Shortly before leaving Colorado Springs, I had a conversation with a retired military police officer whom I had known for many years. He works in a position that requires him to interact daily with a diversity of individuals, many of whom find themselves in need of understanding and assistance. He works in an organization that reflects every aspect of human diversity and that espouses equity and access without barriers. But this man–a seasoned world traveler–was adding his voice to those wishing to see a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States, as well as the development of a system to identify and follow Muslims living in our communities.
When he told me this, I felt like I had been punched. I felt disoriented. He is a person in a position of trust.
I put forward some of the standard challenges to this type of rhetoric: You sound like a member of the Nazi regime. You live and work with many Muslims. Have you heard of Christian involvement in pogroms and the Inquisition? What about all of the other ethnic, racial and religious groups that have faced this same sort of discrimination throughout our history, including your Irish forefathers?
He said he didn’t care, that none of that changed his mind.
The conversation made me question what conditions need to exist for a thinking, feeling 21st century human being to move from common civility to a place where they can say—out loud – that certain elements of the human family aren’t worthy of respect and dignity.
I believe there are two parts to the equation. First, there needs to be fear. Second, there needs to be fearmongering.
In our heads we know that the actions of an individual cannot, logically, be attributed to a group. Intellectually we know that all Italians are not criminals, that all Protestants are not heretics, that all Catholic, or Chinese, or Irish, or differently-abled, or gay, or poor, or displaced, or Muslim people are not innately bad.
In our hearts we know that what we have in common far outweighs our differences. We know that the human spirit is pervasive, ultimately the same anywhere on earth, that we all experience love, and pain, and loss. In moments of peace and silence, our hearts all sound the same.
Fear changes our decision-making process; it causes us to bypass our trusted sensibilities. Muted compassion and empathy are the aftermath of those decisions that are made from the pit of the stomach, the ones that drown out our common sense and our common humanity. The rule of the animal kingdom is survival first, and fear takes us right back to this basest of all calls to action.
But we as humans uniquely have the ability to pause and to bring other faculties into play. We can look around us and assess the responses of others, gather and weigh additional information, formulate effective solutions and tamp down our fears. Groups of people control the reactionary level of communal response to fear in much the same way.
Here are some of the provocations currently escalating our fears: national declarations of threat level this or that; frequent and urgent messages announcing school lockdowns; irresponsible representation of and reporting on statements of opinion; marketing of bulletproof backpacks for children and safe rooms in homes; artificial distances between us created by technology. Each alone would be digestible. Taken together they create a deeply disturbing, contagious knot of fear in the pits of our stomachs.
There is a reason that terrorism is so named. It is actions and threats of action that instill terror in intended targets. It is subversive and inhumane behaviors that generate reactions based in fear. It is shrouded in unknowns, occurring without warning, executed by invisible enemies.
There are terrorists of every ilk, in every society. And there are efforts to thwart terrorist activities through increased vigilance and by constricting individual and social activity. These protocols are reactionary, if understandable.
But there is an also an opportunity to step back collectively and seek out the root causes of terror using intellect, neutral language, diplomacy. It takes courage and conviction to set aside reactionary responses and consider context first. But individuals, organizations, and whole communities are doing just that. We each face opportunities daily to change the dialog and engage with our heads and our hearts. We need to think more, listen more, connect more, and fear less.