Prevent Terrorism by Staying Away

Originally published Dec 30, 2001

Enough. This is enough madness. If the future is filled with latex and decontaminates and Anthrax, I say enough — no more. Let’s get back to normal, by any means necessary.

But how? With The Red Death knocking at our door, canáwe ever haveá”normal” again? Maybe. The U.S. will have to restrain its collective lust for revenge after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and walk the narrowest of paths. To do what? Nothing less than give the terrorists what they want.

They want to die, and America should oblige if they conspire to attack us. I’m talking about something else they want, something a lot of Muslims want: the U.S.ágone fromáthe Middle East. Good idea. Uproot bin Laden and his network and get out, so fewer weeds pop up on American soil for the next wave of attacks. Prevent the attacks altogether — for good.

How long has the U.S. been fighting Iraq? Come on, we all know where this war is leading and how long it is going to take, and how different the world — America in particular — is going to be afterwards — assuming an after. Whether American involvement around the world is right or wrong, justified or not, is not relevant now. We’ve got an entirely new set of questions to ask ourselves as a culture to prevent a horrible future vision from becoming reality.

The overriding issue is that America is reaping heavier and heavier consequences for its interventions around the world. And the future is pointing toward still heavier consequences: more terror, more security, more brutality and insecurity. A police state in America. Possibly. Or something worse.

Unless America wants terrorism to become a fact of everyday life — like in many other places around the world — we have to try a different approach, something radical, even earthshaking: mind its own business. Why does the U.S. military have to be so spread around the world? What good is it doing — or better yet, what harm? Why invite trouble when we’ve already got enough at home?

By pulling back we aren’t turning the other cheek or giving in; rather reordering our priorities. Besides, turning the other cheek doesn’t always mean non-retaliation. It used to mean I’ve got two cheeks and the other is going to be a lot harder to hit. But a fight is sometimes won by avoiding it, said the famous Chinese war tactician, Sun-tzu, and America can avoid more terror by giving the enemy less of a target, less reason, less motivation. We don’t bother you, you don’t bother us.

Take care of bin Laden and other terrorists who threaten American soil, then get out. Get out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Balkans. Turn our sites inward and think more within our own borders. Get this so-called war over with and get back home, to normal, to a place where the violence was relatively predictable.

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It’s sometimes difficult for Americans to understand why anyone would hate us so badly to die striking at us collectively, but there are reasons that stretch way back. Arabs in particular have long memories, and the story of their last thousand years is popularly seen by them as the fall of a great, cultured, peaceful empire to stinky, violent, greedy, ignorantáEuropean Crusaders. Arab subjugation is complete with their freedom from colonial rule at the price of dependency on the West for oil money and foreign aid. What they want — what might prevent their extremists from lashing out — is to rule their own land without outside intervention, and they deserve the chance. Let them fight their own battles and make their own peace. They don’t need America for either.

Instead, let the U.S. help achieve peace through the U.N. Security Council, flexing other muscles than military to create security. This is a tremendous opportunity to fundamentally change America’s relationship with the world. If we’re cunningálike Sun-tzu and other wise warriors, we can make this war — what President Bush says is the “first” war of the new century — the last war we invite to our soil. Otherwise, prepare for a scary future of Anthrax cultures and security sweeps, rubber gloves and mail scares, suicide bombings and antibiotic runs, news alerts and gas masks….

John Ashcroft’s America: Shut Up and Toe the Line!

If I’m to believe Attorney General John Ashcroft correctly, my vocal and vigorous objections to his dragnet style of justice are unpatriotic, and worse, aid terrorists in their cause. By extension, I abet terrorism, because I don’t go along in lock-step with the AG’s new interpretation of civil liberties.

This sort of crass posturing, which Ashcroft argued in defense of his policies before the Senate last week, fits into a larger Bush Administration pattern of polarizing the world into “us” versus “them,” and could erode support for the war in the long run.Americans hopefully won’t tolerate Ashcroft’s simple arguments to justify extreme uses of power that push the limits of Constitutional authority.

His answers to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week stirred up the ghosts of McCarthy and Hoover. Arguing that dissent in this “time of war” is unpatriotic is simply the time-honored tactic of muzzling critics for political expediency. In the past, exercising such power meant detentions, blacklisting, and the occasional execution. It’s wrong to stir those specters and use such a big hammer to squash debate. Heaven forbid Jay Leno crack a few jokes at Ashcroft’s expense.

These tactics fit into a larger strategy the scope of which was evolving long before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Bush play book seems to be: deflect criticism back at the source while pushing ahead with a partisan agenda. Bush handcuffed Gore on many fronts this way during the 2000 election campaign, and is now using the war effort as an excuse for everything from corporate tax cuts to arctic oil drilling to mass detentions. Disagree with us and you aren’t supporting the war. That means you must side with the terrorists. Talk about cut-throat politics at its worst, the kind Bush promised to clean up with his pledges to be a “reformer” who would bring “civility” to Washington. It’s becoming obvious that behind the Reaganesque facade is a coarse, uncompromising politician who will exploit any advantage.

No surprise: The President’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, is from the old bare-knuckle school of politics that goes back to Lee Atwater, who apologized to those he attacked and renounced his style of politics before dying young in March 1991 of a cancerous brain tumor. Rove learned well at Atwater’s side –áso did Bush Jr. when Atwater ran George Sr.’s ’88 presidential campaign — and wrote the Bush play book with the same divisive, partisan tactics. It’s us versus them and we will try to win no matter what the cost.

Ashcroft proclaiming that dissent over his policies hinders the war effort and aids the terrorists in the long run is disingenuous considering that it’s Ashcroft’s policies that are the biggest threat to public support for the sometimes extreme measures being taken to prevent another terrorist attack. His attempt to muzzle critics and polarize the public is the sort of tactic for short-term gain that won’t wash in the long run.

He could have scored a few points and helped his cause by taking a more conciliatory tone, by admitting that his policies are harsh but the times require it. He couldve appealed to the public to hold its fire until after he can fully explain himself. He could have smiled, maybe once, during his appearance before the Senate.

But that’s not Big John’s style, or the style of the people behind him.

Oh brother don’t hate me: Christianity vs Islam: a family feud

Published 2001 December (After 9-11 began to digest)

Stories of twins are ancient, harking back to the Hebrew tales of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and the countless other myths that all cultures tell in one form or another about twins. Some tales end well, like Castor and Pollux being granted immortality together by Zeus in the night sky as the sign of Gemini. Some end badly: the murder of Abel by Cain. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks the twins are emerging again as a theme of the age, a story that underpins events of the day and illustrates the dilemma that confronts civilization. The twins in NYC were targeted by people who oppose what they represent(ed): American and Western dominance.

Most stories of twins have faded into obscurity, leaving us collectively without the guidance of the ages, the wisdom passed down from past generations about how they dealt with similar challenges of their day. Without this valuable knowledge we are ill-equipped as East confronts West and the twins once again wrestle, this time under the specter of mutual annihilation. However, the knowledge passed down through mythological tales of twins is written deep in our minds; with Cliff’s Notes, we in this time of need and trouble will hopefully get the message.

To understand how twins stories underly history – and current events – the relationship of Christianity and Islam has to be understood as that of rival brothers taught by the same parents, who grew up with far different interpretations of what they learned. Islam and Christianity are offspring of Abraham. Said to be the father of many nations, Abraham made the first covenant with God, and is claimed by both brothers as the rightful heir. Throw in Christianity’s connection through Jesus and the result is thousands of years of conflict that will continue until one side or the other steps back, puts aside its ego and refuses to keep reenacting the same script. The three religions are so tight they share every prophet commonly except two: Jews and Muslims reject Jesus as the Son of God, Jews having disavowed him to crucifixion and Muslims claiming him as a prophet leading up to the last and highest prophet, Muhammed. “The Prophet,” as the once upright merchant of Mecca was known before being visited by an angel, is rejected by Jews and Christians for their reasons. No wonder Islam and Christianity are at odds like never before – religiously, culturally, and militarily. With the parent culture, the Jews, aligned with the Christians against Muslims, we have the making of a royal family feud. We seek the wisdom of the ancients encoded in stories in order to find a way of avoiding the final confrontation and fulfillment of the darkest possibilities.

In the story of the prodigal son, one sibling leaves home with a fat inheritance only to return penniless after many years of raucous living. The brother who stayed behind and tended the family business resented that his sibling would have the nerve to show his face again – and even worse, the last thing he expected was his wayward brother welcomed back with a feast and an equal place in the family! Is the little snot to be rewarded for being a screw-off and blowing his fortune? This attitude in turn angered the father, who tells the resentful brother that if he can’t welcome back his wayward sibling and be happy for the family, he might as well leave. These days a kid can pack bags and go crash with a friend; back then you slept with the wolves, so the threat carried with it a virtual death sentence.

Islam finds itself nowadays in the place of the brother who stayed home but isn’t getting the rewards deemed due for years of faithful service. Islam collectively gives much more importance to prayer and organized religion in daily life, yet lags far behind the West in technology and prestige. The West has grown so predominant that it threatens to engulf Islam and force it to conform to western ways, effectively taking away its identity. Add in the fact that Israel – the parent – is aligned with one sibling against the other, and you get the idea of how the Islamic world feels right now. Fear of annihilation or decent into irrelevance is common in old stories of twins; Islam stares the possibility in the face. That’s why Middle East peace negotiations continue to go nowhere. Why Osama bin Laden’s call to arms resonates throughout the Islamic world, and why the days we live in have great potential for extreme peril.

Despite the enmity, the twins can’t live each other because they provide balance. East and West are incomplete without the other. In a New York Times article published Nov. 24, 2001, a twin described the loss of his brother in the World Trade Center and how there’s no way to express what it means to lose someone he considered his other half. As much as we hear ‘down with the West’ in parts of the Mid East, they’d miss their antagonist sibling. All sides don’t have to particularly like each other or agree on a way of life, but they have to at least respect each others’ uniqueness and rightful place in the world. Otherwise, as happens in myth, they perish together. We all have a stake in how the story of this age plays out, and the more we see the mythological underpinnings, the better we see the nature of the conflict at hand. As Helen M. Luke posited in an essay titled “Jacob and Esau”:

“In Judeo-Christian tradition, the theme of the two brothers at enmity begins after the Fall with Cain and Abel, continues with Isaac and Ishmael, and culminates in the much more complicated story of Jacob and Esau the first twins. It is because of the image of twinship that their story, particularly its ending, is of such profound relevance in this our century, when the separation of twins has become the most terrible danger, threatening the survival of all life on this planet.”

Luke’s words from the Summer 1994 edition of Parabola magazine couldn’t be more relevant today. The clash of opposites between Christianity and Islam is a mythological tale that could end like a Greek tragedy, where seemingly irreconcilable differences lead both parties down a path of mutual destruction. Or the story of this age could end like Jacob and Esau, who came to terms but never truly reunited as brothers.

Jacob was the born just behind Esau but from the beginning challenging his brother’s place by grabbing hold of Esau’s heel on the way out. They were no mirror images from each other – they were twins with nothing in common. Jacob took to the indoors, a mamma’s boy with light skin and short hair, perhaps a bit of a dandy, delicate and well-spoken. Esau came out red and hairy and loved the outdoors, the favorite of his father. Christianity is like Jacob: light, clean-shaved, worldly. Islam is like Esau: hairy, fiery, closer to the earth. One of the tents and one of the fields, so the story describes them. One who boldly explores strange new worlds pushing all limits, the other who stays closer to home pumping a living from the ground.

Christianity and the West in general have to understand their role as a modern Jacob to make a solution possible. Looking back into our story, Jacob went astray when he stole Esau’s birth right as eldest son. Esau had come to Jacob’s door faint from thirst and hunger. Jacob agreed to share some food and drink if Esau would relinquish his rights as first-born son. Esau said he would die on the spot if he didn’t get some nourishment – what good would be his birth rights if he were dead? – so he gave it up, perhaps figuring that his brother wouldn’t hold him to such a dubious agreement. Then Jacob fooled his father into believing he was Esau to receive his father’s blessing as heir.

Aside from illustrating what a jerk Jacob was, this part of the story tells how Islam gave up its place as the world’s predominant religion and culture to the West. Islam had exclusive rights to the title of ‘most cultured and sophisticated’ until Christianity reemerged about 800 years ago, and held the top spot until the 20th century when the West officially passed them. Islam, after all, preserved the ancient writings and knowledge of the Greeks while Christianity went through fits of barbarism and superstition during the Middle Ages. Islam combined western ways together with the teachings of Muhammad and created one of the grandest civilizations ever. But where are they now? Bitterly divided, relegated to the “Second World,” dependent on (grandpa’s trust fund) oil for their means. Thirsty and hungry from the labor. Ready to reclaim their birth right, or at least have it out with their usurping sibling. What does the West – Jacob – do? The rumble is brewing and the younger one can either flex the big muscles and fight to the end, or adopt higher wisdom and avoid the fight altogether.

After Jacob stole Esau’s birthright, they went their separate ways. Each built families and established themselves separately as individuals and adults with many descendants, workers and flocks. Years later, Esau sent advance word to Jacob of his presence in the area with 400 men. Jacob thought his brother had finally come to avenge the treachery of stealing his birthright. Terrified, he sent gifts in hope of mollifying old grudges. The night before their meeting, Jacob went through a dark night of the soul, a serious coming-to-terms with himself and his past. He wrestled with a divine force through the night and at dawn, having gained the upper hand, asked his adversary to name itself. Bless me before I release you, demanded Jacob. A new man emerged. The next day he met lost brother Esau, prepared to pay the consequences. Instead of his head on a platter, it turned out Esau sought reconciliation. Jacob greeted his brother warmly, but afterwards went his own way, rather than reestablishing old family bonds. Perhaps as an adult he didn’t want to revisit the house of his parents and once again deal with issues of his youth.

Either way, the story of Jacob and Esau still has a relatively happy ending. They didn’t kill each other. However, Jacob’s transformation prevented fratricide, and in the story of this age, the West is still ignorant of itself. Western Christian culture needs to wrestle with its shadow like Jacob and realize where its hubris has led to nemesis – namely, in exploiting technology and resources, and pushing the rest of the world to try to keep up, playing winner-take-all in the game it knows best. Its knowledge and power has gotten ahead of its ability to wisely use it. For all its high ideals of democracy, human rights, and liberty, the West – especially the U.S. – has a vast blind spot to its own shortcomings. And its urbane, hyper-competitive culture – born of “the tents” and raised on its self-importance – tramples over everything that gets in the way.

Islam has much to teach Christianity about respect. When Islam predominated it promoted tolerance, inquiry, and prudence, virtues incomplete in western culture. Granted, these virtues are incomplete in Islamic culture, too. But seen by its brother Islam, Christianity would seem to be high on its power, too secure in its climate-controlled offices wielding power in the name of profit, not prophet. In the name of money and not mankind. In pursuit of short-term gain for the few over long-term prosperity for all. The World Trade Center symbolized this dark side. A more widespread feeling in the Islamic world – beyond Osama and the fanatics – is that someone has to oppose the western juggernaut in the name of Muhammad and Islam. The call to Jihad – defending the faith – must be heeded. Even some of the most moderate Islamic adherents see threat in the West. Without Jacob’s transformation, the story could have ended tragically, and so could this one we’re living right now.

What is to be learned from old stories of two brothers who fight for the same birthright, learn from the same parents, and grow up as opposites locked in dualistic struggle? The story of Jacob and Esau and other twins points towards a duel relationship in constant conflict but ultimately seeking harmony, it gets a little messy among family sometimes is all – a good analogy for the universe in general. This dynamic tension is always present, creating balance. Good and Evil, Light and Dark, Islam and Christianity. Twins. Siblings at odds. We can learn from their relationship the nature of the conflict the world faces today, and how to solve that conflict. Helen Luke at the end of her essay about Jacob and Esau suggests a way:

“Collectively, we have lost the wonder of stone and soil, of animals and birds, and we have lost the spontaneous voice of dreams and visions, without which the people perish. But there are individuals who recognize the natural “red one” within and without, feeling the same fire that the hubris of intellect had turned into greed for power. There is a new wish to return to the gifts of our mother the earth. We may, as C.G. Jung said, come to a global, cosmic rebirth in this darkest time, if enough people will wrestle with the unknown God and ask his name – and see in our rejected twin the face of God.”