., “war on terror”), helps to provide the necessary justification on its own–at least from a public relations standpoint.)

But from the standpoint of how we expect the world to value human life, a much more pertinent consideration has to do with the powerful implications that are communicated when bombs are regularly and intentionally fired at inhabited cities just to kill a handful of terrorists. Given enough repetition, the message becomes painfully clear to even the most careless observer: it is more important to kill terrorists than it is to safeguard the lives of the civilians among whom they hide.

The fact that those cities are not Western cities and the civilians are of the same race and religion as the terrorists further exaggerates the message. Is it possible to imagine that the United States would ever think of bombing Belgium in order to kill terrorists hiding out there? Even if the precision were far greater than the precise strike capabilities we’re repeatedly assured is deployed today, it is virtually impossible to imagine such a scenario unfolding in any major Western city. In this case, it’s not words that are directly communicating modes of thought, it is actions–although those actions are often communicated with words and images (or word-images) in news reports.

To label an enemy a “terrorist”, “fighter”, “jihadist” “radical” “attacker” “militant” or “insurgent” is part of the language of modern counter terrorism warfare as practiced today. For all practical intents and purposes, these words, like war, appear to be treated by the media, politicians, and bureaucrats as though they provide all by themselves enough justification to kill: one merely needs to point them at acceptable targets. This, of course, is history repeating itself, as the point made above about the word, “redskin”, demonstrates.

But the language, it’s important to note, is not primarily directed at terrorists. Rather, it’s the population that the authorities are claiming to protect from the terrorists or attackers that must be made to understand that the killing is justifiable and in their interests. All of the words mentioned in the paragraph above have therefore been repeatedly associated with other words (or concepts), like “savage”, “barbaric”, “evil”, “crazy”, “attackers”, “killers”, “extreme”. Branding an enemy as some form of militant or crazy person is not new. In the past, Native Americans were often referred to as “militants”, “hostiles” or “crazed”. More recently, there were black militants–notably, the Black Panthers toward whom extreme lethal force was directed both within and beyond the confines of the judicial system.

Each high profile terrorist attack (or mass killing) that involves middle class white people in developed nations offers a powerful opportunity to reinforce these words and meanings. The crazed or evil killers (i.e., their images, actions or attendant consequences) are brought into public view, so we can be reminded of who the enemy is. It is also highly important to portray the victims in order that the public perceives the evil as intimately as possible with all the attendant feelings: fear, disgust, anger, hatred. It is very much a story replete with good guys, bad guys, and a nice, neat moral, which often implies that it is right and necessary for the good guys to kill the bad guys.

Years of endless war and terror reporting have yielded a number of consequences. It’s increasingly starting to feel as though we fell down the proverbial rabbit hole only to discover that the public dialog had been reduced to the language of fairy tales.

For example, one of the world’s largest religions, Islam, which is practiced by more than one billion people, is perceived by many Westerners to be anti-Christian or even anti-Western. Unfortunately, this perception has deep historical roots. As even school children know, tension between Christians and Muslims dates back to the Crusades or even to the Battle of Roncevaux (which gave birth centuries later to the highly celebrated epic poem, The Song of Roland). Parallels to this 11th Century French work, which glorified Charlemagne’s army of Christian heroes while demonizing the evil, scheming Saracens (i.e., Muslims), can even be found in today’s popular culture. The highest grossing movie of 2014 was American Sniper, which was about Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL, who was the most lethal sniper in American history with over 160 official kills racked up during his tours of duty in the Iraq War. Like Roland, he was a depicted as a hero of epic proportions doing battle with pure evil amid a battlefield thick with corpses.

Years of stoking the fires of fear and hatred with bellicosity have resulted in a toxic environment that seems to border the hysterical at times. There are, for example, news reports of a county school district in Virginia completely closing down and canceling all Christmas holiday festivities due to the large amount of public fury that erupted over a classroom assignment involving Islam and Arabic writing. It’s a huge stretch to portray the assignment as inappropriate. The class covers world religions, including Christian-Judeo religions, and was merely part of the district’s education requirements. As of this writing, there haven’t been any news reports of which I’m aware talking about any backroom Islamic indoctrination or radicalization in connection with this sorry incident.

Like Islam, Native American beliefs were foreign and often threatening to Christians. The following excerpt from a 19th Century news dispatch illustrates this. It concerns the famous Ghost Dance, a ceremony in which Native Americans of the late 1800’s engaged in the desperate belief that Jesus Christ would return to earth, along with the spirits of their ancestors, and restore things to the way they were before the white man came. The media of the time derisively referred to this movement as the “Messiah craze”. In reality, the Ghost Dance was simply a desperate attempt to use a common religion as a way to bridge the historic differences between various Native American tribes in order to rally as many of their peoples as possible to confront a common enemy.

Readers should not, however, take this to mean that the Islamic terrorists with which America and Europe is currently engaged should be compared with Native Americans in general. I have absolutely no intention to broadly compare the two groups in this writing. But, on the other hand, some of the ways in which we depict the terrorists and the Native Americans of the 1800s readily lend themselves to certain comparisons.

The following excerpt communicates well the level of fear that inspired mainstream white America in regard to Native Americans in the 19th Century.

The headline of The New York Times dispatch on November 22nd, 1890, reads: “Indians Ready to Fight6.

“From the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota word comes that the Indians have the agency and surrounding country in a state of terror. The ghost dances, under the lead of Little Wound and other chiefs, are still going on at Wounded Knee Creek and Porcupina.”

A couple of paragraphs down:

“Later news from Pine Ridge says that the dancing Indians at Wounded Knee Creek are growing more boisterous and threatening. When told that more troops were coming they answered scornfully that their Great spirit was advising and encouraging them, and that troops could not stop their dance.”

Then as the dispatch builds to a crescendo of excitement:

“From Eureka by way of Aberdeen, SD, comes a dispatch which says that the settlers of Emmons and Campbell Counties are flocking into that place on account of a well-defined rumor [italics mine] that the Sioux take the warpath tomorrow. Five hundred people from the country are now in Eureka. La Grace, on the Missouri, is completely depopulated.”

The Indians are cast in the role of attacker and the settlers as victims (literally flocks of sheep). Just as it is today, it would have been well known to Times readers in 1890 that it’s permissible to kill an attacker to defend oneself–particularly if they’re depicted as marauding savages. But the problem is fear has a way of turning into senseless paranoia—the quoted passages above drip with it. Paranoia, particularly when it involves death and blood, makes for great television just like it made for great news articles a hundred years ago (and still does). And the media is, especially nowadays when it is more competitive than ever, happy to exploit viewers’ attention wherever and however they can get it. This has serious consequences, particularly given the state of the world today.

Thinking about recent news coverage, is the scenario in the news article about dancing Indians really so far removed from what the press commonly presents today? President Obama, for example, used the paranoia stemming from a failed suicide bombing attempt on a Detroit passenger jet on Christmas Day, 2009, to justify preemptive drone strikes, which, according to Human Rights Watch, ended up killing innocent civilians in Yemen.

After a Muslim husband and wife team, who may or may not have been associated with organized terrorists, shot and killed 14 co-workers at a holiday party in San Bernardino recently, the media starting buzzing with a frenzy of paranoia and speculation about whether and how they might have become radicalized. Was it over the Internet? Did a boyhood friend, like Enrique Marquez, act in cahoots with undercover ISIS operatives to egg them on toward the path of murder? Or maybe they just “self radicalized”– a term it should be noted that, apart from sounding a bit silly (somehow it makes you think of spontaneous combustion), is really quite chilling if one considers the many authoritarian steps it may allow the state to take to prepare itself against notions of self radicalizing citizens. From an Orwellian perspective, the implications are extremely frightening.

In testimony on Capitol Hill recently, FBI Director, James Comey, endeavored to answer lawmakers’ urgent questions on the subject of self radicalizing citizens. Senator Lindsey Graham wanted to know whether a terrorist organization’s involvement with the mass shooting would constitute a “game changer” (presumably in the war on terror). Senator Charles Schumer, who co-authored legislation reining in government surveillance powers six months ago, expressed frustration that the FBI wasn’t aware of the fact that two people talking privately about jihad weren’t on a watch list. (The implication being that the government should be monitoring various types of conversation in order to prevent future terrorist attacks.)

Taking steps to protect society from avoidable and realistic threats is one thing, but allowing security considerations to snowball into paroxysms of paranoia that threaten to undermine the very foundation of our open society is altogether different and smacks of an authoritarianism that even if it were to bring security from terrorists would not be worth it. I’m confident our founding fathers would agree. I think they would be smart enough to realize that we would simply be trading one type of risk for another. As an American citizen, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that I’d rather contend with the possibility of terrorist threats than the certainty of authoritarianism’s stranglehold and all its attendant corruption.

Then there’s the leading Republican presidential candidate’s–Donald Trump’s–now infamous (yet exhaustively broadcast) ultra paranoid statement that America should bar all Muslims from entering the country. (Of course this is only an order of magnitude less than Comey’s recent assertion that the Muslim American community must police itself–not so very different than other similar suggestions regarding targeted groups throughout American history, including, of course, Native Americans.) There are many who claim to be offended by Trump’s rhetoric, yet his campaign has received far more media attention than Bernie Sanders’ (or anyone else’s campaign for that matter, including all other Republican candidates’ and democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton’s), most of whom hold much more moderate stances on the subject of terrorism. Amazingly, it has been reported (as of this writing) that Donald Trump hasn’t spent a dime on campaign advertising yet the total aggregate airtime afforded him far exceeds that of any other presidential candidate’s. All he’s had to do was synthesize the most egregious aspects of American nationalism, prejudice, and xenophobia and give voice to them. Unfortunately, the corporate media has lapped it up by the gallon.

On December 2nd, 2015, Trump even went so far as to state that the U.S. must kill the families of ISIS members (“take out their families” were his exact words)7 in order to adequately protect itself and win the war on terror.

The right of self preservation and defense is clear. But many problems arise when words are extended beyond the boundary of the action to which they supposedly refer. For example, it makes sense to say, “I woke in the middle of the night and shot dead an attacker who was trying to kill me”. But do I have the same right to track down that attacker if he escaped before I could land the lethal blow? If so, where does this right end? My driveway? The moment in which the event occurred? That night? or next year? Am I allowed to go over and burn down his whole house based on the fear that he might attack again? Is this permissible regardless who else it jeopardizes based on a potential event that may or may not happen? If it’s not allowed for me to pursue such a policy as an individual, why is it acceptable for a state? The act of declaring war only clouds the issue and risks legitimizing a policy of outright killing. All in the name of “national security”: a wide ranging phrase which, in the minds of today’s policymakers, often seems to justify almost any range of actions in much the same way that the word “war” does. Where does this end? How can limits be placed on open-ended policies, which, by their very nature, often fly in the face of rationality, morality and basic Western concepts of jurisprudence?

Moreover, how, after pursuing such policies, can I distinguish myself from my attacker? If we both kill without regard for what is right, the definition of who is good and who is bad becomes merely relative.

 

The Pandora’s Box of the Human Mind

This represents a state of affairs in the Post World War II era in which a line has been crossed that never in any civilized world should be crossed. Like Pandora’s box, once certain logical constructions are introduced to the general population and allowed to wander freely among that vast assortment of human minds, it can be difficult to know where they might journey and into what spirits they might metamorphose. The plight of Native Americans and African Americans are good historical examples of what can happen. To justify genocide or slavery, it was necessary to de-humanize these groups (effectively to make the concept of a red man or black man less than human; to make them dangerous and monstrous even). This helps to explain why The New York Times could relate a story in 1890 in which men, women, and children were mowed down by heavy artillery in heroic terms (an example of literally putting the object of our fear to the sword). As the saying goes, we are creatures of habit, so it may even explain why America is still trying to come to terms with the frequency and ease with which the police continue to kill African Americans–who, within living memory, were also routinely hung from trees by vigilante mobs.

The after effects of this violence can be long lasting in other ways too. Suicide rates, for example, are much higher for Native American young men 18-24 years of age than any other group in America8.

In the years since the tragic September 11th terrorist attacks in New York, the media has been awash in macho, no-holds barred rhetoric about how to deal with terrorists and terrorism. This has its roots in President George W. Bush’s famous “smoke ’em out of their holes speech”, which he gave in the aftermath of 9/11 and zealously declared “we’re at war, there’s been a war declared”. Almost overnight his approval rating shot from below 50% to 90% and, consequently, changed forever the language Western politicians and the press use to communicate with the public about terrorism.

Even democrats responded favorably to the tough rhetoric. ”I’m impressed,” gushed Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House. ”He’s been very strong these last few days9.”

Seeing how popular strong words and images were in a time of fear, the rhetoric quickly soared to new heights. More responsible talk about bringing the terrorists to justice, as Bush originally discussed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, was replaced by the language of vengeance and destruction as exemplified by Vice President Dick Cheney’s speech10 in response to the terrorist attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 20 people (seven of them American) in May, 2003:

”The only way to deal with this threat ultimately is to destroy it”.

”There’s no treaty can solve this problem,” Cheney went on to say. ”There’s no peace agreement, no policy of containment or deterrence that works to deal with this threat. We have to go find the terrorists.”

The language of war and destruction as a response to terrorism continues today and is used in Europe as well. After the horror of the Paris terrorist attacks in November, French President Francois Hollande in a televised address to the nation declared that “What happened last night in Paris, and in Saint Denis by the Stade de France, is an act of war.”

“France, because it was attacked cowardly, shamelessly, violently, France will be merciless against the barbarians of Daesh.”

Hoping to boost his presidential campaign, Florida Senator Marco Rubio summed up what is commonly perceived as the right strategy for dealing with terrorists when he quoted from the movie “Taken” at a speech last May in South Carolina11:

“We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.”

Not to be outdone, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another presidential hopeful, reassured supporters in Iowa on December 5th, 2015:

“We will utterly destroy ISIS,” he said of the terrorist group also called ISIL. “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”12

When one considers that these statements come in the wake of millions of Syrian and other Middle Eastern peoples who have been in the news these last months desperately attempting to flee the occupation of the terror group ISIS (not to mention some of the most dire living conditions on the planet), it’s almost incomprehensible to think that a U.S. senator could speak so enthusiastically about carpet bombing the areas where they and millions more like them are trapped. Carpeting bombing is, after all, an extreme type of warfare that kills as indiscriminately as the nuclear bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a country, does the U.S. really want to support policies that flagrantly put millions of people in foreign lands in harm’s way just to protect what, in all likelihood, are comparatively small numbers of Americans13 from the mere possibility of future attacks ? Do serious people really believe that such immoral and unbalanced policies will ever make us safer in the long run? Aren’t unbalanced policies, like these, rather a guarantee of future terrorism? How can any sensible person possibly believe immoral and irrational responses of this sort are the best way to protect ourselves?

Many of the people who scream for heavy handed military responses as a way to protect Americans are also the same who are just as vehemently opposed to spending on social services, such as Medicare (particularly the concept of Medicare for all), Medicaid, Social Security, education, unemployment compensation, etc. For an historical perspective of the entrenched opposition to social services in the U.S., see Nicholas Kristoff’s great little piece discussing some of the hyperbole (e.g., “Cruel hoax”, “lash of the dictator”, etc.) surrounding the creation of Social Security and Medicare.

The United States prides itself on being “the most powerful nation on earth”. Yet increasingly any truth in this statement increasingly seems to refer more to its military strength than anything else. By many other measurements, the U.S. is in pretty bad shape–particularly when it involves questions of the average person’s well-being. The following statistics makes the point.

Despite advancements in medicine, suicide is one of the only ways of dying in America that keeps going up. Every year since 1999, there have been more suicides than the year preceding it. 2013 marked the year when, for the first time there were more than 40,000 (41,149 to be exact) suicides in a single year–far more than what would have been expected from population growth alone. According to the CDC, the suicide rate for Americans has risen by over 30% over the last decade. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not alone in this dismal statistic. Throughout the developed world, self harm is the leading cause of death for people 15-4914. Why aren’t the same politicians screaming for answers about suicide with the same urgency and passion they do for terrorism? Where are the policy and spending initiatives to address a huge problem that dwarfs the number of terrorist-related deaths in the developed world?

America has far more mass shootings than anywhere else in the world, with 133 mass shootings from 2000-201415, resulting in 487 people killed. There has been a total of 45 deaths, since 9/11, related to Islamic extremism on American soil, so most of the mass shootings have had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism. The two countries that come closest to the U.S. for mass shootings is China and Russia with 4 each during the same time period.

As of this writing, NBC reports that since young Adam Lanza stormed Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14th, 2012, shooting to death some 20 children with a semi-automatic rifle, 555 more children in the U.S. have died by gunshot (or one every other day since). According to the Centers for Disease Control, 33,599 Americans died from gunshots (many of them suicides) in 2014, which is about the same as 2013 (33,636). Yet Congress is so paralyzed in the face of the powerful gun lobby that, not only is there no legislative action to do anything about gun violence, there’s been a years long ban on merely using federal dollars to finance research into gun-related violence. How many Americans need to be gunned down before we stand up to the gun lobby?

The U.S. also has the highest incarceration rates in the world16. At 500 per 100,000, it is five times higher compared to other developed countries. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. houses almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Where is the passion to protect the American people from the cause of all these ills? Yet many of the same politicians who vociferated so vehemently against ObamaCare want to bomb the terrorists to oblivion and back just to protect Americans. All this concern and yet how many Americans needlessly suffer and die because they don’t have health insurance, unlike their contemporaries across the border in Canada? According to an estimate by the Centers for Disease Control in 2009: almost 45,000 Americans per year die due to lack of health insurance. This figure is 2 ½ times higher than a similar estimate by the Institute of Medicine in 200217.

All these problems notwithstanding, profits are as healthy as ever for the defense and gun industries. The war on terror tripled military spending from where it was in 2001—virtually instantly changing the lowest post World War II defense expenditures to the highest. The amount of the increase from 2001 – 2003 was so vast that by itself it exceeded the entire military budgets of most countries, including major powers like Great Britain and China18. Of the roughly $700 billion annual defense expenditures, some $400 billion per year was going to private contractors during the golden years of military spending in the 2000s. Given the lack of motivation to do much about the many larger threats to the well-being and health of Americans than terrorists in the Middle East, one has to wonder if those who so fervently call for military action to hunt down ISIS or Al-Qaeda members are more concerned with protecting profits than people. Perhaps it’s assuming too much to think that national security should exist for any other reason than its own self-perpetuation?

But I think it’s more important to ask what it does to the way we perceive the value of human life when elected public figures go around routinely and publicly talking about killing enemies. Not just for three or four years as was the case in World War I and II. But for decades on end, as is the case now (and far longer than even Vietnam). What about the unintended consequences of such loose rhetoric? Even the normally phlegmatic President Obama ratcheted up the death and destruction language recently. After a National Security Council meeting at the Pentagon on December 14th, 2015, Obama announced that the U.S. had flown over 9,000 airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

“ISIL leaders cannot hide, and our message is simple: You are next,” Obama said in a statement that seemed to compete with certain Republican presidential candidates’ rhetoric.

It’s certainly horrible and tragic when civilians are killed by terrorists. But what about when innocent civilians who’re doing nothing more than going about their daily lives are killed by governments engaged in the merciless pursuit of those same terrorists? Is this just? Is it moral? What damage do we do to the soul of our nation when we twist our laws beyond recognition in order to support such recklessness–particularly on such a long term basis? Rhetoric and actions of this type are reminiscent of Custer going off to whip those Indians. Such belligerent swagger is beneath a great nation, let alone a great people.

Which begs the question: will there be anything good left of us by the time we slaughter all the terrorists? Yes, there may be victories. But are they Pyrrhic victories? What must we kill in ourselves to win the war on terror if we continue to pursue the course we’re on?

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s report for January 2015 states that almost 2,500 civilians have been killed by drone strikes outside the United States’ declared war zones since Obama’s inauguration. Since the Obama administration has repeatedly refused to provide information on civilian casualties from drone strikes, this figure is an estimate at best. This figure also does not include the number of people who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan due to the U.S.-led wars in those areas. Conservative estimates put the total of war-related Iraqi civilian casualties at 165,000; while another low estimate puts the number of war-related Afghan civilian casualties at 26,000. We can only imagine how many hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of injuries to civilians in those countries there must be.

As things stand now, the only civilian deaths that appear to matter to Western media are those of Western civilians. To reiterate a fact noted above, the number of Americans killed by homegrown jihadist terrorism on domestic soil totals 45 since 9/11 (including the San Bernardino shootings)19. Although far more people die from conventional murders (there were 16,121 homicides in 2013) the idea of domestic terrorism is obviously far more frightening–or can be more easily exploited in frightening ways. It’s also interesting to note that since September 11th, 2001, 48 Americans have been killed by right wing extremism, yet right wing extremists don’t seem to generate the type of fear and hatred that Muslim terrorists do–rather unusual when one recalls Timothy McVeigh, a Persian Gulf War veteran, who killed 168 people and injured over 600 in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. This horrific attack was McVeigh’s response to the federal government for its handling of the Waco and Ruby Ridge confrontations (both of which had nothing to do with Islam or Muslims).

Assuming, however, that 2,500 Middle Eastern civilians killed in drone strikes is accurate, it may make sense to mention that this approaches the number of people who died in New York on 9/11/2001 (2,753). How many countless hours of media have been dedicated to describing in intimate detail the tragedy–both personal and public–of those who died in New York City on that fateful day? How all encompassing was the expressed grief of the world then? Judging by the media coverage, the outpouring of sympathy and tears for the 130 who were killed in the November Paris attacks almost seemed to rival that generated by 9/11. Yet who in the West cries for the innocent men, women, and children civilians who have been killed by drone attacks or died as the result of wayward bombs in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Syria or Libya? It apparently took the death of a 3-year-old Syrian boy washing up face down in the surf of a Turkish beach for the Western media to finally acknowledge the common humanity that we all share with the refugees who, like the Native Americans not so long ago, had no choice but to abandon their homes in a desperate search for peace and safety.

In a comprehensive report of the U.S. drone program in Pakistan, Amnesty International’s, “’Will I be next?’ US drone strikes in Pakistan”, documents dozens of drone strikes that have killed noncombatants, one of whom was a 68-year old grandmother who was surrounded by her grandchildren when blown to bits as she picked vegetables in her garden.

Not only does the Western media routinely under report incidents such as this, but, as Human Rights Watch relates, the U.S. government hardly ever takes any responsibility. Instead, for justification it relies on the concept that it is engaged in a borderless global war in which it can launch attacks at will, anytime, anywhere in order to protect itself from the possibility of future attacks. The only rationale that seems to make any sense of this is that the value of Americans’ lives is so high that a potential threat to them justifies putting Middle Eastern civilian populations in harm’s way if necessary to protect them (or maintain national security). Of the six drone strikes that HRW investigated in Yemen at least 57 of the 82 people killed were civilians. Despite the fact that this number exceeds the total number of Americans killed by Islamic extremists since 9/11, events such as those in Yemen aren’t even newsworthy most of the time as far as Western media are concerned. A bomb that accidentally misses its intended target in Kabul is treated pretty much the same as a drive-by shooting in Camden–most of the time warranting only a brief mention if mentioned at all. Collateral damage, as its bureaucratically termed, happens nonetheless. Although we don’t hear much about it, we hear enough to know how unimportant these deaths are. The implication made not be loud, but it is clear and effective. Prejudicial words like, “reds” or “redskins”, therefore never need to be used to communicate whose lives matter and whose don’t.

Yet those who would pursue death in the name of safety don’t seem to stop and think what such wanton killing does to the very concept of human life. It’s just assumed that this type of moralizing is too outdated for the supermen who rule the world today.

Too bad the slope of flawed reasoning is slippery on all sides. The consequences of discarding morality can come back to haunt us in varied and mysterious ways. What can be applied here, might also be applied there: when language permits killing in one case, it may (at least to some minds) permit it in others. There is the example of Dylan Roof, a young white man (like Adam Lanza) who walked into an African American church in South Carolina on June 18th, 2015, and killed nine people at point blank range with a .45 caliber hand gun in a bible study after sitting there with them for an hour. 21-year old Roof thought he was protecting white people from the threat of black people. Or 57-year-old Robert Dear who attacked a Planned Parenthood facility on November 27th, 2015, with an assault rifle, murdering three and injuring nine. Like other anti-abortionist-zealots-turned-killers, he thought he was protecting the unborn or, in his words, acting as “a warrior for the babies”.

If only things were as simple as what President GW Bush made them out to be after September 11th when at a national prayer service to the nation’s political and military leadership, as well as to a vast television audience, he vowed that the coming terrorist conflict ”will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.”19 It has now been well over 12 years since Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003, which he so pompously gave in a flight suit after a dramatic landing in a Lockheed S-3 Viking fighter jet aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln . As the recent attacks in Paris tragically demonstrates, the war on terror still rages on.

The media, politicians, and police are desperate to know what motivated the shooting in San Bernardino on December 2nd, 2015. Was it terrorism? a workplace dispute? The urge to find a terrorist connection is almost palpable. As though classifying the cause will somehow magically protect society from it happening again. Or, more likely, will merely provide the means to unloose the forces of vengeance that we may further hunt our monster to the ends of the earth.

If we really wanted to stop it, wouldn’t it make more sense to seriously investigate the root causes for Islamic terrorism? Too bad there doesn’t seem to be much serious discussion or analysis about this in the public discourse. There is something utterly amiss with a news media that spends so much energy on stoking fear and asking the wrong questions instead of zealously pursuing truth. If we were to start asking about root causes for anti-Western feelings in the Middle East, we should probably start with the fact that regardless whether the Islamic terrorists are evil or barbaric, they (like many indigenous people throughout the region in general) pretty much all want the same thing: like the Native Americans in centuries past, they want the white man off their land. It’s the fact that that land has something we want that makes raising the question all but impossible. Just as the prospect of leaving half the country to the Native Americans was never to be taken seriously, the issue of not controlling the greatest concentration of oil in the world is utterly non negotiable, as far as Western (particularly U.S.) interests are concerned. It is better to let the masses (Christian, Muslim, Westerner, Middle Easterner, etc.) wring their hands in hatred and grieve for their countrymen, who are sacrificed in the name of national security.

Moral or religious issues aside, the ultimate problem with trying to regulate or sanction killing outside the scope of a real war is that it cannot be done practically. Unilaterally invading countries, accidentally bombing and maiming civilians, humiliating entire populations–all of these things naturally lead to resentment and the desire for retribution. Blood feuds have existed since time immemorial. We can cook up all the fancy theories we want about Islamic radicalization, but things start to make a lot more sense when one starts asking whether what’s motivating the youth in the Middle East to sign up with ISIS is really religious in nature at all. How much of it is driven by the desire for revenge for what they perceive as injustices committed by an over-reaching, foreign military power directed against their people?

Embittered, former Baathists with few other options in life and power-mad clerics exploiting young people for their own ends is another altogether different story that may fit into the bizarre landscape of the post 9/11 world–but it’s not quite this over-simplified, sci-fi notion of Islamic radicalization (a concept which, as it’s currently promulgated, smacks heavily of mid-20th Century anti-Communist hysteria) mesmerizing youth like the spirit of Svengali wafting over the Internet. Simple desire for revenge and retribution may be a more realistic, though less provocative, answer to why the youth allow themselves to be “radicalized”. We in the West would do well to remember that what is justification on one side can also be justification on the other: we have our reasons for killing them; they have their reasons for killing us. As Macbeth reminds, “blood will have blood”.

For Washington or Paris or London to hope to definitively (and finally) win the war on terror by force alone it may be wise to ask whether it will be necessary to kill them all. But what about the stain from all that blood? What will it take to wash it away?

 

Terrorism as a dialog

As for mass shootings in American society in general, the primary problem is not that there are too many guns (though this is a problem) or that there are too many people with mental health problems (also a problem). The primary problem may be a combination of factors: 1.) American and other western societies have been stripped to the bone by the unquenchable greed of their own economic forces, a condition which has created chronic, widespread unemployment, fear, uncertainty, and instability; and 2.) largely, as a result of the war on terror, these same societies seemed to have steeped themselves in the language of bloodshed and fear in the mistaken belief that doing so will buy time and that somehow, some way, as eventually happened with the Native Americans, the problem of Islamic terrorism will simply fade away as we all some day fortuitously emerge from the shackles of this tyrannical oil age that drives us to such extremes. Thus freed from the addiction to oil, will it then be permissible to speak openly of the current excesses and immorality–just like we cry now for the Native Americans who died over a hundred years ago?

But what will it take for force alone to win the war on terror in the meantime? Must we exterminate all the terrorists? Is this even possible when the underlying conditions that lead to terrorism don’t seem to have even been meaningfully addressed? Or must we so brutally repress and destroy entire populations, that the very idea of resistance becomes meaningless? This was ultimately necessary in the case of all those stubborn Native Americans who refused to integrate and succumb to the invaders’ way of life. Furthermore, as we continue to build out the security state to protect ourselves from terrorism, how many of our most cherished freedoms must be sacrificed? If the shooting of 14 people in California, as terrible as that may be, is enough to make us consider monitoring the thoughts of the whole country, what would we do in the event of another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11? What would be left of our civil liberties? The utter evisceration of all those principles that enable an individual to question and speak against authority is precisely what terrorist groups, like ISIS, want to accomplish. The creation of a thorough security state that slowly bleeds us of not only precious financial resources but also of our humanity is also playing into ISIS’ hands. They know all too well about the temptation of the vast amount of defense dollars necessary to make this happen.

It is a great shame that we’ve allowed terrorism to be defined as a type of war instead of a type of dialog. When the powerless are deprived of processes to address their grievances, some will always resort to any means necessary (a view, it’s interesting to note, that virtually all of the Republican presidential candidates felt comfortable expressing with respect to protecting the American people–i.e., they would do whatever it takes). Much of the history of the Middle East over the last hundred years can be defined by lack of processes for local people to address and solve grievances without outside interference. We have often supported regional leaders who we thought would be more amenable to Western influence; while, at the same time, undermining those who truly represented the will of the people. This, too, parallels the Native Americans’ historic situation and there are numerous other similar examples throughout Central and South America. Widespread and entrenched terrorism of the kind that has grown up in places like the Middle East, Russia, and Asia often grow out of the repression of smaller groups by larger ones. The tragedy of our times is that there doesn’t seem to be any serious attempts to find non military processes for dealing with these problems. How much bloodshed is required to motivate a movement in this direction?

The French journalist, Nicolas Henin, who was captured and held by ISIS for six months before he was freed, is right when he says that the U.S. and Europe are playing into a trap when they refuse to help the refugees who have surged into Europe over the last year. Nothing betrays the extremism of ISIS better than the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians living under their rule. Instead of demagoguery, xenophobia and nationalism, the West should be welcoming them with open arms, for many of the refugees are our truest allies in that they wish to escape the brutality of war and live peacefully among us. Countries, like Canada, Sweden, and Germany have acted courageously and humanely by sheltering them in their hour of need. It is shameful that the U.S., which has played such a huge role in the current crises throughout the Middle East, is not doing the same. Henin is absolutely correct when he warns that refusing refugees and sending them back to be bombed is exactly what ISIS wants. What better evidence do they [ISIS] need to show what little regard we have for human life in those places? What better propaganda do they need to continue to recruit disaffected youths enraged by the ongoing use of force by foreigners in their countries? By welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees, Germany, Sweden, and Canada are waging a much more effective effort against ISIS than the one that merely continues to drop bombs year after year. Yet here, in the U.S., many of the loudest voices want to keep them out. It is a tribute to the insular reality in which many of them exist that they can also wonder incredulously why there seems to be no shortage of young people in the Middle East who fall prey to ISIS’ influence.

Mass shootings, drone strikes, massacres…when will we in the U.S. stop letting businessmen and militarists speak for us? And yes, it is appropriate to insert something about business interests here. Can anyone with a straight face say that the West ever would have poured trillions of dollars into these unceasing wars in the desert if oil didn’t lie beneath the sand? When we will put the world right and start speaking the language of peace and rationality instead of endless, bloody, stupid war? Once we know the answer to that, we can stop asking futile questions about why the world is drowning in bullets and blood–or why they hate us.

In the meantime, on the blood feud rages, for blood will have blood. On and on we endeavor to escape its consequences through the use of superior force. Even though it fuels the fires of terrorism. Extinguishing it will ultimately require a willingness to forego the temptation to use force alone and enter into a dialog that attempts to deal squarely with the problems as they really are. Until then, we run the risk of pursuing a false dialog in which we converse only with ourselves. This strategy will continue to create grotesque environments full of paranoia, over simplified villains, and fear. Should we really be surprised to be haunted by questions why mysterious forces seem to be radicalizing the youth?

To overcome the over-reliance on force as the primary means of combating terrorism, it will be necessary to overcome the vast array of huge economic forces that have grown up to supply the war on terror. When mainstream media and politicians are so subservient to those who wield large sums of money, what hope is there that we can achieve this? To think that the terrorists are not banking on this vulnerability is the height of ignorance and folly. It is in this way that they use the worst in us against ourselves. Must we continue to chain our future to the bombs that we drop on our enemies?

During the December 15th, 2015, Republican debate in Las Vegas, Dr. Ben Carson was asked point blank by the moderator whether he would be able to do what it takes to defeat the terrorists, even if this meant killing children. After a bizarre display of circumlocution, the crowd came to his rescue and started to boo the commentator for asking a question that plainly takes into account the implications of bombing another country–i.e., that it will inevitably result in the deaths of civilians, including children. Re-animated by the crowd, Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon, finally answered that he would do whatever was necessary; meaning that he would, in fact, kill children, if elected president. A remarkable career move for a man who once used to make a living trying to save them.

Considering that we now seem to be living in an environment in which the willingness to kill children threatens to become a prerequisite for being president of the United States, it is time to stop and look deep within ourselves. Perhaps we might even ask what self-radicalization even means under such conditions as these.

Endnotes

  1. The New York Times, December 31st, 1890.
  2. Read more at: http://amertribes.proboards.com/thread/327/strike?page=3#ixzz3t4bGCb8x.
  3. The New York Times, December 31st, 1890.
  4. Chief Sitting Bull had recently been killed a couple of weeks earlier in an attempted arrest by police.
  5. “Boots on the Ground, Hearts on Their Sleeves”; The New York Times; David Brooks; December 2nd, 2003: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/02/opinion/boots-on-the-ground-hearts-on-their-sleeves.html.
  6. The New York Times, November 22nd, 1890.
  7. “Donald Trump on terrorists: ‘Take out their families'”; CNN; Tom LoBianco; December 3rd, 2015: http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/02/politics/donald-trump-terrorists-families/
  8. “Racial and Gender Disparities in Suicide Among Young Adults Aged 18–24: United States, 2009–2013”; Centers for Disease Control; Caroline Jiang; Andreea Mitran, B.S.; Arialdi Miniño, M.P.H.; and Hanyu Ni, Ph.D., M.P.H., Division of Vital Statistics; September 2015: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/suicide/racial_and_gender_2009_2013.pdf.
  9. “AFTER THE ATTACKS: ASSESSMENT; President Seems to Gain Legitimacy”; The New York Times; R. W. APPLE Jr., September 16, 2001.
  10. “AFTEREFFECTS: TERRORISTS; U.S. and Saudis Sensed Attacks Were Imminent”; The New York Times; DOUGLAS JEHL and DAVID JOHNSTON; May 14th, 2003.
  11. “Verbatim: Marco Rubio on Terrorists”; The New York Times; May 9th, 2015; http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/05/09/verbatim-marco-rubio-on-terrorists/.
  12. Politico, “Cruz pledges relentless bombing to destroy ISIL” by Katie Glueck, December 5th, 2015; http://www.politico.com/story/2015/12/cruz-isil-bombing-216454#ixzz3tVD1hum4.
  13. ISIS lacks the ability to use weapons of mass destruction against the U.S.
  14. “Why Suicide Has Become an Epidemic–and What We Can Do to Help”; Newsweek; TONY DOKOUPIL, MAY 23, 2013:http://www.newsweek.com/2013/05/22/why-suicide-has-become-epidemic-and-what-we-can-do-help-237434.html.
  15. “U.S. Leads World in Mass Shootings”; The Wall Street Journal; JOE PALAZZOLO and ALEXIS FLYNN; Oct. 3, 2015: http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-leads-world-in-mass-shootings-1443905359.
  16. “U.S. Has World’s Highest Incarceration Rate”; Population Reference Bureau; Tyjen Tsai and Paola Scommegna; 2012: http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2012/us-incarceration.aspx.
  17. “New study finds 45,000 deaths annually linked to lack of health coverage”; Cambridge Health Alliance; David Cecere; September 17th, 2009:http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2009/09/new-study-finds-45000-deaths-annually-linked-to-lack-of-health-coverage/.
  18. The New York Times, “California Attack Has U.S. Rethinking Strategy on Homegrown Terror” by PETER BAKER and ERIC SCHMITTDEC. 5, 2015;http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/us/politics/california-attack-has-us-rethinking-strategy-on-homegrown-terror.html?action=click&contentCollection=Middle%20East&module=MostPopularFB&version=Full&region=Marginalia&src=me&pgtype=article.
  19. The New York Times; “AFTER THE ATTACKS: ASSESSMENT; President Seems to Gain Legitimacy” By R. W. APPLE Jr., September 16, 2001.

Author: Jesse Roche

An original thinker, Jesse enjoys writing, asking questions, and creating things. Greatly concerned with the deteriorating condition of public dialogue in the U.S., Jesse started ModernFolktales.com in 2006. He posts essays there in his spare time about topics linked to major forces that are impacting society and require more analysis than they typically receive in the mass media. The modern monster is a focus of some of these essays and represents a developing body of thought about its place in American society and the role it serves. Jesse is currently working on a book.

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