6 Ways to Keep Terrorists From Ruining the World
I have a question, and this is mainly for those of you old enough to vividly remember the 9/11 attacks. Let's say the Navy SEALs had found and shot bin Laden just a couple of days after -- say, on the 13th. Would we still have gone to war?
We'll come back to that; it's pretty important.
Obviously what's all on our minds right now is the horrific attack in Paris, in which Islamic militants massacred an office full of comedians for drawing pictures that mocked their religion (if you're reading this in the future, just insert whatever mass killing is most recent to you -- it will still apply).
There is a number of terrible knee-jerk ways we react to these horrors when they occur, so I've made a handy guide you can walk through each time. Just print it out, and pin it to your wall, so you remember. Don't do it at the office, though, because for some reason I've included this extremely inappropriate photo at the top:
So, even before the first responders are on the scene, I want you to ...
Ignore the Scoreboard
Allow me to quote that classic philosopher known as The Poster for Death Wish 2: "First his wife. Now his daughter. It's time to even the score!"
Featuring Mountie Geordi La Forge.
Well, in the wake of a terror attack, Step One is to forget about "the score" completely.
Even those of us who aren't Charles Bronson have this invisible scoreboard in our minds that tracks how many times we've been screwed over versus how many times we've done the screwing. Get into a nasty argument with somebody, and the scoreboard sets the agenda -- if Steve's girlfriend brings up the time he got drunk and shit in the top part of the toilet, he now has to bring up the time she selfishly got a tumor and ran up a bunch of medical bills. BOOM! Your ball, bitch!
"And with the upper-decker, I'm up by deuce!"
But here's the ugly trick the world plays on you, and it's going to jack up your life every day from now to the grave:
In reality, the scoreboard is your opponent.
If that sounds like some Zen bullshit, let me give you an easy example:
Whenever some notorious rapist is caught, exactly 100 percent of the conversations or Internet comment sections about the subject will say, "I hope he gets raped in prison!"
"The judge could've handed down 20 years of round-the-clock
sexual assault if it weren't for that weak-assed Eighth Amendment!"
See, because that would "even the score." But even five seconds' consideration demonstrates how monstrous that idea is: "rape is awesome, as long as it's targeted toward people who deserve it!" No, the cruel reality is that if that guy gets raped, the score isn't: Rapist 1, Society 1.
It's: Rape 2, Society 0.
So you can probably stop cheering now.
See, because we've added to the sum total of rape in the world, and reinforced it as a thing that can/should happen, we have made it that much more common. Now think about the argument between the couple earlier -- with each new insult, was either side "winning" or "losing"? No -- the only loser was the relationship itself. Steve thinks the argument's Insult Scoreboard is showing Steve 22, Tilda 16* but the real score was Resentment 38, Relationship 0.
*I was imagining Steve Buscemi and Tilda Swinton as the couple, and I'm imagining the frantic make-up sex right now. This is not necessary to illustrate the point; I only offer this in the interest of full disclosure.
That scoreboard, it turns out, is nothing more than a manifestation of the most primitive, violent, reptilian part of your brain. Seeing someone wrong you and then letting it slide -- letting that "score" stay in their favor -- is almost physically painful. So, yeah, if SEAL Team Six had exploded bin Laden's skull on September 13th, 2001, we would absolutely have still gone to war. We'd have still been 3,000 deaths down on the scoreboard. No way we'd let that go.
So the next time you turn on the news and see that terrorists have blown up 10 children with a car bomb, that's the first step: Realize that the scoreboard lies. It will tell you that winning the game means dropping bombs that you know full well will splatter ten times as many children as collateral damage. The score -- the real score -- would then be:
Violence Against Children 110, Humanity 0
Now, here is the point in the article where I try to guess what you're saying in response to all this, and I'm pretty sure it's something like, "Oh, so we're just supposed to let the other side get away with it? We have to stand up for freedom and goodness, otherwise evil wins! This is a WAR!"
Actually, I agree! But ...
Make Sure You're On the Right Team
Damn, that headline is making it sound like I'm about to suggest we should all consider joining ISIS. Don't do that! If anyone has already left to join ISIS in between having read the headline and this sentence, I apologize.
For the rest of you, ask yourself: When a bunch of terrorists blow up a school or shoot up an office full of cartoonists, do you think it's because they don't know we have guns and bombs and drones? You think they do what they do because they believe we're "too weak to strike back" and that we thus need to "show them how strong we are?"
In case they failed to pick up on that from all our wars, weapons technology, or that commercial where a marine sword fights a lava demon.
Holy shit, dude, these people can read the damned news. They know exactly what we're going to do: We're going to overreact. We do it every time. That's why they do it. So stop, step back, and understand something that most of America doesn't:
They do what they do, because they know we're too weak to resist striking back.
Our knee-jerk, bomb-dropping reflex is our weakness. They are trying to exploit it, because retaliation bombings are how they recruit more terrorists to their side. And please note that when I talk about their "side," I'm not talking about Islam, or even Islamic terrorism. Their "side" is what I'm going to henceforth call Team Violence (and yes, I realize I've accidentally given them what would have been a badass name for a stable of evil wrestlers in the WWE). The bully doesn't fight because he wants to win; he fights because he wants a world in which everything is resolved by fighting (note: The bully himself doesn't realize this). It doesn't matter if he loses -- the moment you chose to fight, his side already won, and the world becomes more like the world he wants to live in.
And, unless you're willing to fight 24/7, guess where your place in that world is?
It's the same here -- the terrorists aren't on the side of Islam. They're on the side of bombs.
What I have discovered, and what most of you will disagree with me about, is that it's irrelevant what banner they fight under -- if radical Islam went away tomorrow, Team Violence would just pop up again under some other name. Maybe this one doesn't justify it with the Quran; maybe they'll do it under the banner of eugenics, or racial purity, or environmentalism, or My Little Pony fandom.
"EVERY PONY MUST BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ACTS OF ITS BLASPHEMOUS, ILLEGITIMATE GOVERNMENT!"
So, in the wake of an attack, you constantly hear about how this is a clash of civilizations, a culture war between the primitive, savage religious fundamentalists and the more secular, Western societies. But the moment you buy into that idea, you've already joined their side. It's the side of tribalism -- the primitive instinct that says your "group" has to win at all costs, and I honestly don't care how you define your group (race, religion, country, way of life) because ultimately I think there are the only two sides:
A. Those who think their tribe has to dominate Earth;
B. Those who think tribes can coexist.
Hell, just look at how it happened last time: A group attacked us. We all agreed that we had to stop them, because they are intolerant of other cultures, do not respect human rights, and are violent.
We were told that we could only beat them by becoming more intolerant of other cultures ("building the mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks 'would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.'"), by no no longer respecting human rights ("Privacy rights for non-U.S. nationals are radical, and dangerous, even for allies"), and by becoming more violent ("There are a billion-plus Muslims currently active. If 1% are convinced fanatic Jihadis, that translates into somehting in the range of ten to twelve million. Which means that we need to kill a large portion of that ten to twelve million.").
Combining murder and math never ends well.
In other words, "We can't beat them, unless we become more like them." It's like a doctor telling you he's going to get rid of your tumor by growing a bigger, meaner tumor next to it. Even if it works, Team Cancer wins, and you just fell for a scam that has been tripping up humanity for 200,000 years or so.
To avoid it ...
Don't Scratch the Itch
Soon after the attack, commentators will appear on every screen in your home explaining in snide, sarcastic tones how the courageous choice is to hate Muslims -- like they're the lone, brave voice in a world afraid to hold such a controversial opinion.
The reality -- which you've known since you were too young to shit outside your pants -- is that your most automatic, unthinking reflex is always to hit back, and that growing up means resisting it. When you got frustrated with a toy, you broke it. When you feel the mosquito, you swat it. You get insulted by a YouTube commenter, so you call them an asshole. Each time it's that primitive, lizard part of your brain taking over. There's nothing courageous about it -- a dog can do it. Fucking plants do it.
"Don't start none, won't be none, motherfucker."
It's the thinking part -- the human part -- that says to stop, resist the initial urge, and actually think about what action will make the world better. It's like resisting the urge to scratch an itch, and actually stopping to say, "Maybe instead of scratching the rash until it bleeds, I should go see a doctor about some dick ointment." And this is harder than anything on the list so far, because scratching the hatred itch feels so freaking good. It feels so good that we'll write entire books rationalizing it, to make it sound like the thoughtful, considered position. But you can never lose sight of this basic fact:
"Kill 'em all!" is the easy, lazy reaction. That's the animal reflex, the old tribal instincts lurching to the surface from that primal, caveman part of your brain. What's worse is that we are superstitious, irrational creatures, and this reflex quickly metastasizes into the oldest, most destructive superstition of all:
"This person wronged me, so in return I need to punish this person and everyone who resembles this person."
A thousand centuries later, that part hasn't changed -- it still feels good to think of everything in terms of a culture war. If the criminal is black, he isn't just an individual stealing a TV for weed money -- he's part of the Black Crime Problem. The obnoxious teenager in line next to me at Chipotle isn't an annoying individual; she's part of "This generation of entitled brats." Everyone who wrongs you becomes a foot soldier in an army that you must go to war with.
Resisting that idea takes hard, mental effort -- the equivalent of waiting for the skin cream to do its work while the itch prickles your groin like a swarm of scrotum ants. It means granting empathy and humanity to some absolute assholes who won't do the same for you. Remember, taking the high road isn't satisfying. Revenge is satisfying. Schadenfreude is satisfying. Taking the high road is like sitting perfectly still while a fly buzzes around your ear, forever.
"I only waved the revolver at it" doesn't count.
This is where almost every morality tale you've ever heard -- from religious parables to prime time sitcoms -- gets it wrong. These stories always comes down to, "Doing the right thing feels great in the end!" The homeless man is grateful for the donation, the violent thug melts at the sign of kindness. That ain't how it plays out here in the real world. Out here, the bad guys see your empathy as a sign of weakness, and take advantage of it while taunting you. The homeless guy may take your donated blanket and wipe his ass with it. The friend you loaned money to might use it to get a naked mural airbrushed on his van. But you still have to take the high road.
Why? Because in reality, the only "culture war" is between the people who take the high road and the people who don't.
If it helps, you should ...
Remember That Evil Is Rare, but Weakness Is Common
It's hard to find one person in 20 who agrees with the statement that "evil is rare," but it seems easy to prove. How many evil masterminds have you known in your life, versus people who were merely screwed up in some way? I've only known three or four diabolical masterminds in my entire life (other than Brockway), and one was a cat.
Who I'm still not positive wasn't an avatar for Brockway.
If you want a more factual example, let's look at, say, all of the murders committed in a particular year. The stats say that more than half of the victims were killed by someone they knew, or even a member of their own family (say, a husband killing his wife in a fit of jealousy). About 42 percent of all victims were killed in the heat of the moment during an argument, another 23 percent were killed in the course of some other crime (armed robbery, etc), and another 8 percent were killed in gang shootouts.
In other words, once you strip away:
* Everyone who killed while drunk/high/otherwise impaired;
* Everyone with a severe mental illness (Maybe 10 percent);
* Everyone who killed in a fit of rage;
* Everyone who killed while trying to commit some other crime (say, a burglary to get drug money goes awry);
* Everyone who believed they were protecting themselves or their friends ("We have to hit these dudes before they come after us");
... and keep going until you've got it down to just those cold, calculating criminals like you see in the movies, you don't have a whole lot of murders left. Oh, you'll have some -- crime bosses absolutely do order cold-blooded assassinations, and people do commit long, complex, premeditated murders for nothing more than a paycheck. But I think for every one cold, calculating mastermind, you have a dozen or a hundred mere knuckleheads.
So one guy with a backstory to 100 guys just collecting a paycheck. Apparently Iron Man wasn't too far from reality after all.
That's the cop term (and I know my cop terms because before I worked at Cracked, I spent more than 15 years watching cop shows) for somebody who isn't a bad guy, but who just has poor impulse control, or is mentally unbalanced, or an addict, or just in general can't get his life together. They're lost, weak-willed people who fell in with the wrong crowd. Hell, we even interviewed an ex-Neo-Nazi who confessed that the Nazis were just the gang who approached him first. He actually fell in with a black gang later just because they were nicer to him during basketball games.
The problem is that, again, it's far more satisfying to imagine that everyone who wrongs you did it as an act of intentional evil or sociopathic selfishness. See, because if they're just sad screwups who spend most of their time victimizing themselves, well, then that would make it harder to fantasize about killing them. If their bad impulses, addictions, and irrational fears/hatreds hurt them even more than they hurt other people, then that means those impulses are the enemy. And what fun is that? Bad impulses can't be killed by any form of gun, missile, or kung fu known to man.
Watch Out for Hitler
I can already hear it, from outside my window: "But what about Hitler?"
There is a particular form of bad argument everyone uses any time we're accused of having some kind of unproductive or destructive habit: we simply remember one perfect example of when that destructive thing worked, and then hammer that example over and over again like a club. It's our magical Staff of Shutting Down Criticism.
Grants +2 to Resist Ethical Nuance.
For example, your racist uncle will, with the slightest provocation, talk about the time he was suspicious of the new black family that moved into the neighborhood, and it turned out he was right! Their thug son broke into his car just a month later! This one, perfect example will be rolled out in response any time his racism is criticized. He says blacks are genetically predisposed to violence. You say there's no science to back that up. He pulls out that anecdote in response. He tells a racist joke, you tell him it's inappropriate, and he says, "You know what's in appropriate? BREAKING INTO MY CAR. Did I ever tell you about that time I caught that thug out in the driveway ..."
And when you suggest violence might not be the answer in any situation, Team Violence will always have the same answer:
"What about Hitler?"
Great name for a misguided sitcom, not so good for a reasonable argument.
Not just those three words -- they'll have crafted a perfect narrative that says A) Hitler was a perfect evil defeated by good; B) Hitler could only have been stopped by war; C) The "appeasers" who wanted to avoid war were the true villains of WWII; and D) Any discussion of what factors allowed Hitler to rise to power in the first place is irrelevant obfuscation. Therefore, if you protest the use of violence against any group, ever, you are effective pro-Hitler. ("If you'd made the same argument in 1941, we'd all be speaking Nazi right now!)
Which is similar to German, but louder and more accidental spitting.
It should go without saying that even if I concede all of the above, that doesn't necessarily apply to any situation that has come along since, let alone all situations. So the more important question for that person is, why do you have a knee-jerk reflex to roll out the Hitler example any time the need for violence is questioned? Why is it that you even feel a touch of anger when doing it? Why do you feel the urge to be dismissive or snide in the process, implying the questioner is weak or naive? Why are you defending the use of violence as if it's sacred to you?
"Wait, so you're saying that the people suffering under brutal dictators and warlords today should just suck it up, because violence is wrong?" Nope! And again, look at how you immediately invented a perfect example to fall back to. If humanity progresses to the point that violence is used only by noble, oppressed populations against evil, totalitarian regimes in which no other options are available, we'll be in great shape.
Now, critics might even have a more irrational reaction, which is to say that the person questioning the need for violence is dishonoring "the troops" ("It's easy for you to sit here in your ivory tower and talk about 'peace' when those brave souls are out risking their lives for your sorry ass!"). But this also doesn't hold up to even the mildest application of logic: if you go up to a wounded war vet and say, "My man, I hope we create a world in which people like you never get shot and can instead live long, happy lives and raise grandchildren," I don't think he's going to take a swing at you.
"How the hell do you expect us to fit all that on a sign?"
But it was never about that specific young man anyway -- "Support our troops" and "What about Hitler" aren't invitations to actually discuss either subject. They're magic words intended to shut down further discussion, because the "Team Violence" part of our brain reacts to criticism in the exact same way that Muslim extremists react to cartoons mocking Mohammed.
Speaking of which ...
Remember: We're Winning
Here's the final lie you'll hear, and it's one that I've railed against again and again and again. It's the assertion that violence always wins, because there is no match for it. This is why we're so scared of street crime -- even if you become a billionaire, some "thug" could stab you in an alley and none of your money would matter -- it's humanity's ultimate trump card. "What difference does it make that we have wealth and infrastructure and a thriving culture, if a bunch of violent extremists can just blow us up?"
The answer, of course, is that it makes all of the fucking difference.
The fact that a terrorist could murder your family doesn't make it pointless to have one.
This right here, this idea that ultimately violence is the only thing that works, is probably the most widely believed yet easily disproven lie in all of human history. The truth -- backed up by cold, hard facts, is that violence has been on an astonishing decline for thousands of years. Go back to the Middle Ages, and you find a murder rate 30 times higher than it is today.
In other words, Team Violence is losing. The only way they can win is if they can convince us that their way is the only way.
Think of it this way: If we go back to the Charlie Hebdo attack on the supposed anti-Muslim cartoonists, we can see how futile and self-defeating it is. After all, if your god is real, he/she/it doesn't mind being mocked. By definition, an all-powerful being isn't going to have those kind of insecurities. So that knee-jerk urge to smack down the critics is coming purely from the terrorists, from their own human fears and rage -- proving, in other words, that those violent men don't really have faith that their god is all-powerful.
But the key is to apply the same lesson to ourselves: if their god is real and all-powerful, then mere mockery cannot harm him. But also, if our society is right and strong and the best for mankind, then mere terrorism cannot harm it.
For those who feel proud and inspired by what we've been doing right, that was your cue.
In both cases, escalating the violence is an act of weakness and fear. It's a crisis of faith -- the belief that your way of doing things is fragile -- a house of cards will tumble at the slightest tremor. That peaceful civilization just doesn't work.
Have faith in civilization. History says that they can't beat us -- we can only beat ourselves. Violence isn't on the rise; it's just in the news more often, because there's a lot of money to be made by pushing your Team Violence buttons.
Don't fall for it. Here's a golden retriever hilariously failing an obstacle course:
David Wong is a NYT bestselling author, and his long-awaited new novel is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic shit like that. Buy it at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound, iTunes, or Powell's. You can read the first five chapters for free by clicking below:
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