Diffusing Menace

May 2004


If we're all part of the same human race, how do some people become terrorists? Why do we expect people who are terrorists to be so unlike ourselves?

People believe such weird things about other people. What makes them think other people are so different from themselves? It has always seemed to me that people are largely the same most everywhere, in most every way that matters. We all want healthy, happy children. We all want some leisure and enjoyment in our lives. We all take pleasure in our successes and try to forget about our failures. Of course, lots of people believe in starkly different things, but their feelings and aspirations are predominantly similar.

So, if most people are pretty much alike, what is it that turns some people into terrorists?

Desperation mostly, I expect, exacerbated by propaganda. People become terrorists when they are convinced that there is no other way that they can alter an intolerable situation -- particularly when they see their children inheriting the same bad deal that they have. The saddest thing about most terrorists is that they are people who have been marginalized by a system and then manipulated by their own leaders. The manipulators are cynical people who use others to advance their political agendas. These political leaders are often capable of making changes that would satisfy the needs of the marginalized people in their communities. Of course, if they did that, these people would not be so willing to support the leader's political agenda. But it's easier to blame someone else (like us) than to make any real changes that might address difficult issues like poverty and unemployment.

What about the terrorists' targets? What can we really do to make a world in which there is less terrorism? Seems pretty simple to me: decrease desperation.

There are many people internationally who don't like what they think America is doing in the world. Our government's response is to tell people that not only will we continue doing whatever we damn well please, but that there is not a damn thing they can do about it. This is not a very conciliatory policy.

Our leaders seem to think that "to conciliate" means to "give in." It actually means to end a disagreement or someone's anger by acting in a friendly way. When people say something mean (and untrue) about me or someone I care about, my first reaction is to ask them to explain why they think this is so. I then try to engage them in a discussion about the subject and attempt to change their mind by argument. If they are speaking about some aspect of my behavior, it may be necessary for me to behave in a contrary manner to convince them of my sincerity. When nations do this, it is called diplomacy.

Getting tough with terrorists is as silly as shaming poor people. With very few exceptions, you don't get people to work themselves into self-sufficient positions by treating them like crap. People who have been convinced that you're in league with the devil won't be frightened by the threat of dying in God's army. Most of what happens when America tries to "punish" terrorists is that a lot of the terrorists' friends and family members get maimed and killed. Anyone like to take bets about how effective this is at reducing terroristm?

Unfortunately, doing the right things to end the desperation that results in terrorists isn't really profitable the way war is. Peace profits almost everyone, war profits war profiteers. We tax payers are mortgaging our childrens' livelihoods to prevent "them" from "getting" us. Too bad we're not so generous in trying to prevent them from wanting to get us.

The same bad people will still lie about Americans, of course... but those lies are only propaganda, until we make them true. We are the biggest, most powerful country on the planet, and we have the power to prove their lies wrong, even to people who don't want to believe anything good about us. We have always been proud of our national ability to do good, both at home and abroad. We've done too little of both lately.

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