observations and opinion
In the days immediately following the Boston Marathon bombing, a tempest in a teapot blew up around comments made by Canadian Prime Minister Harper and Liberal Party leader Trudeau. It would be fair to say, Harper started it. Seizing upon interview remarks by Trudeau ruminating on “root causes”, the PM hammered Trudeau for having the poor taste to dwell on terrorists’ “feelings of exclusion” mere hours after they’d shredded a child to death with a nail bomb. In response, Liberal partisans decried Harper’s “blood lust” and Dick Cheney-like warmongering spirit. The debate fell into the predictable right-left polarization that so quickly sucks the life out of almost any political discussion.
This writer is not blameless in that regard. My Facebook comments about Trudeau’s “mushy-headed leftism” drew precisely the kind of lines which denude debate of meaning and turn it politics into a kind of rugby match. Which is ironic, I suppose, given that I am a member of the same political party as Mr. Trudeau. Debate was robust, intense, impassioned, intelligent (sometimes) and interesting. Having been battered a little myself this week, I have had to stop and wonder just what it is people are thinking and why they think it, when it comes to the question of terrorism, crime and punishment.
The general thrust of the argument has been that a martial, pugilistic response to terrorism is wrong. Morally wrong and presumably, ineffective. It might satisfy a need for revenge but it only punishes, it doesn’t cure. Many times over this week I have seen the words “punishment does not deter”. The argument goes on to say that Trudeau is right about the need to explore root causes and the thinking of the terrorist. The underlying sentiment in all of this, is that terrorists do in fact have grievances which might merit an audience, and that terrorism is indeed a symptom of being “marginalized”, to quote Mr. Trudeau.
My initial response to all this could be condensed to two words: “Who cares?” This was rather shocking to others. I invited Mr. Trudeau and his fandom to focus their empathy and sentiments on the surviving amputees, brain injury cases and family members whose lives have been mutilated as surely as their loved ones’ bodies. Pushing on, I suggested that the “reasons why” a terrorist acts are fundamentally relevant only to finding him, finding his comrades and removing them from the field. “Killing them” I said, although prison is of course a legitimate option too, if they come quietly.
The other point that I made, over and over and over again, is that punishment in fact really does work. It works in various ways:
What has been most striking about the whole debate, is the utter refusal of a good many people (good people, smart people) to acknowledge that their liberty is paid for by someone else’s violence, or threat of it. My house, your house, my loved ones, your bank, your stroll down the sidewalk, your voice, your vote – all of it are bought and paid for by the blood of our soldiers, the toil of our police officers, of anyone whose job or inclination it is, to protect us.
The other thing that is striking is that some good people, smart people, don’t believe that any force is necessary to preserve freedom or justice. They think everyone is inherently nice. They think everyone is inherently blameless, or at the very least, that hard circumstances in life may explain or possibly even excuse horrific conduct. They have taken the sum total of human knowledge and history and, well, ignored it. And indeed, if every criminal or terrorist is somehow blameless, then punishment is indeed unjust and indeed will not deter, because the blameless malefactor will “need” to act. Because he is marginalized. Because of his “feelings of exclusion.”
Don’t you wish that was true? Don’t you wish there was a wand we could wave, that would change the feelings of the hordes of young men who have been hatched in Wahabist or Hezzbolah or Aryan-nation clubhouses, fueled by dynamite and internal agony? Or that we could send them an iPhone or dig them a well or cure their rage with sandwiches and schoolbooks? God knows, I wish it were true, that we could change their “feelings” and if not vent their hatred, somehow put a stopper in it.
Yet the sum total of human history suggests that so much as civilization may advance, there will always be older men, teaching younger men that both justice and testosterone demands jihad, lebensraum, whatever. The possibility of violence lurks in the corners of each human being – that can hardly be news – and the ability to harness it to ideas and turn it on innocents is as old as mankind itself.
Some will say that this posits a rather grim and debased view of human nature. I would say the opposite: the fact that human beings have come so far, creating language and rules and concepts of consent that keep the peace, is high testimony to what they can do. We are not dogs, and it is knowing we are not dogs and demanding that we not act like dogs, that sets us apart (no offense to dogs or dog lovers; both are fine creatures). Of course, this same vaunted set of faculties also enables us to build the tools of war. And of peace.
Does this mean that the Tsarnaev brothers acted as they allegedly did, merely because they are human? Yes, in part. The main reason “why” is as simple as that. But what is more complex and worth knowing, is how they came to choose their course. How did they choose to channel their human capacities into building nail bombs, instead of solving math puzzles, writing musical theatre or running early childhood education centres? And the answers to those questions, which or may not be found on the lips of the surviving brother, probably lie at the bottom of the cauldron of jihadist ideology in which big brother dipped his cup so often.
I have been hard on the man who expressed concern about the terrorists’ “feelings of exclusion” and “marginalization.” These are just words he uses to get a handle on things, just like my words or yours. Ironically, the terrorist brothers may very well have felt excluded, although judging from their biographies it was their choice to sit at the margin of the society in which they dwelled. They were equipped with every advantage – brains, money, athletic ability, decent looks, a certain degree of industriousness and discipline, yet as their now-celebrated uncle said, they instead became “losers” bitter at their kinsmen who were able to integrate into American society. Once out there on the margin, once the brothers de-humanized their neighbours into infidels or whatever the hell they believed, it must have been easier to start plotting murder. It gave meaning and shape to their own lonely lives, after all.
Where this lands us, disturbingly, is on the question of how people choose to remain (or to travel to) the margins of society, mentally or otherwise. When we all lived in tribes, separated by hundreds or thousands of miles of wilderness and sea, we knew who we were, and we knew who wasn’t one of us. The pouring of humanity’s diverse peoples onto common ground has been the cause of considerable friction, and it is only as the edges and differences have rubbed off that people in modern societies begin to feel at home again. That does not mean we are all “the same” but it does mean that we seem to crave our own kind, and if that kind is not a racial or ethnic identity, then it is some other kind of identity (liberal or conservative, vegan or carnivore.) We all need the safety of similarity, however we see it. In western society, that shared identity, the tribe we are all born into or immigrate into, is citizenship in a democracy under the rule of law. We must trust each other to be members with us, because if they are not, then they are in fact, the enemy within.
For a society to function and impart the trust we need for peace, we need to assimilate into citizenship. We need everyone basically on the same page, even if their interpretations differ. We cannot afford to let Timothy McVeigh, or his many internet children, operate with their own set of facts, their own set of ideas and their own stockpile of weaponry. So too the next generation of Mohammed Attas and Tamerlan Tsarnaevs. We can adopt the most liberal set of rules freeing individuals to dress and worship and think as they wish – up to a point. Not to the point where they enslave or beat their wives and children; not to the point where they disavow the liberal social order they are embedded in; not to the point where they place any personal creed above that of the commonweal. In short, there is a price for living in our society, and it is obedience to the traditions of democracy, individual autonomy, equality before the law, due process, shared sacrifice and community. There is no place for ideologies of violence and oppression. We simply cannot have them. They are a deadly cancer.
This will make many people uncomfortable. Who decides, after all, what is or isn’t a permissible set of ideas? This is easier than we pretend, of course: we decide. “We” being the members of a society, socially and politically constituted under a legal and poltical order. The same “we” who decided that women are equal to men, the same “we” who said that dark people are no less human than white ones, the same “we” who decided that children cannot be economically, physically, sexually or otherwise exploited or abused by anyone, even the adults who have custody of them. That’s who decides. And we are not without tools to decide – we have Bills of Rights, Charters, the Common Law, legislatures, holy books, community associations – all manner of things which articulate our common purpose and belief.
Why do we have to demand fealty to our central ideology, flexible as it is? Because the “reasons why” people commit terror are in fact, to borrow a phrase, “feelings of exclusion.” In almost every case we know, self-imposed feelings of exclusion, of difference, of alienation from the host society, coupled with integration into an anti-democratic ideology – were part of the fuel behind terrorism plotted or committed. If left to fester those feelings will all too often turn to what was once called, quaintly, “anti-social behaviour.” But the other thing we know is that “society” did not impose these conditions of alienation upon the terrorists – they chose exclusion and marginalization. Indeed, within the logic of their totalitarian, oppressive, racist or religionist ideology, it was only logical to choose alienation from the central mix of modern life. If Jews are vermin, or women are pigs, or blacks are inferior, or almost everyone is by definition an infidel, who the hell wants to swim in that pond anyway? Best to wait on the shore, light up a few sticks of dynomite and blow up a few fish.
Maybe someone will ask Dzohkan, the surviving Boston bomber, whether his elite high school and college education somehow left him too ignorant and marginalized; how his tribe of school friends and Facebook pals somehow left him “excluded.” How his incredibly favoured life in America is responsible for his incredibly heinous behaviour in America. And if he is ever able to answer, I bet he will say that he got talked into it; and if he can explain how he got talked into it, it will be because Tamerlan explained how America was corrupt. That he was taught how life in the west is polluted, foul, alien from the ideas being planted in his head. And that the society should be punished for its sins, because America and the west will never be welcoming to their ideology.
And in that one respect, big brother Tamerlan was right: America is not welcoming to that kind of ideology. And neither is Canada. Nor really are most nations of the world, whatever the hue and faith of their peoples. We love liberty and personal autonomy and cars and bad, low class TV shows. Which is why we have to find Dzohkars and Tamerlans out there right now, tomorrow and every day after. We have to find those who are infected by hateful ideologies and we must, by every reasonable means possible, ask them to stop excluding themselves from the civilized way of life we share. We have to trumpet the glories of western civilization, its grand achievements in arts and science and social progress, its victories over evil, explain its errors and show its capacity for shame and self-correction. And we must make it painfully clear, if pain is required to make it clear, that no other way of life will be tolerated within our borders, whatever our borders may be.
All of which will sound horrifying to a substantial segment of our society – the segment which perhaps enjoys most the fruits of the liberty paid for by the blood of others. Because they live in a dream world where rage spills only on a keyboard and where everyone’s ideology is equal, unless it is conservative or remotely traditional. Where the hope is that an act of terrorism can somehow be pinned on a right wing nutjob, which in turn can be pinned on George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, Margaret Thatcher or up here in the north, Stephen Harper. Where the very notion that our western civilization is worth celebrating – never mind markedly superior – is abhorrent. Where any act of violence might be excusable, or at least “understandable” so long as (a) it can be attributed to the west’s oppression of someone and (b) it happens somewhere far from home. Where all women are equal to men, unless they live in the subjugation of religious traditions which punish them for being female – right here on our own streets. The great thinkers who live in that dreamworld will not want us to celebrate the glories of the civilization they nestle in. And, owing to the nature of that civilization, they have every right to their opinion, and we will send other people (younger, poorer, darker people) to die in arms, to defend their right not to understand where they truly live.
Where they truly live is on a knife’s edge, an open society precariously vulnerable to its own openness, its own decency, its own ache to be tolerant of almost every imaginable permutation of human life. And it is this way of life we enjoy, this civilization we have inherited and guard, which is poised to destroy itself, through ignorance and denial. For as it turns out, one “root cause” of domestic terror (which is what we saw in Boston) regardless of whatever ideology informs it, may be tolerance itself. The tolerance of self-imposed “feelings of exclusion” and “marginalization.” The tolerance of people asserting “rights” they gladly consume to sustain themselves in a society they despise. Like Tamerlan and Dzohkar and their enablers.
Thus we are, if not our own worst enemy, certainly our own worst enemies’ unwitting friend. And until we choose to be much less tolerant of hateful and oppressive ideology, much more demanding that people show loyalty to our traditions, we and our way of life will remain in mortal danger. And again, who are “we”? We are black, red, yellow, white, male, female, gay, straight – we are the rainbow of humankind living in social peace and democracy. We are the little white boy, the young American lady and the Asian woman blown to bits in Boston. We failed those three of our kind, by letting others among us steep too long in their self-imposed “feelings of exclusion.” As custodians of the greatest philosophy yet created by mankind, as heirs to all its gifts, we cannot afford to keep failing.