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 #95: Castrating Pigs on a Urine Comet

I know sometimes it seems like this blog is just a list of recent SynCast episodes, but .. well, I can’t think of a way to finish that sentence. I should write more here, but I guess I feel like I need something special when it’s time to write. Also I’m mad busy! Deal with it.

Anyway, in this episode I reflect on Ferguson, the US midterm elections, the TPP trade agreement, and (of course) fracking. Enjoy!

DS#95: Castrating Pigs on a Urine Comet

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Hip-Hop: Dem Atlas

Lynn Nottage > George RR Martin

If a primary purpose of combat fiction is to remind us of the horrors of war, you couldn’t pick a more disturbing setting than the Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict there has killed five million people, including unspeakable terrors of rape and torture.

It is in the DRC that Lynn Nottage sets her Pulitzer-winning 2009 play Ruined. It holds nothing back from the truth of war, displaying the most inhuman moments of evil and forcing us to confront people at their worst.

But it is a play that is, by design, not pessimistic. It’s not naive or simplistic, but it avoids the trap of pessimism so common to 21st century writers, especially Game of Thrones novelist George RR Martin. (I’ve written about his pessimism before.)

Nottage traveled to the DRC and Uganda with the theatre director Kate Whoriskey. They met women and men who had experienced war in its most hideous manifestations. They saw the psychological, emotional, familial, physical, and spiritual decimation caused by the fighting. They spoke with women whose bodies, minds, and souls had been violated and torn asunder.

And still Nottage wrote a story of hope.

Whoriskey says it perfectly in her introduction to the play:

She decided [...] in favor of a structure that was true to our experiences in Uganda. What struck both of us from our trip was that while there was incredible chaos in the region, this was home, and people were determined to survive and build lives here. When the media focuses attention on these areas, they often describe the violence, the poverty and the AIDS crisis. It is rare to hear the full story, the positive alongside the negative.

What was so rich about our trip is that we witnessed great beauty, strength and artistry.

[...] On a different trip to the region, Lynn spoke with a Rwandan about life after the genocide. He said to her, “We must fight to sustain the complexity.” This phrase became a mantra for creating the piece. We did not want to focus solely on the damage but also the hope. [...]

Lynn has the gift and genius for looking inside moments of profound disruption, witnessing the chaos, absorbing the psychic damage, and then synthesizing a narrative that shows us we are capable of so much more.

I find no hope in Game of Thrones. I find it to be a story utterly devoid of hope, committed primarily to stylistic innovation (of which it contains plenty) and audience manipulation (which, again, it does well). The fact that Martin cares very little about reflecting the hope we humans so desperately need proves (to me, at least) that he is unwilling to fight to sustain the complexity.

As a result, we don’t get the full story.

Didactic SynCast #93: The Formula

It’s been months, but this show is worth the wait. Over two hours of didactic goodness! We’re covering everything from Iraq to Edward Snowden to people pretending to be US Department of Energy spokesmen. Plus — as always — we give you the latest on fracking and high-frequency trading, with a visit from everyone’s favorite cigar-sucking businessman.


DS#93: The Formula

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I’m postponing the discussion of hip-hop for a special episode coming soon. Stay tuned!

War, Peace, and Christmas

Merry Christmas, everybody! I hope you’re enjoying some downtime with loved ones. As a zen pantheist Altinist all-of-the-abovism devotee, I hold Christmas to be just as holy as every other day. Still, I got exactly what I wanted this holiday season – time. I’ve finally got some time to relax, play video games, and write. (Pounded out a new story yesterday, in which I took a crack at the horror genre.)

CARE and Terror

Alas, the news this morning is not all joyous. In fact, I’m focused right now on two really horrible stories, one from a while back and one happening as we speak.

Recently Diane and I watched The Narrow Path, a documentary about the peace activist and Jesuit priest John Dear. (It’s good, but the director goes nuts with the sepia filter.) At one point he mentions Margaret Hassan, who was a medical relief worker for many years in Iraq with CARE International, before she was abducted and murdered there. This sort of thing is especially horrifying to me, the idea that someone could devote themselves to doing good work in a place, only to be repaid with such horrible violence. (Like those women in Zanzibar.)

Desperate to know more, I went to Hassan’s Wikipedia page and read about her ordeal. It turns out no one knows, to this day, who exactly killed her. Some group of fanatical scumbags. What I found truly remarkable, however, is that some members of the Iraqi insurgency — and even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — called for her release.

As horrifying as the whole ordeal is, this last bit gives me hope, in a weird way. I am comforted by the fact that an atrocious person like al-Zarqawi, who was responsible for so much suffering and violence, was willing to stand up for an aid worker. It helps me feel like religious extremists aren’t a totally alien species, beyond all human connection. It’s a small thing, I know, but it really hit me.

War in Southern Sudan

For weeks we’ve been hearing about fighting in South Sudan, and this morning brings headlines about mass graves and ethnic bloodshed. This makes me very sad, and I’m trying hard to resist the standard American mindset of “War in Africa? What else is new?” I’m trying to stay connected with the pain and horror we all felt on 9/11, and keep myself linked to the reality that thousands of people are experiencing that right now in South Sudan — women, men, boys and girls. (I’m always amused and saddened when people only mention women and children, as if men can’t (or don’t) experience pain, loss, and suffering in these situations. Granted, 99% of the time it’s men who initiate and perpetuate them, but other men are of course caught in the crossfire.)

Meanwhile, reports of other atrocities are coming out of Central African Republic. Alas, there’s nothing we regular folks can do at the moment. The UN is sending in 6,000 more peacekeepers (around 12k total) to try to quell the fighting.

What struck me about this story is how blasé we can be about civil war, while simultaneously filling our lungs with indignant outrage when we hear about mass killing. What is war but mass killing carried out by two sides? It’s all so very sad. (This article about corruption in East Timor hasn’t been helping my spirits either.)

So what do we do? First of all, we pay attention. Indifference is the greatest sin, and while of course we shouldn’t fixate on the horrors of reality, neither should we hide from them. Secondly, we allow ourselves to feel the empathy so natural for humans (and so rare in our modern society, alas). Third, if and when some sort of action is possible (via Amnesty International for example), we take it.

No apathy! No sleepwalking!

A Word About the Photo

The news is filled today with images of South Sudan soldiers, emaciated refugees, and terrified children. But it seems like those are the only images we ever see from Africa. (cf. How to Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina.) So I chose an image from the 2011 South Sudan independence celebrations. Let’s not forget there are many awesome people in that country working hard to bring peace back.