Saturday, November 28, 2015

Terrorism, Craziness, and the Need to Know (or to be seen as Knowing)


At this writing, we know very little about Robert Dear. We know what he did, but as yet very little has been publicized about why he thinks he did what he did. 

I'm going to use that phrase a lot: why he thinks he did what he did. 

Because we are all experts on terrorism now and keen evaluators of the relative sanity of different persons labeled as terrorists. It goes on in the press and in people's social media activity. The pressure to process information and analyze it even when facts are sparse. 

We know Robert Dear turned up at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs yesterday morning, where he produced an AK-47 and proceeded to shoot people. We know he wounded several people and succeeded in killing three of them, one of whom was a police officer. We know he was arrested and taken into custody. We have seen his mug shot and know his name. 

We can conjecture about his choice of venue and his motives. Violence at abortion clinics has been a fact of life for years, occasionally rising to the level of murder. Some of those incidents involved people who believed they were soldiers in a great cause. The area where this took place has a large number of very conservative, Christianist thinkers who have sometimes radical views of politics. That may or may not be a coincidence. When it comes to those who target abortion clinics based on religious ideas, wow much validity do we give to such motivation?
 
The man who pointed a gun at me and demanded my money on a quiet street in Los Angeles a decade ago was not a "terrorist." Yet I felt plenty terrified at the time. 

If that man had called me "wop" or "honky" or "commie rat" or something similar he might be called a "terrorist." The degree of terror I felt would be about the same.The label of "terrorism" describes something about what he did and what he was thinking. It would influence what charges would be brought against him if we were apprehended. The threat to my body in that encounter would remain a constant.

This should not be interpreted as me giving anyone the benefit of the doubt or making excuses for violence.  Nor should it be interpreted as me erasing terrorism. The point is, "terrorist" is a label often wielded for political purposes. It is a scare word that gets flung around unconsciously.

Those leaping on this developing story to rehearse their views about terrorism, white males, and Christian fringe politics in America, are doing so ahead of their actual knowledge. They might be right. This might be exactly what it looks like. But we don't know that yet. 

I'm comfortable saying "I don't know yet," especially as regards terrorism, because the selection of this word as a descriptor of violence is overtly political. Some acts of violence are called terrorism and some are not.

Occupy Wall Street participants were routinely called "terrorists" for the act of occupying a city park and engaging in political demonstrations, up to and including non-violent civil disobedience. MLK engaged in such actions - and was thought of as a "terrorist" or equivalent terms at the time, but this is not how history describes him. People who block a supply road to a fracking facility will be called "terrorists" and tried under terrorism laws. Are they terrorists? 

I think about people like the Unabomber. He's a famous "terrorist." But he was also obsessive and paranoid. He thinks he was trying to be a political revolutionary. Yet his political manifesto didn't make sense. Which means he is not a reliable narrator of his own story. 

If I hallucinate purple dragons and act out in public based on my deranged belief, when assessing judgment and penalty for what I do, it is not necessary or helpful to indulge my false belief in purple dragons. They aren't real. And the Unabomber's political campaign wasn't real. It was a purple dragon. We don't have to legitimize purple dragons by pretending they are subjects of serious political violence.

Are all terrorists crazy? Osama bin Laden is morally wrong, in my view, but he wasn't crazy. He was in fact quite rational. And our reaction to the September 11 attacks vindicated his view of the western world. We played right into his hands, as we are doing again with the Daesh attacks in Paris. So I think the Unabomber is crazy, but I don't think Osama bin Laden is crazy. How do we choose words like terrorist and crazy? I think these matters are worth some reflection. Especially when talking about an incident where we know nothing as yet about why this man thinks he did what he did. (What he did is not in dispute; we don't know his motivation and cannot assess his state of mind.) 

Maybe "crazy" isn't a good word, either. Is this a clinical diagnosis or a catch-all phrase for behavior that seems irrational or strange?

I am perfectly comfortable saying "I don't know what this is yet" when that statement is true. I don't know what Dear had in his mind when he decided to do this, or if he even had possession of his mind. I don't know if he is grieving, angry, hallucinating. I don't know if he identifies as a Christian or cares about abortion. There are indications that he might. That might be the story that develops. I'm willing to let it develop.


There will be plenty of time given our addiction to 24 hour news cycles and instantaneous commentary to say the things we want to say about gun control, terrorism, religion, and democracy, and all those things we want  to talk about. President Obama has already made a statement, as he must, pointing out that it should not be so easy for a person to show up in a public place with a Kalashnikov (a military weapon) and kill people en masse. Some of those conversations will be worthwhile and I will surely participate in a few of them. But I'm not interested in standing on events like a dais where I deliver my rehearsed lectures - I'd like to pause, breathe, and listen. I talk a lot but hope I'm doing so with my feet on the ground, not in some echo chamber.

We might learn this is a guy who thinks he was striking a blow in a holy war over the unborn. 

We might learn he was reacting to some other idea, and chose Planned Parenthood for a different reason. We might learn he intended to hit the nearby shopping center and ended up going into the clinic instead. I don't know. Neither do you, at the moment I type this, though later today we might know more. (Some people are so certain in their knowledge, I wonder why they aren't out saving lives.)

We don't always have to act like we know. The mind that thinks it knows things it doesn't is very much like the mind of people who do these things.

We don't always have to throw words around that are vague and slippery in their definitions.

And I never use the word "evil." I don't think these things have supernatural causes. They are darkly, terribly human.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

"We don't always have to act like we know."

"We don't always have to throw words around that are vague and slippery in their definitions."


I agree with those statements. I'm weary of 24/7 "news" media and its necessity to fill time with information - whether factual, speculative, or whatever.

I might disagree with you about evil, though. At least in some circumstances.