Reflecting on Terrorism

It has always been a question for me.

Why?

As a human who has lived a beautiful life, loves my family, has called many places home, has believed lots of humbling and divergent things about divinity, loves my body, and is still scared of death, I have often struggled trying to grasp what would make someone die over a place, a boundary.

I generally understand terrorism to be when a people without an acknowledged place engage in warfare. Generally a statistical minority against a violent majority. It often takes the form of suicide, kamikaze flights into buildings, self-explosion in a crowd, the use of the self as a weapon, as an exclamation point in an argument.

And I have to ask myself, under what conditions would I kill myself?

I remember asking that question perhaps for the first time on 9/11. My response since then has been consistent: that the horror of oppression that exists leading up to an act of terrorism must be unbearable.

I have my own rhythms of melancholy and hopelessness, which undulate on a roughly five year cycle, and which I’ve learned to live through and with. My hopelessness is smart, sometimes smarter than I am. It has great reasons for existing, feels like a logical response to my experience in the world, to unavoidable suffering. But my hopelessness is regularly countered by reprieve from oppression, by great joy and love and abundance and freedom and periods of undeniable emotional and physical safety that counteract some of my other truths.

For me, the only external force that could make me take my own life, and perhaps anyone else’s (still pretty sure this is not possible, though I have people in my life who make me feel violently protective) is feeling unheard in a cycle of hopelessness, in a trap of oppression, with no reprieve.

Powerless and still awake.

On 9/11, I walked from my midtown office to my friends’ home in Brooklyn, through a city of rubble and blood. I ate a dinner of kielbasa and pierogies off a backyard picnic table covered in human and corporate ash. I’d lived in NY for five years that month, dreamed of it for a decade before getting there, and I thought it would always be my home. I loved it. When it was attacked, I needed to know why?

As a sci-fi writer, I get that the idea of hateful lifestyle fundamentalists is appealing, easy like a comic book villain. In a binary mind, it is so fulfilling to have a one dimensional bad person, or bad people. But in my life I have never met a bad person. I’ve met a lot of traumatized people, some of whom behaved badly.

I’ve met prisoners and bully children and drug dealers and sexual assailants and killers and thieves and hustlers. And each one was a human with a story, with learned behaviors and survival strategies, a sliver of life force that hadn’t given up. Some of the people carrying these labels are amongst the most tender, brilliant people I’ve encountered.

People get traumatized individually and collectively. I have both experiences in my life and lineage. Responses to individual trauma can be privatized. Get a therapist, learn to love, stop overeating, forgive someone, choose life. It’s a legitimate effort, a whole life’s work, and for better and worse so much of it can happen behind closed doors, in rooms with sunlight and lavender and people who claim to know how to live.

Collective trauma is louder, harder to hide. It manifests as self-hate and internalized identity phobias, fear-based survival strategies, group violence at a gender or gang level.

It manifests, too, as terrorism.

At an international level, collective trauma is passed around, less like a hot potato, more like live coal in bare hands that no one will drop, believing it will cool to gold. It is searing everyone, leaving no one to offer comfort or a better option.

There is a deep desire to belong in this world, species, land – I have had many teachers say it is one of our deepest most common human longings, and the absence of belonging is one of the most common ways we experience trauma.

I’ve seen this phenomenon with children…my youngest niece wants to play soccer with the bigger kids, wants to be involved. She can’t kick or control the ball with her feet yet, so she picks it up and runs off like Bonnie or Clyde towards the sunset.

Of course, while amusing, this strategy is not long lived. The ball is not meant to be used this way, the other kids cannot just let her take the ball. She won’t have a moment’s peace with that ball. She has to give it back, and be patient as she grows up, learns to play, learns that she belongs to the family whether she can kick the ball or not.

That is the simplest way I understand a conflict/place like Palestine. A traumatized people, left out, forced out of other homes, subjected to genocide, were offered something that was already in use. They ran with it. But the land is not meant to be occupied in this way, and so they have not had, and will not have, a moment’s peace. It has been war, it will be war, until Israel finds a way to return what they can of what was taken, to return dignity to the relationship they have with the Palestinian people they appear to be trying to erase.

I live in a country where this same process happened. Indigenous people were pushed aside, murdered, manipulated, robbed. I believe many of our economic, environmental and health problems, as well as a general spiritual void, are directly linked to that trauma. I don’t think America will be ‘free’ until there is a serious reckoning with that history, and what it now implies for other colonial efforts.

Accountability matters. Truth and reconciliation only works if the truth is really sought, really heard.

The truth, as far as I can tell, is that hate is not a root emotion. The why is not hatred, not at the root. My niece doesn’t hate the other children…she wants to play with them. Israel wants to exist, to be recognized and respected. It wants the world to never again try to eliminate the Jewish people. It is a beautiful and noble desire.

But you cannot transform others.

Not with stolen property, not with apartheid practices of brute force, walls, passes, human rights violations and violence. What will continue to happen is collective trauma, and the growing, desperate need on both sides to end the trauma and begin to heal. The rhythms of Gaza, the demoralization of checkpoints, makes that impossible, currently.

The role the U.S. plays in it is so important. Certain states of mind and heart should not be weaponized and resourced. I can’t imagine giving rape victims an AK47 and saying ‘do whatever you need to do in order to feel safe from men.’ Trauma begets trauma. Yet we pour funding into a situation where collective and recent trauma from a genocide is the undercurrent for decision making.

Of course, my mind comes back to the U.S. for other, current, reasons. A 2012 study found that every twenty eight hours a black person is killed by someone employed or protected by the US government. Stand Your Ground and Shoot First policies combine with white supremacy to devastating effect.

I feel and see us going through all of the options we can find to respond. Asking for justice, creating talking points and memes to educate ourselves and those who fear us, journeying across the country to focus our solidarity, meditating, praying, singing, screaming, grieving, demanding accountability, advocating for policy change, taking to the streets in nonviolent protest.

Movement is growing. I am inspired by the work being done under the hashtag/philosophy #blacklivesmatter – focusing on healing, solidarity, love, care and justice. These efforts highlight to the country and anyone else watching that, as a nation, we are only as far along as our oppressive tendencies.

But I also feel a growing danger. There is an exhaustion. One of my favorite exercise podcasts to listen to is The Read,. Cohosts Crissle and Kid Fury had some shows where they fully expressed their emotions about Ferguson. And Crissle particularly spoke my heart at one point when she said she was just so tired of watching black people be killed by authority figures. Deeply tired.

Yes, there is violence inside the community. Scarcity and poverty create a toxic and fatal self-image inside a people. Collective trauma, like individual trauma, does immense internal damage. The work necessary to restore and transform that self-inferiority has been in progress for years – black power, black love, building up our self-esteem as a people, generating dignity. That internal community violence is tragic and logical, to me. Slavery ended 149 years ago. Jim Crow laws, about 60 years ago. Blacks have been considered less than human in this country for the majority of our time here. Our statistics for prison, education, police brutality – there are few numbers we can look at see a story in which America loves black people more today, to see a story in which America is not still trying to rid itself of us. We have the Obamas, we have Oprah, but roughly every twenty eight hours or so, it feels like all we have are exceptions and skin that marks us like a breathing yellow star in a genocidal state.

In order for slavery and Jim Crow to end, there was a combination movement working the voting path, the legal path, the nonviolent movement path, and the path of armed resistance. And probably many many other paths as well. But in my reflections on terrorism, it feels important not to forget that there were slaves who fought back. There were black revolutionaries who armed themselves in response to the constant violent efforts of this nation to enslave and or erase them.

I was taught, in Department of Defense schools, that indigenous people were scalping and violent terrorists. But the more I have read, learned, listened to indigenous people today, I understand that that was the colonial view, a way to justify the unjustifiable and horrific violence of taking land and life from people.

I believe in the power of nonviolence, it is where I have spent the majority of my political life, working in the realm of vision, conflict resolution, nonviolent actions, and so on. And from that place I find myself trying to understand how much oppression humans can ever be expected to bear? It is from that place that I find myself feeling a deep compassion and solidarity for those pressed into the small box of terrorism, globally.

It feels very important to me to relinquish the safety of victimhood in the context of terrorism. Particularly as an American. I no longer feel shocked, ‘how could this happen?’ I feel more like, with the way that modern colonization and power are being wielded at this moment in our human journey, it shocks me that incidents of terrorism are not happening daily, across the nation, across the world.

I work with a client who monitors prison conditions. The staff is made up of people who have never been incarcerated, and people who have been incarcerated. We were recently in a conversation about what the future looks like – is it better, more humane prisons?

One of the responses, from someone who had been incarcerated for over a decade, was that there is no such thing as a humane prison. It was a simple and deep truth to hear. It didn’t mean that reform work is not useful in the short term, but it absolutely meant that we have to build a common answer to this question: what are the conditions by which we can stand together in our dignity as human beings?

There is no humane way to shoot a black child in the street or in the face. There is no humane way to bomb a city. There is no humane way to imprison another human being. There is no humane way to commit an act of terrorism.

In the same way that we must listen to those who have experienced incarceration if we want to craft a humane and transformative justice in our lives, in our nation, in our time…I believe we must learn to really listen to those we call terrorists.

We need to remember, always, to humanize, to seek compassion, to let no human be outside of the mirror in which we see our own responsibility and our own potential. These are other human beings who have been driven to this edge. Dismissing or demonizing them will not keep anyone safe.

We must know that within each of us, there is that same small blue fire for life, for love, that can burn everything in sight under the wrong conditions. We must learn to consider terrorism as desperation born of oppression and collective trauma, and listen all the way down to the root of that desperation, down to the human.

sloth and celebration and remembrance

i’m wondering if there is any way to write a blog that touches on both gaza and mariah carey gracefully. i haven’t written in a while, because i have been taking a moment.

i spent most of the last week in a mumu and pajama pants playing abstract chase and surprise games with my nephew, old school nintendo and nerts with my family, EASILY not looking at email, facebook or twitter. this intentional sloth is part of our familial bonding process. watching movies, cooking and saying to each other, “i haven’t gotten dressed in X days!” is our big annual tradition.

this year i took a major step and had my partner join me, for what was her first christmas ever, and our first christmas with outside witnesses. early early on christmas morning i crept downstairs by myself and i felt what i understood to be nostalgia in the truest sense. i was the first one awake, just like when i was a kid. i was always the one to do reconnaissance to see what santa had brought to each of us. i remember being the big sister, the surprise and mystery of it all. i remember our dog for the years she was with us, pulling at the ornaments at the bottom of the tree and a couple of times pulling the whole thing over, which just upset her completely. i remember our first christmas after she died and how i kept looking for her to be under the tree. i remember christmases when we visited extended family and christmases when i didn’t want to…i felt the peace i have towards them all now. i just felt this weight of time, measured by these rituals of giving and anticipating and repeating, laying down the path of shared memory for our family. and now our family is growing in every direction, with new paths being laid down; none of us are children now, my baby sister is pregnant with her second child and the changes are so continuous and fast that there’s barely time to remember, to cherish, to honor the safe and loving place my parents created for us.

over the week, a new line of thinking and writing crystalized, which i want to explore in the coming decade. i can’t quite put it into words here, but it has a lot to do with the art of family as a central building block of community, learning how to be in the tension and familiarity of family, to work through, to find the right levels for that unconditional love when there are very complex and opposing politics and life choices present. i’m giving myself at least 10 years to flesh it out đŸ™‚

i know i have been working too much because i completely missed that mariah carey came out with a new album. she long ago gave up singing the way i most loved – really blaring through her pipes like she had access to some unlimited source of air that didn’t require breathing. but i am still unexplainably pleased by her little soft high sounds, and at the very least should know when she releases an album.

i used to always pride myself on my personal sustainability, my commitment to weekends, hours spent making art and listening to music. i realized on the flight to see my folks that the last time i had spent a day not working was in the hospital…and while there i was wishing i could do work the whole time.

there is so so much work to do. not because of the places i work, which are a lot but manageable…but because of the world in which we live. there is not enough time in the day to do the work of justice, locally, internationally. i don’t even try to hold it all in my heart at one time, i don’t think humans are actually capable of maintaining both sanity AND awareness of our total suffering at the same time. but there are political moments that arise that need response – fighting, grieving, educating.

last year, right after christmas, israel launched an attack on gaza. this year, i am returning from vacation to reminders that we must remember this atrocity, which continues, as the oppression and violence against palestinian people is a daily practice by the israeli government, financially backed by the u.s. my friend angel is in cairo, in part of an effort to get medical supplies to gaza. i’m leaving now to attend a solidarity event here in detroit, and in 2010 will be working with the u.s. academic and cultural boycott of israel throughout the year, with events at the allied media conference and the us social forum to continuously escalate the pressure on the u.s. to withdraw financial and military support to the vicious government of israel.

my thumb

mercury and i are in a dance of the most dangerous kind. how zen can i be as she takes me down notch by notch.

this morning, when noticing the toaster cable was touching the hot toaster, instead of just moving the cable, touched the hot toaster too. with my thumb. it took a second for the agonized thumb cells to raise the full alert in my brain that i was cooking.

some people might not see a thumb as a mercury-in-retrograde related injury, but those people have not observed how i spend 90% of my days, joyfully (and i have been told passionately) texting and emailing and blogging and other things with my two thumbs and my phone. to take out my phone and one thumb in 24 hours is a high level attack. i’ve coaxed the phone back to foggy functionality (a very strange cluster of texts reappeared which i thought were gone forever – birthday messages and love notes. does delete mean nothing anymore?). i need aloe for my thumb, and try as hard as i can, i just haven’t become an aloe-plant-in-the-house kind of girl.

in more serious news, Israel attacked Gaza again the other day. this time they claim to be retaliating for the death of 1 Israeli soldier. when i hear that kind of justification, it reminds me of why collective punishment if addressed in the geneva conventions. it also makes me think that a culture that learns to grieve and restore is what we need right now – vengeance is such a Dark Ages foreign policy.

I’ve been slowly learning more about Gaza, the West Bank, the challenges of a two state solution, and how difficult it is to see what will truly work. it’s hard to imagine that any peace can come out of a situation where fear and weapons have been stirred together with racism and history to such a toxic concoction. the instinct i keep seeing, reading and hearing is to try and untangle the history, find some point of origin that will show who is right and who is wrong. i don’t believe this is possible, it only creates ruts and impasses. there is interpretation and mistakes, that’s history. the only way towards peace is a true commitment from those living now, that they want to end the violence. that commitment has to include that they will hold each others’ pain and burden by listening to each others’ truths, making amends, and moving forward, protecting each other from those in their midst who seek to break the peace.

i dreamt about a book written by two old black men, one a panther, the other part of SNCC, both named victor. It was called “history: written by the victors”.

and a final point: uniforms. i’ve realized that outside of formal uniform-wearing jobs, almost everyone i know still rocks a uniform. roughly the same outfit every day, composed of different parts that fit similarly, creating a uniform silhouette, usually grounded in comfort. lately mine is sweat pants (aka yoga pants), these primary colored v-neck dress-tops from amsterdam, and a trusty sparkly head scarf to hold my energy and mad hatter hair in. its my comfort uniform. this past weekend i got out of uniform and into some cute outfits and boots, and noticed that i hadn’t worn my boots in so long i’d forgotten i needed to resole them.

i WILL break the uniformity of my wardrobe! but not today.

i wish this country was better

this may be an obvious thing to say, but i wish this country was better. that’s in the context of wishing the whole human experiment was going much better.

i just finished two books – The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, and Survivor, by Octavia Butler. Both left me sort of amazed at human potential and disappointed with human reality. at some point i will write out reviews of both of them here. or not. they were awesome, go read them, that’s my review.

as i was finishing those books, the crazy world upped the ante a notch in gaza and in oakland. two days ago i saw the video footage of a man, Oscar Grant, being shot in the back while laying face down by a BART police officer (who’d become a father a day or two before) here in oakland. i also watched tons of video footage of the aftermath of airstrikes and now ground strikes in Gaza, on Arab news stations in Dearborn and pieces forward to me by friends. lots of death, wounds, blood.

a friend says she thinks the BART popo mistakenly believed he was using a taser gun. he hasn’t given any statement saying what happened, or why. with gaza, the israeli government says it is acting in self-defense. no one takes blame for the fact that they are acting like we’re in a global game of Lord of the Flies.

the thing i like about this moment in time is the resurgence of pirates, real live pirates. its like thumbing a nose at the world…y’all want to regress to the basest behavior possible? then we will have some swashbuckling, and some redistribution of goods. so there!