Terrorist (ter’or ist), n. 1. One who seeks to use terror as a weapon. 2. One whose intent is to dominate, coerce or destroy through tactics of intimidation and/or violence.
Tolerance (tol’er ens), n. 1. a fair and objective attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc. differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry. 2. a fair and objective attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own. 3. interest in and concern for ideas, opinions , practices, etc. foreign to one’s own; a liberal undogmatic viewpoint.
A little over 11 years ago, the people of the United States were forced to awaken from a bubble of naïvity and complacency that much of the rest of the world had long ago come to understand as normal. For one of the first times in our nation’s existence, we were attacked by foreign combatants and forced to face the unthinkable: the idea that we could be the targets of terrorism. With the hijacking and steering of those planes to crash into the towers and the Pentagon - and the failed attempt to overtake flight 93 – the reality that we are vulnerable in a volatile world was an idea that violently crashed into our collective consciousness.
Since that time we have become a lot more wary as a people. The initial response of compassion and resilience - of pride and purpose – carried us through the first few months as we tried to make sense of senseless human destruction. But the insidious part about terrorism is the way it meticulously and methodically wears down those basic connections.
Our relationships with foreigners – those who look and act and eat and speak and live differently than we do – become more suspect and tenuous. Security can no longer be assumed. Trust becomes fragile. Opportunities for understanding and cooperation are eroded. Eventually, it is difficult to resist the tendency to look reflexively upon the stranger in terms of potential threat. It is a challenge to continue employing the more sophisticated parts of our brain required for reason when such thinking is constantly overridden and overwhelmed by reptilian impulses of fight or flight, protection and elimination.
Of course, tendencies toward distrust and even aggression are heightened during times of economic stress. When our jobs feel precarious… when our income is down and the cost of meeting our family’s basics needs are as high as ever. It is easy in such times to look upon those we don’t know as ‘questionable’ rather than a viable answer to the need for trust. It is easy to see those from another culture as the ‘the problem’ rather than the solution to the need of finding greater understanding.
Terrorism – unexpected and often random acts of violence – are intended to unsettle our sense of well-being and destroy or intimidate our ability to communicate or cooperate. In the wake of overwhelming destruction and violence, the anxiety that rises up in both the individual and the culture often results in people treating one another as obstacles. We become objects standing in one another’s way of the basic principles of decency and well being. We don’t recognize that this is all part of the terrorist agenda. And if we believe in the news reports, this penchant toward violence over communication, conquest over cooperation becomes more and more contagious. Explosives and assault weapons being used indiscriminately on the innocent public – and the fact that we as a collective population allow it to continue – are signs that we are becoming more prone to hate and more palsied by fear.
If you look at our biological and sociological evolutionary process, the way that the human species learned to successfully navigate our way out of the caves and toward modern ‘civilization’ – the way we bent swords in to plowshares and spears into IPhones – is by learning how to share insight and information. The key was our ability to focus on communication and cooperation with one another over our contention and conquest over one another. If we are to meet the terror-flying challenges of the 21st century, we will have to learn how to break some of these instinctively habitual fear-based reflexes.
After 911, we heard a lot about the call from religious extremists for a world wide jihad – a word taken from Muslim tradition meaning ‘a holy war’ - a war against those who do not follow the strictest code of fundamentalist Muslim practice and thinking. In the simplest terms it comes down to a battle of ‘them against us.’ No discussion, no reasoning, no willingness to explore another’s point of view or the complexity of the situation. No need for understanding. No negotiations. ‘You’re either with us or against us.’
Like a lot of people, I have grave worries about the implications of this jihad. But I confess, I have comparable worries regarding our response. I am convinced that hate begets hate and the issuing of unquestionable agendas can be contagious. There are many around us who respond by employing the same ‘no negotiation – no prisoners’ rhetoric and adopt a ‘love it or leave it,’ kind of ideology.
Tolerance is “an interest in and concern for ideas, opinions and practices foreign to one’s own. It is a non-dogmatic non-dualistic viewpoint.” It is not too hard to see that in the war of words coming through in this election cycle, the ‘liberals’ can give many fundamentalists a run for their money by holding rigidly to points of view. No room for dialogue. No negotiations. And by extension, no tolerance.
Granted, there are important limits that need be applied to tolerance. The name of tolerance is no harbor for violence, coercion or intimidation. We cannot allow freedoms to be trampled in the name of being ‘open-minded.’ We have to be judicious about deciding what is tolerance and what is complacent thinking. Tolerance does not mean ‘anything goes.’
Recently, at the local Interfaith Prayer for Peace held in Manassas, I was reminded in a conversation about the Islamic faith that the meaning of ‘jihad’ does not refer to an external, physical ‘holy war.’ It refers to the personal internal struggle within each individual deciding whether to hold rigidly to their own way or to listen for a better way – a communal way, a holy way.
We are, indeed, called to a jihad – a struggle to find a more holy way. It describes our willingness to struggle with the truth of what is and the truth of what might be. It is the struggle that comes with listening, understanding and being real brothers and sisters in the shared responsibility to care for one another and the planet we share.
We can do this in our own communities. Indeed, if any of us can ever expect the rest of the world to come to its senses, we owe it to them to find that ‘more holy way’ ourselves. It begins with being open to others, taking time to listen, being willing to understand and imagine a better way… together.
To the Glory of Life.