A Creative View on Terrorism

In September 2001, president George W. Bush delivered an elegantly written congressional speech that stirred American resolve: to beef up security and defense, to solidify a global allied coalition, and to exact justice for the monstrous World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. We were impressed by the patriotic determination shared by all members of the chamber. Mr. Bush seemed elevated by the angels of statesmanship. On his passionate delivery, recent images soared; our lost victims, our suffering families, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani’s dignified courage, and over-whelming acts of heroism by our loyal firefighters, police and public servants of every stripe. Our gloriously colored quilt of diversity, including threads of devoted Arab-Americans, was perhaps never more poignantly felt. The words captured our raw mix of national grief and pride, bonding our hearts in a deep love of country some of us didn’t quite know we had.

Bush’s stance was not only stirring, but also strong. “terrorism too, will share the fate of fascism, Nazism, totalitarianism (and will end) in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.” He promised to stop terrorism worldwide saying, “All that do not comply will be considered hostile regimes.” The speech reassured us: although the blood of our brothers and sisters was shed, the lifeblood of democracy and freedom will not be. America, in her darkest hours of pain, emerges united and strong.

US policy in the Middle East, however subject to criticism, is no justification for the brutal murder of innocent civilians, to say nothing of the staggering scale. Most of the world agrees, including many Middle Eastern governments. Terrorism will not be tolerated, let alone rewarded. The majority of non-radical Muslims feel no less threatened by terrorism than we do. They observe Osama bin Laden in dismay, as he simultaneously convolutes Islam and claims to be defending it. According to Dennis Ross, peace negotiator for the Clinton administration, bin Laden also appropriates the Palestinian cause, craving the color of legitimacy his own cause lacks.

After the Bush speech, we witnessed an unprecedented allied global coalition with Arab states on board, a 320 million dollar aid package for the Afghanis, and an effort to avoid civilian casualties. This all seemed credible as Nato moved to crush the Taliban out of power and with it, bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Though Iraq, Iran and Syria openly criticized the air raids, the West has breathed a deep sigh of relief, witnessing the relatively small uprisings in Oman, Pakistan, and Indonesia, thus far. A delicate balance has been sought and, so far, struck. We are managing our outrage.

But fine as the speech was, many of us are grappling with the omissions between the stalwart lines. The promising signs are not adequate to still the waves of unease crashing below the surface of our collective psyche. Our hair is on end, as Nato ventures into the supremely perilous and volatile Middle East, where, despite our president’s optimistic words, totalitarianism is still very much alive. We try not to anticipate the future in drastic terms, but we’ve been promised the war on terrorism will proceed indefinitely.

Plentiful imagery exists in various traditions predicting catastrophic oppositions and a dismal denouement for the world. We view these scenarios as silly, cliché, sensational, or tantalizing at best. They seem relics of a lost and severed age. Nevertheless, most of us feel that we are living on the crest of an immense evolutionary wave. Who is to say, given enough duress and destabilization, that shifting alliances in the Middle East would not consolidate into a federation against the allied powers? At this moment it may seem far-fetched or alarmist. Then again, so did anthrax until recently.

A mission has been underway to gather evidence linking Saddam Hussein to September 11. We hear overt rumblings of a second phase of Nato action, in Iraq. Indeed, the proposed clean sweep of terrorism could mean targeting no less than Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Libya and Sudan. Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia all warn us that further military action could inflame their populations and destabilize their governments. On the long and risky road to eradicating terrorism, how will the Bush ultimatum fare when the self-interests of our broad-based coalition begin to collide?

Where are we headed?

Painfully, we don’t know. Through the lens of Hitler, Chamberlain and World War 11, turning a blind eye would be dangerous indeed. Act we must. But given biological and nuclear realities, a sustained military hunt for a terrorist network that extends into 60 countries would likely produce a hydra-headed monster with apocalyptic consequences. In the words of terrorist expert Robert Jay Lifton, “the remedy may aggravate the disease.” Then again, as Mayor Giuliani said with a dash of cynical humor, “You don’t stop it (terrorism) by waving flags and singing songs.” Our boggled minds long for the simpler days of defined enemies and clear plans. However, a level of complexity and magnitude never experienced in the history of warfare, mires us firmly between a rock and a hard place. We are acutely aware that this equation is not enumerated in black and white. Yet black and white is the very principal from which bin Laden’s designs proceed. Many observers claim that his 1980s victory in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union (ironically aided by the US) convinced him and his followers they are capable of conquering the West. An email attributed to Afghani writer Tamim Ansary recently stated, “Bin Laden is a political criminal with a plan…he figures if he can polarize the world into Islam and the West, he’s got a billion solders…soldiers with nothing left to lose.”

How do we stop terrorism without “aggravating the disease?

Uncertainties abound. We allied nations resemble homing pigeons, sensing a direction with no familiar landing in sight. Bewildering webs of East-West political ramifications leave most of us at once fascinated and dizzy. In trying to cope, the concept of polarity seems to offer at least a patch of fertile soil in which questions may take seed.

Polarities in policy:

Peace negotiator Ross said in a recent lecture at St. Bartholomew’s, NY, that Saudi Arabia, Iran and others, by giving “safe haven,” create a climate of legitimacy in which terrorists recruit and plan. Terrorists are spawned under these regimes, are subsequently pushed aside and allowed to operate in the shadows. Ross urges such governments to take direct responsibility for the needs of their people, whose only social services, including education, are now supplied by the indoctrinating terrorists themselves. How can these regimes be encouraged to make changes?

In a recent Charlie Rose interview, Lifton urged the Western world to understand that terror-producing religious fundamentalism feeds on underlying causes, and other, legitimate, angers. As we grope through our understandable dread and justified outrage, can we imagine Arab children languishing in extreme alienation and abject powerlessness? Is it beyond us to comprehend how they fall prey to deadly ideology where, in the name of Allah, boys become human bombs in masterminds’ apocalyptic nightmares? Can we openly admit that we contributed, in pursuit of our interests, to the undertow of absolutism by helping regimes to repress their people?

Polarities in propaganda:

What happens when Arab countries churn out negative media images, characterizing the West as nothing but a godless beast of material vulgarity and excess? To what degree does this kind of propaganda export terror? Do enough Arabs also take into account the times America in particular has defended Muslims in Eastern Europe? Writer Stephen Kinzer, also a recent guest on Charlie Rose, remarked that cutbacks on American libraries and consulates in the Middle East have undermined a more balanced view of American culture. He imparted that many Arabs see us an engaging and generous people, but many others view us a surly, hostile, vengeful, and evil. Could reversing cutbacks empower a source of benign weaponry against half-truths? Conversely, what good is served when Western leaders put screens on the whole truth? Ahmed Morsi, university lecturer and contributor to The Arab-American Family Support Center in Brooklyn said in our recent interview, “We are told that terrorism expresses a hatred of our freedoms, a hatred of our democracy. But this isn’t true. It’s really more a problem of cultural differences and misunderstandings. Patriotism is a fine thing, but when it creates a barrier separating us from the rest of reality, it becomes a disease.” Can America admit that in the midst of its celebrated freedoms, untruths and half-truths, are also promulgated? If we engage in too much censoring, are we not vulnerable to becoming, insidiously, what we resist?

On the broad East-West canvas, where does true evil blend, with the subtlety of watercolor, into demonization? How can either side know what it is truly dealing with? More honesty would empower the lifting of veils. What new things might both sides see?

Polarities in cultural behaviors:

The Middle East has long been bound by severe authoritarian tradition. It values the backward glance, infuses its history with nostalgia, and seeks repetition. The West, on the other hand, values forward movement, progressive materialism, technological skill, and leaves conserving principles wilting on the speedway. When asked how Arabs might better express their discontent with Western hegemony, Morsi answered, “I think when Arabs feel secure within themselves, they quit blaming, they make responsible choices about cultural matters and feel relatively unfazed.” Will moderate Arab leaders elevate a spokesman to rival bin Laden, with sophistication of another kind, to articulate grievances within a context of co-existence? When asked how Americans might better cope with Arab hostilities, Morsi added, “I think it’s important for us to look into the mirror, into our hearts, and be honest about what we see.” How often do we Americans accept that our culture’s global dominance is not commensurate with superiority? Do we bother to recall it took the West 400 years to modernize? Are we sensitive to the Arab heart, where exists a strange brew of fascination, jealously, fear and overwhelm in the face of modernization? Is there, echoing in the tangled wood of our present dilemma, a desperate call, perhaps from the Divine, imploring us to slow down?

Polarities in cycles:

Speaking to the breakdown of the Arab-Israeli peace process, Ross suggests one reason it failed was that Yassar Arafat could not, finally, let go of the cause that defined his whole life. He had lived it, breathed it, and finally perhaps, identified with it so strongly he could not face the liberation it sought so ardently. Regarding hope for resumption and completion of the peace process, Ross asserted with unflinching determination, “Failure is not an option.”

Morsi says, “Breaking cycles begins with awareness. Awareness comes first.” Are Arabs willing to embrace hope, and avert their gaze from the lens victimization? Are we Westerners ready to avert our gaze from the lens of entitlement? If so, will new awareness inspire the breaking of cycles where projections are born and fed? Assuming we opt for preservation of life on earth, we may do well to repeat with Dennis Ross, “failure is not an option.” The bin Ladens of the age are seducing us to magnify our conflicts into a polarization of world war caliber.

By what standards will we measure continued action in the Middle East?

All moderate Arabs, including Jordan’s Queen Noor, will tell us the true meaning of Jihad, far from being an outer act of aggression, refers to one’s inner struggle to realize God’s will. The Koran allows no justification for violence toward innocent people. Indeed, “the very word Islam derives from ‘salaam,’ a word meaning “peace,” says Morsi. The Koran asks the world to consider this statement: “We have created you as peoples and nations so that you would come to know one another.”

Buddha, Christ and Muhammed, all implored us to live in the moment, to stay awake. They all said, in one way or another that, while caught in illusions of black and white, our actions increase the darkness. In India, the mythic Net of Indra is a net of gems. At each crossing of one thread over another lies a gem reflecting all the other reflective gems. It assures us of the indisputable interconnectedness of all life. Accordingly, if a butterfly flaps its wings on the Atlantic shore, it may cause a ripple in the Persian Gulf. Do we accept this ancient wisdom as true? Are we being asked to open to an impossible, terrible admission that in some deep strata of life’s mysteries, the terrorists are us and we are them?

Most of us feel nearly, or utterly, powerless to affect foreign policy. But perhaps we have more power than we realize. Prominent spiritual leaders tell us the individual challenge is the world challenge. Morsi agrees. “It all filters up from the individual, to the family, to the community, and ultimately, to the global phenomenon.” Morsi encourages us to ask ourselves honestly what is working or not working in our lives. What shadows in our hearts need visibility and healing? What aggressions need tempering? Who needs more love from us? Good is generated in the answering. Those bits of good coalesce and multiply the strength of our most enlightened leaders, giving power to visions that may supersede global disasters.

While missiles blast away at masterminds with bloody hands, let us pray that the world mind is blowing open to expanded landscapes, where deeper targeting will render missiles obsolete, where the true battle will find its authentic locale, in hearts and souls. Enormous threat bears enormous potential. Under murky shadows of a darkened age, God forgive us for innocent lives lost, and help us choose to live in the slow dawn of expanding light.

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*Essay by Barbara Bowen of GatewaysCoaching.com - the definitive source for artists and creative careers in transition. Contact Barbara to empower your creative process and for help with your career goals. She would love to hear from you.*