The Cycle of Terror




In the wake of terror attacks, politicians are fond of proclaiming, "We will not be intimidated." By this they seem to mean that we won't cower in fear, but will boldly root out the terrorists, visit upon them the hand of justice, and hold them to account. "Make no mistake," about that, they say. We will be tough, and by tough they mean heightening security at home, intensifying counter-terrorism measures abroad, and punishing the perpetrators and all who give them aid and comfort.

Tough and strong though they seem, all of these responses are based on fear. They are the actions of people who are afraid of terrorism. Looking at them, one might say that the terrorists have succeeded after all. Even if their ostensible political cause is crushed, their terror has succeeded in increasing the level of fear in the world.

From fear comes hate, and from hate comes violence. Acting from that fear, we sow the seeds of future terrorism in the world, thereby confirming the image of our terror. It is as Martin Luther King said (quoted in a marvelously brave and insightful piece by Falguni Sheth in Salon, "Where does the hate come from?": "Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody."

Is there an alternative? There is, but I am afraid it is so radical as to be beyond the reach of our political imagination, at least until the futility of force, hate, and control becomes so apparent we can no longer ignore it. Right now, we respond to each failure of control with more control, each failure of force with more force, each failure of security with more security. Where will it end? When every school, stadium, shopping mall, hospital, home, and public building is like a fortress?

Let us ask a simple question. Do we want to live in a future where to attend any public event or enter any public building means to pass through a security checkpoint? That would be a society that runs on fear, a society in which fear infiltrates every corner of public life. Since a fortress is the mirror opposite of a prison (the former keeps people out, the latter in), a fortress society is also a prison society, in which every trip, every entry in a building, every purchase is monitored and controlled, and every act policed.

Is anyone out there asking, "What would it take to have a society where we need less security every year, and not more?" Is any politician proclaiming this as a goal? Is anyone upholding this as a vision for the future? Are we capable of envisioning a society where we feel at home among each other, a society of growing trust, and not a society resembling a prison more and more with each passing year?

One might think that yes, this is a worthy goal, and that therefore we should study and address the causes of terrorism -- but of course we must tighten security until such time as we do that. That would be fine except for one unfortunate possibility: what if the regime of security and control is itself integral to the conditions that breed terrorism?

It makes a certain amount of psychological sense that this is the case. What we suppress in our psyche often bursts out in some dissociated and extreme form. When we live in fear (as we do in a security state), we are certain to experience that fear in various externalized ways, such as terrorism. The suppressed shadow emerges. Are the horrific events of the last few months the random acts of bad guys? Or could it be that we are seeing a reflection of ourselves?

More mundanely, the security mindset applied to foreign policy by a militaristic state surely creates the image of its own fear and hatred. The more aggressively we seek to protect ourselves from the people we fear, the more those people will fear and hate us. The further we take security, for example to preemptive drone strikes, the more hatred we will generate. The more hatred we generate, the greater will be the need to extend the regime of security even further.

The same is true of the mindset of control at home, in the workplace, and at school, extending even to pharmaceutical control of the mind via anti-depressant drugs. A society that is increasingly regimented, surveilled, and controlled, in which "freedom" happens behind gates and walls, necessarily stokes an explosive desire to break free. I do not mean to trivialize the complicated psycho-social factors that turn a person into a mass murderer, but certainly a key factor must be an overwhelming feeling of alienation. What could be more alienating than a standardized, controlled, endemically suspicious society, where everywhere you go you are treated as a suspect or troublemaker?

To build a society of safety and trust rather than security and fear, we are going to have to act from the former rather than the latter. I therefore offer a few modest proposals for how to respond to the Boston bombing. First, let us reverse the cycle of terror by responding, not with heightened security, but with relaxed security, demonstrating that we will not be frightened into retreating behind cameras, fences, and metal detectors. We will bravely uphold an open society.

Secondly, let us reverse the cycle of hatred abroad by ceasing all preemptive and punitive drone strikes and other attacks. Those are the actions of a frightened people. It takes courage to trust that if one holds back from violence, whomever one has seen as an enemy will do the same. But in a situation of mutual distrust, someone has to take the first step. Otherwise, each act merely confirms the distrust of the other, and the violence never ends.

Thirdly, instead of vowing to take vengeance on the perpetrator of the Boston attack, let us proclaim that rather than punish him, he will have the opportunity to face the families of the people he killed and the people whose limbs he destroyed. He will hear their stories and share his own. Then together, the victims, perpetrators and communittee will agree on how best to heal the damage done and serve justice.

While remorse and forgiveness may not result, it is more likely to than in punitive justice. (For more on this approach to justice, explore the Restorative Justice website or read this article.)

This response will reduce the amount of hate and fear in the world. The perpetrator will not become a martyr in the eyes of his sympathizers. Any response that heightens the already-endemic fear in our society will be a victory for fear. To truly resist terrorism, we must not act from terror. Can we receive the hate of this act and transform it into love?

No doubt most people will say that these proposals are dangerously unrealistic and naïve, so let me anticipate some of the objections.

The first proposal would seem to make us more vulnerable to terrorism, and to make it easier for terrorists to achieve their ends. Actually, heightened security only gives the illusion of safety; it does not provide actual safety. At best, it displaces possible terrorist activity from one venue to another. As each public place is secured, those with violent intent will simply enact their plans at some other place that is not secured. What is the difference if it is displaced from an airport to a stadium, from a stadium to a subway station, from a subway station to a shopping mall?

The only solution, from the perspective of security and control, would be to secure every public event and building, so that the act of going out in public means undergoing a search and metal detector screening. And even then there would be gaps through which a determined or creative terrorist could strike. The Newtown massacre, which happened at a school with extensive security, demonstrated that such measures, as the Chinese say, "stop the gentleman but not the crook."

Moreover, even if relaxed security did result in more attacks, that would not mean that the terrorists had achieved their ends. Their goal is not to kill people -- that is a means, not an end. Their goal is to engender fear. If our response shows that we are not afraid, then we will be deterring terrorism, not encouraging it.

I think this is what Jesus meant when he enjoined us to "turn the other cheek." Doing so isn't an invitation to strike again. It shows that the first strike did not work. (For a deeper explanation of this injunction, please read Walter Wink's profound essay, "Jesus' Third Way."

The second suggestion above invites the protest, "But if we don't destroy our enemies or at least hold them in check, then they will be emboldened and eventually overrun us." This protest imagines that enmity happens in a kind of vacuum, that hatred toward the United States exists outside a context of militarism and imperialism, a relationship of violence and counter-violence. It assumes, perhaps, that they "hate us for our freedoms." In other words, it says that they are evil and we are good. I think anyone can recognize that this is a recipe for endless war when, as is usual, both sides believe that they are the good guys.

The second and third proposals also provoke the objection, "If we don't punish acts of terror and other crimes, then there will be nothing to deter future criminals." Leaving aside the weak and often contradictory evidence for the efficacy of deterrence in preventing crime, the notion of punishment-based deterrence draws on a world-view that is fundamentally fear-based. It says there are implacably evil people out there who, if not deterred by personal harm, will do terrible things to us.

In fact, the classical theory of deterrence, originating in the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Baccaria, essentially extends the category of "evil" people to everyone. Bentham in particular said that human beings naturally act to maximize their "utility" -- avoidance of pain and experiencing of pleasure. Therefore, in order to prevent people from committing criminal acts, there must be negative consequences to counterbalance that universal desire to benefit oneself by harming others.

The theory of deterrence, in other words, presupposes a world of separate, competing, self-interested individuals. But is that really the world we live in? If so, then a better life will only come through greater and greater security, deterrence, surveillance, and control. In such a world, trust is foolish, as is any hope of forgiveness, redemption, love, or a change of heart. Certainly, our experiences often seem to confirm this. But could it be that what we are seeing is an artifact of our system, and the projection of our own beliefs? When we act from an ideology of force and the fundamental selfishness of human beings, we create the world in its image.

In that case, maybe it is time to act from a different paradigm of human nature: a belief in our fundamental goodness, our common humanity, our desire to connect, to love, to help, and to serve. Certainly the immediate responses to the tragedy in Boston offer ample evidence for such a belief: people generously coming to the aid of total strangers.

It was as if the explosions tore apart the veil of mutual suspicion that keeps us separate and allowed a latent aspect of human nature its full expression. What if we take those acts of selflessness as the true lesson of Boston? Could we create a world in their image? If MLK was right, surely it is also true that peace begets peace, forgiveness begets forgiveness, and love begets love. No less a revolution will create a society where we feel safe and at home amongst each other.

Image by hahatango, courtesy of Creative Commons license.