I was going to use this Lurzday Thursday article to write about the origins of my novel. I was going to introduce the basic outline of the plot and discuss character development. That can wait a week or two.
A dear friend of mine almost became a casualty yesterday. That changed the focus of this post.
Let’s call my friend, “Pete”. For the last few years, Pete has been tutoring a family of Iranian descent. Yesterday, he was early for his appointment, and was relaxing near his car. A maniac began shouting at him from a balcony. When he glanced up, the guy used his hands to mimic shooting at him with a rifle. As he walked toward the Iranian family’s apartment, the man continued shouting at him, yelling, “You better fucking look at me!” When Pete ignored him, the man became enraged, ran outside, and charged toward him, screaming, “I’m going to fucking kill you!”
Pete didn’t know if this maniac was armed or not, and ran for his life. He got to the door of the family’s apartment and barged inside without knocking, not knowing if his next footstep would be greeted by a bullet. He called the police. The man was arrested. The story told by the police and the apartment managers was chilling. The neighbor had been intimidating the Iranian family for months, and was apparently not pleased that Pete was helping them. In this man’s eyes, teaching children was akin to aiding the enemy.
The man’s mother apologized to Pete, telling him, “Sorry my son terrorized you today.”
That’s exactly what it was. Terrorism. A good pair of shoes and a head start of a few yards were all that potentially separated Pete from being mentioned in the same breath as Portland.
To the police, what happened to Pete wasn’t terrorism. It was an incident of mental illness. The terrorist was taken away in an ambulance instead of a police cruiser. He’ll be evaluated and likely released within 72 hours.
Consider this. If that red-bearded, shirtless man had mentioned Allah or Mohammad in any of the terroristic threats he directed at Pete, he would be in federal custody right now, being interviewed by the FBI. Instead, he’ll be back at mom’s house by dinner time.
Terrorism is terrorism. In America’s virulent and toxic climate, Portland is more likely to occur than London Bridge. Both loom over Western society as threats. Both are fueled by hate.
In a different article I wrote almost a year ago, I discussed how to confront terrorism in a complicated world. I noted that travel bans and xenophobia were poor choices that wouldn’t keep the country safe. The proper response is augmenting our capacity in cyberspace, human intelligence (HUMINT), and special forces. Terrorists who desire glory on battlefields in Syria or rock concerts in Manchester should not be granted the opportunity to gain recognition. They should be discovered early, and then silently destroyed in back alleys and bathrooms, where no one will learn their names.
Such responses require nuance, attention to detail, and meticulous planning. They require a multifaceted, cogent strategy combined with visionary and inspirational leadership.
Policy actors like President Trump and propaganda artists like Sean Hannity have chosen a different strategy: fear. Blind fear. The message is clear. Muslims are out there, they’re coming to get you, and true Americans have to stop them.
Muslims trying to enter the country must be stopped, and those who are already here should be kicked out. Those who rely on Breitbart and Hannity for their news are given the message that Sharia Law and suicide attacks lurk behind every woman wearing a hijab.
Such a response is misguided and tragic. Travel bans and anti-Muslim rhetoric won’t make us safe. Terror attacks in Orlando, Paris, and London weren’t committed by refugees, they were committed by citizens. ISIS doesn’t need to help foreign nationals navigate the 18-24 month vetting process for refugees when they can use the Internet to recruit Americans to do the work immediately.
Muslims also are not a singular group with a monolithic, universal system of beliefs. By painting all Muslims with a single, Islamophobic brush, President Trump creates a message that aids potential recruitment of homegrown terrorists. He’ll block attackers that weren’t going to get in anyway, and create more potential extremists on US soil.
The bigger danger is violence against innocent Americans like the tragedy that occurred recently in Portland. People get so riled up by the “us vs. them” rhetoric that they are driven to actions that range from screaming to shooting. Bystanders who dare to stand up for the marginalized face the risk of getting their throats cut. Those who commit the unspeakable offense of just appearing to be Middle-Eastern contend with the threat of being shot, like the Indian engineer murdered in Kansas earlier this year.
When bullets are fired and throats are slashed, it doesn’t matter what the attackers are shouting or which deity they claim to support. The perpetrators of these actions are terrorists, the victims are dead, and families are left to pick up the pieces of broken lives.
Portland and Manchester are two sides of the same hateful coin. Combatting such hatred requires nuanced, smart security policy from nation-states. For citizens, it means showing compassion and love to neighbors instead of suspicion and vitriol. For leaders like President Trump, it means abandoning the divisive rhetoric which is simultaneously ineffective and inflammatory.
To provide security in a post-9/11 world, the West should not return to 1933. Instead of turning to the fearful hate of the past, we need to look forward to the future-a future in which a teacher can tutor children of a different religion without fear of being murdered by an extremist.
A world without the tragedies of Portland and Manchester is possible. It can only occur if we stop judging, start listening, and demand more nuanced policy measures from those tasked to protect us.