What is terrorism? Well, we will get to that. Why don’t we start with: what first comes to mind when you hear, “Terrorist,” shall we?
Picture a terrorist in your mind. What does he or she look like? How do they speak? What language? What religion do they practice? Where do they come from?
Thanks to a rather opportunistic re-branding strategy by the Alt Right (synonymous for racist, white supremacist bigots), the first image conjured when thinking of a terrorist is typically that of an adult, male, Middle Eastern decent, Islamic Jihadist. I’m not saying there aren’t Middle Eastern terrorists. Obviously there are. But they are far from the only terrorist organizations in the world, and certainly not the first of modern times. And, in fact, some of these are only terrorists by perspective. It truly is amazing the difference perspective makes.
We call them terrorists because they attack both military and civilian locations. We call them terrorists because they believe our civilian casualties are acceptable collateral damage to send a message to our leaders. Let’s look at some acceptable collateral damage.
On July 6, 2008, forty-seven people in a wedding party, including thirty-nine women and children, were killed by three bombs. The bride was among the dead. Nine others were wounded.
On May 19, 2004 forty-two civilians were slaughtered by bombs and gunfire at a wedding party. Among the dead were eleven women and thirteen children.
On November 8, 2008 thirty-seven civilians at a wedding party were killed by bombs, twenty-three children, ten women and four men, in a housing complex where they had gathered for the celebration. An additional twenty-seven people were injured, including the bride.
On December 12, 2013 four bombs struck a wedding procession killing ten people, including the groom’s son from a previous marriage, and injuring twenty-four.
These are just Wedding examples, not even all of them. The list gets really long when you throw in schools, funerals and hospitals. The truth is, sometimes the idea of who is a terrorist depends on what side of the bomb you are sitting. If someone bombs your entire family to attempt to assassinate one or a handful of individuals they claim may be present, who would you call the terrorist? The person(s) they want to kill or the ones which said your family’s lives are so insignificant that they are disposable? Would it make you hate the target for bringing this on your family or, perhaps sympathize with them? Would you think that maybe they have good reason for attacking the monsters who killed your family?
Fighting terror with terror only incites more hate. It feeds the ‘us versus them’ mentality, a mainstay of xenophobia. It is not, however, reserved for terrorists we don’t understand, who live across oceans. We suffer it right here at home, neighbor to neighbor. Xenophobia is the bedrock of racism. Fear what is other. Anything other. It is contributing to the racism epidemic in our country. Yes, fear of terrorists is playing a part in the very public displays of racism today. Why? Because once the hate starts spilling out, the floodgates are washed away and restraint becomes near impossible.
We are not even a full generation cycle outside of segregation, meaning there are still many people alive today who lived in that reality. Though I am in my mid forties, I can recall attending a predominately white elementary school as a second grader in a small East Texas town and seeing the very uncomfortable black children who were specifically bused in to meet the judicial desegregation orders. When they first arrived, they stood against the wall looking unsure and frightened. We were poor, so that was the only year I lived in a school district like that. Most of my young childhood we lived in predominantly black neighborhoods and school districts. I believe this is why that memory stands out. I had spent most of my time playing with black children and that was the first time I had really cognitively seen or recognized society treating them as different. And sure, racial slurs were common but I was too young to understand their real meaning. I had no outside concept of anything different. However, so you can have an understanding of how embedded racism was in our society, let me give you an example.
In fourth grade we lived in a very black community. As I said before, we were quite poor, so we lived in what was then called HUD Housing. They were apartment projects which scaled the rent based on income. Just cross the street from us was the grocery store; the only grocery store in our tiny town of about 2,000 people. In that grocery store, in the produce department, they sold a variety of nuts and they always had a big pile of Brazil Nuts, except that is not what they called them. In fact I didn’t even know that was what they were until I was in High School in the late 1980’s. No, they sold Ni**ger Toes by the pound. I kid you not. That is what it said on the sign, without the asterisks. I never really thought about it at the time. That was what they were, as far as I knew. I didn’t have perspective to understand how horribly wrong that was. But every single black person in our town had to shop there and they had to see that sign every single time they went through the produce department. They didn’t have other options to buy groceries. I can specifically still remember that sign there as late as 1981, and it was likely there longer, I just don’t have a specific recollection of it.
Today, I use that memory as a reference point. It really explains the out-lashing of public racism and xenophobia we see today. We had a period of relative public calm, where people were careful not to say racist things so publicly, but the racism didn’t just go away. Those people who perpetuated this ‘us and them’ mentality to feel superior, they didn’t just disappear or even have a great and sudden change of heart. No. Their fear did not abate. Their desire to be superior did not vanish. They just became quiet and built up more and more hatred, festering in their resentment of a world demanding they change. They infected society in quieter ways to subvert the people they saw as lesser beings. They clung to their skin color like it was a badge and wrapped it around religion, distorting the value of self worth and the integrity of faith with their obsessive bigotry. They found ways to quietly demean minority groups. They created and cultivated a culture of fear and distrust among minority communities and built policing systems which targeted them and evolved prisons into new slave labor camps. They were quiet terrorists, right here at home. But not free to espouse their hatred. Not free to publicly define superiority on their own terms.
Foreign terrorists provided an avenue to release that frustration. Not by becoming terrorists (indeed, why the KKK wasn’t deemed an illegal terrorist organization and threat to public safety suggests the government had already crossed that line domestically), but by hating them, painting them as evil and, in so doing, also labeling anyone who resembled them the same way. Finally, a socially acceptable venue to vocalize their hatred of others. They were able to call upon ancient religious conflicts and reignite them (Christianity vs. Islam of the Crusade periods). However, these radicalized Islamic terrorist groups are relatively new. They spawned after the unsuccessful war against the new nation of Israel, believing an urban terrorism tactic would prove more successful. The general idea being that if they made it miserable for Israelis to live there, they would eventually leave.
While this may sound like a terrible thing, a little perspective gives a lot of illumination. This was really not just about hating Jewish people and, truly, no one can condone terrorist acts, but understanding both sides in this conflict is the only way to ever resolve it. I am also willing to wager many of us would feel the same way in their shoes and may even resort to the same tactics.
Imagine, please, that the world came together and just decided, yes, the Palestinian people deserve a homeland, so they just took the United States and said, “That is no longer your country. It belongs to these people now. They are going to make the rules and laws and you will have to abide by them. They may or may not allow you citizenship and equal rights. Many of you will be required to relocate.” So what would we do? Well, probably say, “Like hell!,” and declare war, but with the backing of the entire world behind them, we would be alone and not likely win. We may be tough but we are not take on the entire world by ourselves kind of tough. Then what? When our war doesn’t work, what do we do? Would we just be content? Where would we go if most nations closed their doors to the mass of our refugees? While this is greatly simplified, it conveys the basis for the position in the Middle East that began this specific terrorism threat which has spread across the world, lashing out at not only Israeli interests, but those who support the Jewish nation. From there, the radicalization morphed into a jihad, seeking to not only subvert Israel, but also competing Islamic factions. The perpetuating civil unrest is largely fueled by stagnation in their economies, with only one export sector of substance: oil and natural gas and foreign interference in regional affairs.
Please note, I am not taking sides in the Israel/Palestinian conflict. I am not blaming the Israelis or Israel for terrorism. This is just history and it is served without blame. It just is what it is. Israel is a fact. It is there and has been for almost 70 years. I like dealing with reality and feel the region needs to adjust. But if we want everyone to eventually get along, we do need to understand and accept all the motivations which have caused the conflict to begin with. Understanding without prejudice. We can have empathy for both sides in this equation. In fact, we must.
Prior to 9/11/01, the US had a few scares dealing with these foreign terrorists, the small trade center bombing in the 1990’s, the hostage crisis during the Carter administration, and various issues at U.S. Embassies, etc. While it did cause immediate concerns, people were overall just far too busy hating the Soviet Union and fearing the cold war would heat up into a nuclear war. In fact, the IRA was a whole lot scarier. Not to mention, we had our own issues with civil rights going on coast to coast to be too bothered for too long. When the Cold War ended, we went along doing our own thing, oblivious to the interference our government played in foreign, regional conflicts in the Middle East, such as Iran/Iraq. But 9/11, and a festering of inability to vocalize hatred and fear of ‘other’ quickly changed the public discourse. Suddenly, people were free to hate again. It was okay to fear someone different. Not only was it okay, it was downright patriotic. We fought an unnecessary war in Iraq based off the spurring of that fear. Finally! Someone to hate right out in the open!
More racism. More xenophobia. It wasn’t gone. But fear begets fear. Before long, people become restless that their hate was socially limited. They felt their rights had been impinged upon by stifling their freedom to hate and belittle others. (they called it “political correctness, though most of us just call it good manners) Once bigotry starts seeping through, it pushes and pushes until it’s an uncontrollable flood. Their right to entitlement felt jeopardized for too long. After all, they never stopped being racists. They never stopped seeing themselves as superior. Their old prejudices didn’t disappear. And that brings us to today. Today we are a nation boiling over with hate, apoplectic, trying to decide who we hate the most: the blacks, the Mexican immigrants, the Muslims, the Chinese, the poor, the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Religious Right, the non theistic, the corporations, the socialists, the wealthy or the sick? Can there possibly be enough hate and enough fear for everyone? At the core of it all is the racist generations who imparted their false elitism on to their children. In some homes it was openly hateful, while others passed their bias on in more subtle ways.
True, it fades some with every generation, but don’t forget who our political leaders are and how they have been affected by race and prejudice over these years. Don’t forget how many of these predominantly white men tried to impede social justice and equality. A majority of these older politicians were a part of segregation. They grew up in it or grew up in the desegregation era which harbored a great deal of resentment. I have personally known judges and lawmakers who still refer to black people by the N word behind closed doors.
This is what we are witnessing when we see the calls for Muslim bans, Muslim registries, building walls, publishing crimes committed by immigrants, deporting people who should be given paths to citizenship, deporting military veterans who served under the promise of citizenship, hate crimes against LGBT, legalizing LGBT discrimination in our communities and schools, treating black people as though their skin color is enough to warrant fear of life or personal safety and shooting them for things like faulty tail lights or walking home minding their own business. It is all xenophobia, it is all racism. The fundamental cowardice of our nation is prevalent in our fear. We fear the terrorists and so we become terrorists ourselves, instead of mantling our courage to face a foe and ask them why; instead of facing those we do not know or do not understand with brave acceptance. We see someone who looks different from ourselves and fear them instead of embracing them as brothers and sisters in humanity. We see the practice of other religions and have so little faith in our own that we must destroy them to feel safe in our eternity.
It takes a great deal more courage to open our arms and minds to change and welcome the unknown than to fling insults and brandish might to drive the unknown away. Racists, bigots, supremacists, xenophobics in all shapes and sizes, they are all cowards.
Now we are faced with a choice as this fear has reached an apex n our society. Who will we be? Will we flex our muscles, shout insults and perpetuate the cowardice by trying to push away all that is other? Or will we have to courage to disband our hate? Even those of us seeking equality and justice for all in the name of humanity? Yeah, our hate, too. Can we let the hate we see and hear from others pass over us and have the strength of will and character to, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,”? We all have our flaws. We are each different and unique. But when we unite under a common cause, in peace and with resolution, we have great power, far more power than hateful cowards brandishing their fists. We have the power to instill hope, justice, equality and undeniable human rights to everyone who calls this nation home. Hope is stronger than hate, for it looks ahead to the future, instead of walking blindly backwards, eyes affixed to the past. We already know what is behind us. let us look with eager eyes to the future and make the choice to peacefully resist those who have mistaken their cowardice for courage. Resist those who would drag us all to repeat the failed past of their tainted memory. The future is forward. Hope. Not hate.
We are One Woman, One World.
Ann Lavendar Truong
Shout out to Anne Coffer, great friend and amazing colleague and author. She has a new book out, just released, that is fantastic, Edge of Ridiculous . I loved it! Get it! Read it! Then tell her how awesome she is!
Links: More ways to find me or colleagues of mine to check out!