Hard Lessons

When something like the Boston bombings happens, the sentiment tends to be fairly universal: “Whoever did this does not understand who we are. They tried to destroy us, but they will only make us stronger.”

I am sorry to say this – I know it will not go over well with everyone – but that sentiment, while lovely, proves we don’t yet have an understanding of terrorism.

They don’t care about “who we are.” All they care about is how many people they kill.

That’s their entire goal. Kill people. That is what it means for them to “win.” We can be as determined as we want to be, as poetic as we can rise to be. We can write words and sing songs and organize charities and talk about how we’re Americans and how the virtue of our birthplace makes us better than the rest of the world at this recovery.

They don’t care about any of that.

Most of the time, they have principles they’re fighting for. Most of the time, they have a political disagreement. Nothing more. Sure, it may manifest itself in theology, in whatever twisted perspective they might have on what God wants them to do. But it’s usually for political reasons. A hatred of Zionism or an anger over federal bankrolls.

We don’t know, of course, the motive for Boston’s bombing. But I’m pretty sure it was not because someone wanted to take down the spirit of America. Whether we like it or not, it could have just been a stupid, pimple-faced teenager who wanted to do something horrible. We jump to all these conclusions. We assume it’s some major terrorist network. And maybe it was. But maybe it wasn’t. We assume this is someone really smart. Well, it could have just been someone who knew when the last security sweep happened and when they could walk through with a backpack and drop it somewhere. They might claim to be part of a major terrorist network. The people who run it will never have heard of the bomber or bombers, but they may welcome the claim because they can add it to their success rate. And the bottom line is, it doesn’t really matter.

It happened because somebody wanted to kill people.

Mission accomplished.  And that’s all that matters.

When President Bush repeatedly told the nation and the world after 9/11 that the attack happened “because they hate our freedom,” he was oversimplifying the situation by a huge factor. This isn’t the only free country, and it didn’t happen anywhere else. He was doing it for a benevolent reason: to inspire unity. But he wasn’t telling the American people the truth. The truth would require us to have access to secret information. The truth doesn’t fit in a soundbite. It’s complicated and convoluted and it bores people. That’s not his fault. We don’t really care enough to know the real truth. That would require us to pay a lot more attention to the world and the way nations are run. We can barely get our own electorate to vote.

Some attacks are designed to be spectacular, to inspire fear. In those cases, yes, it might be helpful to our cause not to show that fear. But that doesn’t mean they’ll stop trying to kill people. They aren’t thwarted by waving flags and Red Cross donations. They are thwarted by tactical prevention borne of political will. If one person decides to stop trying, another person takes his place. It’s like flowers in the barrels of guns. It’s a beautiful thought and a stirring image. But the flower won’t stop the bullet. All it takes is someone willing to pull the trigger.

Terrorists don’t care about prison. They don’t care about torture. They don’t care about execution. None of those possibilities dissuade them. They obviously have no value for life, be it someone else’s or their own, because they’re willing to do something heinous and, if necessary, go down for it. That’s why they’re so hard to stop. And even if they get caught and they’d rather not die later, they didn’t care when they did it. So what does it matter now?

It’s a difficult thing to know. It makes us feel powerless all over again, and that is a deeply troubling feeling when we who value life and humanity just need some way to ensure its survival. But it is fundamental to understanding how to fight back. The real reason for our sentiment, beyond a profound misunderstanding of the way terrorism works, is that it’s the only way we ordinary people have to fight back. We can’t do anything but ache for the people who have been hurt or the families of those who have died. We are powerless, and so we find some strength in believing ourselves to be better and in finding something we can do for the victims.

And we absolutely should do that. That is what confirms our humanity. We should never stop doing that. That is what is right for average Americans to do.

But fighting terrorism with spirit? That’s a losing effort every time.

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6 thoughts on “Hard Lessons

  1. I actually think that you might be surprised that more people agree with on this. In my opinion, whenever an act like this is committed, whether by a group or an individual, it simply has to do with the fact that that person (or persons) put their own personal ideals and beliefs over the value of other lives. Americans can do this just as much as anyone else. The moment someone values the kill and the glory they perceive from the act, there is very little we can do to stop them.

    That’s what makes me so sad.

    • I’m a little surprised by the low number of comments – or even reads – of this post. But that’s alright. I remember thinking after 9/11, as we all learned more about Al Qaeda (remember when that was a new name to us?), there was no way to stop people who had nothing to lose.

  2. I was incredibly frustrated by the US’s reaction to 9/11. Not individual people’s reactions, but our national reaction. We let them win by bending over backwards to change our lives for the terrorists.

    We need to act more like the Brits during the “troubles” between England and the IRA. They were vigilant but they went about their business. We didn’t. We made too many concessions.

    • I’m not sure we bent over backward, though I think I understand what you’re saying. It’s a difficult situation; no one wants to be the person who didn’t increase security. I feel we went about our business, but your perspective may be more nuanced. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  3. “The truth doesn’t fit in a soundbite. It’s complicated and convoluted and it bores We don’t really care enough to know the real truth. That would require us to pay a lot more attention to the world and the way nations are run. We can barely get our own electorate to vote.”
    So true. And the truth is more complicated–and probably more trivial–than anyone supposes. Remember the Washington snipers? Some poor schmucks, out of all touch with reality, wanting to kill for the thrill of killing. Some hunting instinct, perhaps. No wonder the NRA has such control over the minds of the American people and their congressmen. If more congressmen were women, we’d have a better chance at becoming a more compassionate culture.
    But the world-wide culture still focuses on killing and exertion of power (war and dictatorship) as solutions to whatever problems arise. It will probably take a few centuries to make inroads into those cultural assumptions. By then, we’ll have run out of energy resources and may have to go back to cooperative behaviors just to survive. Or it could become like the Dark Ages again, with warring fiefdoms controlling everything.

    • Oh, I remember the snipers. John Muhammad carried out the killings because he was angry at his ex-wife, and brianwashed Lee Malvo because he was young and needed love and attention. You’re right about the focus on power. I hope things don’t get as dire as you theorize, but it’s certainly possible; there is nothing new under the sun.

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