(in) Divisible

I’ve seen various social media attempts to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 today, including #onenationundergod, at which I nodded wryly. That statement is, at best, two different lies.

Sidestepping the religious quagmire for today (you’re welcome), I’ll note that over the past year the part of the Pledge of Allegiance which has struck me as the most farcical is “indivisible.” We as a country seem incredibly ready to divide; true unity among American citizens is both rare and fleeting, predicated on unthinkable tragedy which — after a collective gasp — devolves almost immediately into by now tiresomely predictable squabbling, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing.

At the heart of the debate is a dichotomy, and whether it is false or not does not seem to matter, because we have stretched two ideals away from each other and claimed they are poles toward which (and consequently away from which) one simply must gravitate.

Here is the tension: Do you value FREEDOM or do you value SAFETY?

So that my cards are on the table, you should know that I’ve long fancied and espoused the view best captured in the words (whatever their original intent) of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I like it not for its supposed “patriotic spirit” or even because of who said it (because let us be honest, Franklin was hardly role model material) but because it parsimoniously captures both the premium I feel ought to be placed on freedom and the subsequent aggravation brought about when Feeling A Little Safer is the justification for curtailing that freedom.

Last summer I had the opportunity to teach a course on Media and Terrorism, and while I endeavored as much as possible to avoid focusing on 9/11 or then-ubiquitous al-Qaeda (I say then because ISIS has since usurped the group in the twisted popularity contest we call mainstream news), I nevertheless found that most academic thinking — thinking in general, really — about terrorism is now firmly embedded in the lens of WTC-as-exemplar. I spent the better part of that summer trying to provide some new heuristics to accompany those smoking towers in my students’ minds, but the fact remains that when you say “terrorism” to the average American, September 11th, 2001 is what jumps to mind.

I wanted to reclaim the humanity of terrorists, to underscore what merit there is to the cliché one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I found that distance renders this a far easier task, and empathizing with Tamil Tigers or Basque separatists was easier perhaps because those groups weren’t blowing up our buildings or setting fire to our streets. It’s easier to play devil’s advocate for the person releasing poison gas in someone else’s subway. My point wasn’t to legitimize the violence — far from it — but to get my students to understand that the violence isn’t mindless, that it is perpetrated for the most part by rational human beings, and that often it is the result of losing faith in any legitimate course of action for accomplishing what one perceives to be needed (not wanted, needed).

Eventually things had to make their way back around to the home soil, and it was admittedly uncomfortable. You get people understanding that — wonder of wonders — terrorists are people too, and suddenly the question of what motivated 9/11 becomes a necessary but uncomfortable one. Much of the progress gets flushed at the inevitable recoil, and the way to plunge it back up is to return a kind of sickening balance: okay, those are terrorists you don’t want to think critically about, so what about the freedom fighters you defend? At their most patriotic, I made my students compare their definitions of terrorism — asymmetrical warfare, nonstate entity against established powers, ideological justification, spreading of fear amongst a population — to the actions of the colonists whose revolution founded the country. I put them in the shoes of colonial Loyalists, and the stars and stripes suddenly became a few shades darker.

My point here isn’t that this country that so many of us adore was founded by terrorists (though if you haven’t considered that statement, it is at least a worthwhile thought exercise). And I am definitely not trying to mitigate the atrocity that was September 11th.

But considering the lengths to which our founders were willing to go in order to secure autonomy and to get foreign powers out of their land, our response to modern acts of insurgency seems painfully un-self-aware. Judging by my students’ attitudes, we would rather try to snuff out those with grievances than even consider they might have grievances (to say nothing of addressing those). And I think a failure to consider the motivations underlying an act of terrorism renders most of how people respond to terrorism moot.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America doubled down on its resolve to Not Let The Terrorists Win, but how can you calculate wins or losses if you don’t even know the parameters of the game? If the goal of terroristic acts is to instill fear in a population and create change in the state’s operation, then the only way to win is to remain resiliently unafraid, and to refuse to change.

But we did change. We were afraid. Most of us still are.

Take the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” (yeah, that’s what it stands for). When you’re done laughing, let’s sober up and consider how much more unified or strengthened we feel with the N.S.A.’s hand in our cellphone records and the T.S.A.’s hand down our pants. Then there’s the racial profiling, the knee-jerk equating of Islam with Islamist with Extremism, the see something, say something mentality that has sprung up in public places alongside militarized police.

We are a radically different nation than we were before the nation was rocked by an act of international terrorism. For a few days, maybe even weeks, we really did seem “indivisible,” knit together by unspeakable tragedy perpetrated by seemingly (but, remember, not actually) inscrutable evil. But then we cracked. Our strategy for not letting terrorists win was to try to stop them from playing — and in doing so, we have happily surrendered privacy and liberty for a peace of mind that may not even really be justified.

It is echoed in micro each time violence shakes the nation — every shot fired in a school, theater, or other public venue reverberates with cries for less freedom and more safety.

I am not saying we should not think critically about these things. There are legitimate reasons and ways for making our lives safer and better. That tragedy catalyzes these discussions does not mean they are not discussions worth having. Yet I find the zeal on both sides disconcerting; understandable, yes, but disconcerting nonetheless for all the moderation it tends so often to lack. When liberty and safety are treated as mutually exclusive, the valuing of one too frequently leads to the overhasty dismissal of the other.

We are not, despite how loudly or badly we may sing otherwise, the land of the free and the home of the brave. A brave people would not have curtailed its own freedoms out of fear.

Nor would a brave people shy away from a discussion of what constitutes essential liberty when daily living seems to be unnecessarily unsafe. Fear is what makes someone say to hell with liberty, I don’t want to die. Fear is also what makes someone say to hell with you dying, I want my liberty (sorry, Patrick Henry). Fear is refusing to engage with a person of differing values; it is the kindling upon which ideological strawmen burn.

America continues to face threats (and perceive threats) from without and within. This is not newly true since 9/11, but perhaps our awareness of it — bolstered by a 24/7 episodic news cycle — is newer. Yet even in the wake of increasing understanding of how pervasive danger can be, we have a choice as a people in how we respond. Do we stand resilient, declaring ourselves united and strong, brave and free? Or do we continue to panic, uncritically sacrificing freedom out of fear?

And as we seek a path forward, whether proactive or reactive, how do we handle our differences? How do we address foreign ideas? Foreign people? As a presidential election begins to brew, will America seek actual unity? Or will it continue to pay bankrupt lip-service to nonpartisanship that goes no further than a trending hashtag?

I look at a map sprayed red and blue, and I see fifty states, but I don’t see one nation. I sure don’t see indivisible. I don’t see us prioritizing liberty. And justice? If we tore off her blindfold, we’d see tears in her eyes.

I think back fourteen years to what a nation truly standing together looked like, and I am chilled to the bone at the coming sound of partisan punditry parading in a star-spangled media circus.

Can America be indivisible? Do we even want to try?


Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.
~ Matthew 12:25

Straw Men & Fire

Matthew 3:11

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.”

Most people, if they’re being honest, are only familiar with these words because of 2005’s V for Vendetta, a movie they likely enjoyed, featuring a protagonist for whom they likely rooted. It is a very violent film, based on a very violent comic book, both of which have achieved great popularity in spite of the fact that, at base, V for Vendetta is a celebration of terrorism and anarchy; so much so that the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the story’s lead has become the symbol of international cyber-terrorists “Anonymous.”

Intriguingly, though most can quote the poem few seem to actually remember the reason for its inception; they remember November 5th, but they have forgotten why it mattered: a terrorist plot was ended, a person who would cast a nation into bloody chaos was prevented from doing so. Regardless of how you feel about the authorities against which Fawkes (or V, for that matter) rebelled, you’re a strange person if you are truly pleased by the idea of blowing up unarmed civilians. Somehow the victory of the real November 5th is trumped in this movie by its reversal: a terrorist plot successful, for which its audiences cheer, and for which the date is now remembered; fiction has usurped reality, and the message of the poem now serves an antithetical purpose to its creator’s intention.

The interesting thing about V for Vendetta, then, is how it glorified Guy Fawkes — traitor and anarchist — in a way which the world at large seems to have embraced. Today it is not uncommon to come across a person wearing a trademark mask of the man’s face, symbolically becoming him. But for years the only thing people wanted to do with Guy Fawkes was to burn him. And every year, on November 5th, remembering him, that’s just what they’d do: create a straw-filled effigy, and burn it, as if in some token way the burning of a straw man were the same as actually destroying perfidy and anarchy.

As a culture, we seem intent on repeating this act, not yearly but daily. We see violence and evil all around us, sometimes manifest in truly ghastly ways, and our reaction is not to root it out of our hearts and minds but to find a scapegoat somewhere and toss it on the pyre. For over a century, America’s pyre has been stoked with art. And as the flames climb, they don’t consume the true violence in the world; they merely illuminate its daunting, terrifying scope.

One of the greatest mysteries to me is how easily people conflate depictions of violence with condoning violence. I’ve met many a person (particularly in Christian circles) who seems to be of the mindset that watching a violent film or television show (nevermind playing a game) is inherently wrong, that exposure to the violence is akin to delighting in it. In the whitewashed fantasy world wherein these people would have all media reside, there is no violence, because violence can never breed any good.

I find the Christians the most entertaining, in that respect, because my immediate response is to question whether they’ve ever read the Bible. If a work of art is inherently sinful because it shows atrocities (and may, even, suggest that those atrocities are acceptable), then what of the Old Testament? What of the crucifixion? What of the fates of the apostles? Surely God knows that showing these things is an affront to God?

I don’t mean to equate Yahweh with Ares, but I think it’s rather laughable to suggest that violence is inherently useless in the telling of stories. It is, and always has been, a part of life, and the question ought not be “is it violent” but “what does its use of violence communicate?” In the case of scripture, the violence merely illustrates the consequences of man’s disobedience, and affords a contrast to the paradise Christ will usher in in the end of days. It illustrates the suffering undergone by a scapegoat so that the true perpetrators may avoid the fate they deserve — and, of course, hopefully repent. If there were no violence, there would be no power in reconciliation — without war, the value of peace is unfelt.

We understand when we read the Gospel, or when we watch The Passion of the Christ, that the violence was necessary to facilitate a greater good. But what of travesties? What of events like those in Aurora, in Newtown? Is there anyone so jaded as to say children needed to die? That they deserved it? I suppose there probably are such jaded people, but then there are Guy Fawkeses in every culture. The rest of us, those with compassion and reason, shake our heads in disbelief.

To some extent, the year’s violence continues to illustrate the same thing as did the blood-soaked wars of the Old Testament: the wages of sin, the constant consequence of rebellion, the result of generations pushing God out of their lives, hearts, and minds. That is not to say that tragedy is revenge: God is not reactionary, He does not say “oh yeah? well how do you like this?” like some petty schoolboy. It is rather more like we have removed the guard rails along a narrow mountain road, kicked God out of the driver’s seat, and then wondered why the un-steered car was not miraculously kept from flying off a cliff. Bad things happen when God is kicked out of our lives — not because he sits there on the side of the road with a remote control and veers us into hazards, but because of the inevitability of driving blind. It is culture in general that is to blame for what has happened — innocent lives are the collateral damage of the bad decisions made by generations past and present.

Saint Augustine speculated that evil is, like cold, not a thing but rather an absence, of God rather than of heat. It is not so much that we, as humans, are evil as it is we lack God, and therefore lack good. And while some people — as the Newtown shooter — lack the capacity to differentiate, plenty of other acts of violence are perpetrated by people who have no such lack but act anyway. Just as not all mentally ill people will do terrible things, not all terrible things are done by mentally ill people.

Whether you like it or not (and who would), “normal” humanity is Godless, and therefore prone to bad things. Anyone who disputes this is welcome to observe any young child, who must be trained over the course of years out of an inherent posture of disobedience and selfishness. The first word many children learn is “no,” because they’re constantly doing things they oughtn’t; once they’ve learned it they immediately turn it back on us, refusing to do things they ought.

I’m not unique in suggesting the ills of this nation (and by extension, the world) are due not to religion (as John Lennon banally chooses to “Imagine”) but rather to its lack. In his parting words as President, George Washington notes that

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Washington’s aims were broader in scope than mine here — I’ll leave his suggestion that anti-religion and anti-American are synonymous to linger — but the salient point is that if our country or world seems to be coming apart at the seams, the first question we ought to ask is whether we’re being true to a system of living which believes that absolute good and evil exist and that there is a higher power to which we are accountable for upholding those absolutes.

For in a world of moral relativism, in which “what’s good for you may not be what’s good for me,” and where every person lives however he or she sees fit, there is no basis for denouncing another’s decisions, even if those decisions include slaughtering other people. Because true tolerance demands that no worldview, however abhorrent from our own, is condemnable, absent a metric for condemnation. The extent to which we feel compelled to cast judgment mirrors the extent to which relative morality is a sham. If you felt anger or resentment in the wake of the Newtown shootings, you don’t actually believe people should be able to live as they please. In which case I suggest you figure out who or what determines what’s absolutely right or wrong.

The existence of absolute truth (and thereby our culpability) is a tough pill to swallow. We are by nature arrogant, and though we will never come close to producing anything so grand as a planet or galaxy we still think ourselves incredibly awesome, and praise one another as such. When bad things happen we refuse to look within but point to external sources as the corrupting influences that tarnish our otherwise perfect Selves.

This is why, in the wake of Newtown, a new rallying cry seems to have gone out (not least of which — and this not lacking in irony — from the NRA) to cleanse ourselves of those filthy things called video games, whose depictions of violence are destroying our youth and leading to tragedies that could have been prevented.

Aye, games.

Just this morning I read an article about a movement in Connecticut to gather and, quite literally, incinerate violent video games. Despite explicit assurance that other media are equally viable for burning (books, the obvious analog, are not mentioned), and that this isn’t meant to suggest that games are actually related to the shooting, the implicit message of this and similar rallies is that the violence of our youth is due to entertainment; the unstated suggestion is that were there no games to corrupt the kids, schools would be peaceful.

You see, games are merely this generation’s Guy Fawkes effigy, burned at the altar where television, film, the novel, and the theatre have all taken their sacrificial place. Just last night I saw an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a community’s hysterical jingoism (and a death or two) were all instigated by one boy’s enthusiasm for a comic book. This story was written over fifty years ago; had the episode been made today, I have no doubt the boy would have been a fan of Call of Duty. Sadly, I also have little doubt that the true message of the episode — our frightening capacity to be carried away by a fear of the unknown Other — would have been lost behind the scapegoat’s specter.

Now, I have no qualms with people whose reaction to overt displays of real-life violence is a revolt against unnecessary exposure to violent entertainment. One can only stomach so much. And when it comes to what much violent media communicates via its violence, it’s undoubtedly true that many games, films, shows, etc. say nothing at all at best, and glorify violence at worst. Moreover, as most violent media (of the truly graphic variety) is made by, for, and marketed towards adults only, I’m fully behind any movement which removes that content from the hands and eyes of children.

But let us keep two key points in mind as we raise our pitchforks and cheer while the effigy burns.

First, depictions of violence can be used for valid, potentially redemptive purposes, and the inclusion of brutality does not always (or even often) correlate to acceptance or celebration thereof.

Second, a straw man is a straw man. Destroy all the violent media in the world and there will still be violence in the hearts of men, because they are spiritually cold. Doubtless the world’s problems can be solved by baptizing them in fire; all that remains is recognizing what kind of fire that is.