A Few Thoughts on Terrorism, War, and Motivation

I was going to relax and play Fallout 4 after school, but instead I wrote a thing about terrorism and ISIS. If you want to know what I think, here it is.

I don’t believe that there’s anything fundamental to Islam that predisposes it to violence more than other religions. I read the Koran a long time ago, and most of what I remember is how terrible the suffering will be for those who deny the glory of Allah.

Reminded me of the Left Behind novels, where all the sinners get bulldozed into pain and torture by a Romanian nuclear disarmament activist who moves the UN to Jerusalem. And the authors of those books insist they’re based on an orthodox reading of the Christian book of Revelations.

What’s the Problem?

I won’t deny that there are terrible things being done in the name of Islam, but that’s always been true about every religion — there’s even a Buddhist guy in Myanmar who’s calling for terrorism toward Muslims. Are there more violent acts carried out (intentionally) against civilians in the name of Islam than other religions? I don’t know, I haven’t done the math. Does it feel like it? Kinda. But the US also drops a LOT of bombs on innocent civilians with our flying robots — and Christianity is the dominant religion in this country. I know we’re not dropping those bombs in God’s name, but when you’re on the receiving end, that distinction evaporates pretty darn fast.. (Just as lots of conservative folks are ignoring divisions within Islam pretty darn fast, after WE got bombed.)

I think it’s important to remember that we’re at war with an ideology, not a religion or a culture or even just one death cult. (It’s certainly fair to use that term for ISIS.) We could wipe out ISIS, just as we could maybe eventually wipe out al’Qaeda, if we kill enough adults. But the ideology can spring up again and again and take new and interesting forms. (I mean, think about this progression: al’Qaeda –> ISIS –> ??? Could there be an even worse form of these same scumbags? Sure; things can always get worse.)

How Do We React?

So how do we fight an ideology? Well, that’s difficult. Destructive ideologies are pernicious because they can sculpt our perception of reality to their will. In other words: Once the lens of an ideology attaches itself to the third eye, it’s very difficult to pry it off. And because we pass everything we see through that lens, we come to ignore parts of reality that don’t mesh with our ideology — and most of the time, the ideology comes with a method to explain away the stuff that doesn’t mesh. (So for example with ISIS, they’re convinced that everything is a plot by “The Crusaders” — ie Christians — to destroy them, their religious purity, their families, their Islamic paradise.)

But the tricky thing about ideologies is that we ALL have them. I do, you do, everyone does. There are things you believe, way deep down in the core of your psyche, that influence how you see the world. And examining those things — to say nothing of adjusting or removing them — can be extremely difficult.

For example: Most people in the US believe that our government generally acts in the best interests of the world. Most Americans believe that we can be too aggressive, or insensitive to other cultures, but at the end of the day we’re out there all the time trying to use our power to help people and stop The Bad Guys.

But there’s a good bit of evidence to suggest this isn’t always true. And not just a couple of rare outliers, but a number of historic cases (East Timor, Guatemala, Iran-Contra) that demonstrate the reality that, from time to time, the US acts out of unconscionable self-interest and leaves corpses in its wake in the name of hegemony.

(Is it obnoxious for me to acknowledge the fact that I’m using some fancy words that some folks probably aren’t familiar with, like “ideology” and “hegemony”? Yeah, but I always want to encourage people to look that stuff up if you don’t know about it. Besides, the only way you’ll really get a sense for what they mean is to read stuff about them. Like Derrida. Don’t get me started on Derrida or his obnoxious, useless fan club.)

The horrible cyclical effect of our ideology is that we’re 100% convinced that we’re The Good Guys and our military only fights The Bad Guys. This can prevent (and sometimes does prevent) our ability to realize that we do some terrible things at times. (Some people believe that our military is ONLY or PRIMARILY used for “evil” purposes, but that’s the same simplistic ideology — only flipped.)

The worst part of THAT is that it means we’re likely to do things that prove the case that the ideology of ISIS is trying to make: The US military is The Great Satan. (Again, I want to make clear that i do NOT agree with that ideology.) So both sides keep playing by this tired old script book, and neither is able or willing to admit that our ideologies (and our egos) are what’s really at war.

Blood Will Have Blood, They Say

So how do we fight an ideology? Yeah, I was supposed to answer that. (We’ve been watching “Barton Fink” in Creative Writing, and I’ve been in “circular logic and dodging questions” mode for several days.)

Well, how did we defeat Naziism? I mean, yeah, it’s not dead — scumbags still paint swastikas on things — but it’s got 1% of the life it had in 1935. But the point is: Many people once believed that it would never be abolished. The frenzy in their eyes was too strong. They weren’t human! Same with the Japanese, right? But now we’re all good friends.

Would it take an actual war, like WW2? Even if that were possible (which of course it’s not), ISIS seems like a cockroach in its capacity to survive great physical assault, and keep going. (Heck, the absurd ideology of Wahhabism might even CELEBRATE such a thing.) And besides, I don’t think it takes wars to change ideologies.

But changing ideologies requires empathy, respect (of self and toward others), and compassion. So that guy in Paris explaining to his kid why the flowers are more powerful than the bombs — he’s absolutely correct. (Only in the long term! Kids, do NOT try to stop bullets with chrysanthemums. OH MY VARIOUS GODS! [Futurama, remember that?] I just spelled “chrysanthemum” correctly without looking it up.)

Because if we keep getting kicked in the teeth, and then kicking the other guy in the teeth, and then he gets mad because we just kicked him in the teeth, and so he kicks us in the teeth, and so on.. well, you know. Who kicked who first? Who cares! We go back far enough and it’s Cain vs. Abel (as we all agree, since it’s Old Testament, heh) and it doesn’t matter.

What matters is what we can teach the rest of the world about what it means to be a decent human being. And a decent family. And a decent community. And a decent city or town. And a decent state. And a decent nation. And a decent species. (The Chicago rapper Capital D said: “My father taught me — kid be a man, protect your family / But what if my family is all of humanity?”) THAT’s how you defeat an ideology. The ideology of fascism took a BIG hit from the Marshall plan. People tend to hate you less when you actually help them rebuild. (We haven’t done very well in Afghanistan or Iraq.)

Decent nations don’t ignore the horrors that ISIS is inflicting on its region and (occasionally) on the US and Europe. But decent nations ALSO do NOT ignore the horrors of its own drone strikes, nor do they ignore their moral commitments to the people suffering from war, hunger, poverty, and violence.

I demand a third way. (That’s my ideology, a refusal to accept only two ways of seeing a thing.) I insist that we CAN stand up for the rights of women, men, and children in every nation on Earth, without requiring the perpetuation of a flawed ideology of moral certainty in the form of military action and unenlightened short-term self-interest.

That’s what I think.

Didactic SynCast #97: Charlie, Chinny, and Chamillionaire

We’re on track to have a new show every month, but let’s just see how long that lasts, shall we?

DS#97: Charlie, Chinny, and Chamillionaire

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Chamillionaire: Don’t Shoot

Norway, Means, Ends, Attentat, and Video Games

The recent terrorist attacks in Norway, masterminded by Anders Behring Breivik (right), have left me — like most of you, I’m sure — with sadness and frustration. I know how easy it is to jump right into the political commentary and finger-pointing (believe me, I know), but I’ve learned that it’s important to take a moment to let ourselves feel the sorrow and aggravation for the death and suffering that this man has caused.

I shall forgo any discussion of his political affiliations or ideological intent here, except to point out — once again — that terrorists come in all colors and religious persuasions and hairstyles.

I will say this, though: I’m sure conservative commentators will argue that, like McVeigh and Kaczynski, this guy was an exception that proves the rule. If you believe that’s the case, then, let me ask you: Why is it that — with a few notable exceptions — why are almost all of those who commit these hideous acts of mass violence men? If you believe that there’s some innate cultural reason why so much terrorism comes from Islamic fundamentalism, do you also believe that there’s some innate cultural reason why men are usually the ones who plan and carry out terrorist attacks?

Means and Ends

Whatever. That’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing this to make two points, and the first is about means and ends. Mr. Breivik wrote a 1500-page manifesto that is now circulating on the internets, which Garrett and I both spontaneously (and independently, without the other’s knowledge) compared to John Doe’s notebooks in SE7EN.

It’s most chilling in its deliberate commentary, which is designed to serve as followable model for others who seek to carry out similar activities. He refers constantly to the organizations with which he’s involved, and the righteousness of his cause, mostly to do with “cultural Marxists” and those pushing an agenda of “multiculturalism” (ie, Muslim hegemony). There’s a good summary from Blake Hounshell at Foreign Affairs.

It’s not surprising that he declares his admiration for Al Qaeda, since they share a fanatical devotion to their own self-righteousness. Once again we see the blinding effects of closed-minded certainty with violence as the instrument of delivery.

Several years ago, while working to make the Wikipedia page about Emma Goldman to a Featured Article, I came across this quote from her, which made a powerful impact on me and which I now quote constantly:

There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another…. The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose.

Breivik and Bin Laden (like Hitler and Stalin and every other terrorist you can name) both believed they were doing nasty violence in the name of a greater good. One more example of the “To do a great right, do a little wrong” sentiment Shakespeare presented in The Merchant of Venice.

But this way of thinking is a fraud. The world doesn’t work this way — if you use violence to achieve a political goal, you will achieve violence. People will die and others will suffer, and you will make things worse.If you want a better, more peaceful world, you must use better, more peaceful ways. Otherwise you become violence, and the world you create is one of suffering and pain.

I’m willing to admit — like Cornel West — that there are certain situations where violence is the only alternative to annihilation (the Treblinka uprising, for example), but usually it’s just delusional people who refuse to consider any point of view other than their own.

Therefore this is a good time to provide another excellent quote, this one from Chinua Achebe (another of my Wikipedia FAs):

Whatever you are is never enough; you must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism.

Amen, dude.

Propaganda of the Deed

Another sad connection between Breivik and Goldman is their belief in the goodness of attentat, or “Propaganda of the Deed“. Basically, the idea is this: “If we kill [name of bad person/people], enough people will wake up and take action and things will start to get better!”

Another absurd line of thinking. Emma Goldman and her buddy/lover Alexander Berkman decided they would murder wealthy industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Ironically, after they shot him (wounding but not killing him), it was one of Frick’s oppressed workers who subdued Berkman until the police arrived.

Here’s a fun quiz: Guess whether or not a massive uprising of workers took place after this incident? Give up? The answer is: No! There was no spontaneous revolution or burst of class-consciousness epiphany. If anything, I expect this action only led people to believe that their anarchist cause was dangerous and stupid.

This will (hopefully) happen also in Breivik’s case. There will doubtless be ignorant buffoons who view his actions as heroic, but I daresay the vast majority of onlookers will be horrified and saddened and dissuaded from his ideology. As with the above, the point here is clear: If you believe The People™ need to be educated about the rightness of your cause, then use actual education. Quit pretending that your egoistic violent action will inspire anyone to make anything better.

Video Games

Okay, one last thing. The guy was apparently a fan of video games. In his manifesto he explicitly mentions Dragon Age: Origins, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Modern Warfare 2. In fact, he celebrates MW2 as a way to “more or less completely simulate actual operations”.

This is chilling and sad, and provides another example (along with the Columbine kids and DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo) of a terrorist associating video games with his murderous actions. And while it’s obvious that the knee-jerk reaction is quite correct (“There are so many other factors to consider, how come so many other people play these games and don’t kill anyone, etc etc”), I’m sickened by the fact that I enjoy games which are praised so highly people who actually kill.

It’s easy for us to say over and over that we’re not affected by these games, but just as I get high off of loud techno music, or inspired in positive ways by great literature, it’s just not true that video games have no impact on me whatsoever. The key is to be honest about all of the effects — good and bad — and committed to balancing the bad with positive resources from other places.

Like I said in 2008: I’m playing a living contradiction. (And speaking of which: It’s time for a GTA4 playdate!)

UPDATE: This Calvin + Hobbes cartoon is pretty relevant, dont’cha think?


I love 5 Second Films so much. (TWO WARNINGS: 1. If, after you watch that movie, you hit “Random” even once, you will spend an hour on the site. I guarantee it. 2. There are some adult situations in some of their films. 3. This is the best thing they have ever done.

Today I’m listening to: Electric Oasis!