It has always been a question for me.
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.