HOW AMERICA CAN STOP TERRORISM
MOST AMERICANS BELIEVE that the cold war is long since past, that the real threat for America lies in terrorism. I believe that is not at all true, that there is a contest still ongoing between Russia and the United States. But for now, let’s go with the more common view that terrorists are our real existential threat. Certainly, we witness the recent attacks by ISIS in Europe and (except for 911) lesser facsimiles of these in the U.S., and we wonder how bad can it get? We assume it’s inevitable that more terrorism looms. And we would be right — of that there is little doubt.
Terrorists can come ashore from ships, arrive from airplanes, or simply wade across the river when the waters aren’t too high or the current too fast, which usually is the case with the Rio Grande. But terrorists can also be converts – born and bred right here in our cities. They don’t have to come from lands far away. We who live in Oklahoma City know all about that. They can and do arise is a society like ours that values entertainment more than education. They break out from hopeless conditions in urban slums where violence is the essential value children learn whether from abusive parents or from gang fights in front of their house. It isn’t that these shortcomings in our society are the real birthing centers which breed the terrorism we witness today. No, it’s that these realities testify to a society hollowed out by self-centeredness compounded by a shared sense of purposelessness. We possess little in the way of vision and value to overwhelm the hopelessness, frustration, and anger arising from the all too prevalent demeaning circumstances within our borders – and from creating an effective means to combat terrorism which threatens our civilization in the twenty-first century. Our weakness in moral conviction has allowed these problems to fester in many of our largest cities for at least two generations.
But that isn’t my point. My purpose here is not to speak to building a “great society” or propose some economic or political method to spread the wealth. My intent is to speak about inward as well as outward values and why it is getting these right that matters. For without a change of heart and mind Americans will not be able to stop or even slow the advance of terrorism. There is no quick fix.
From my vantage point, the same lapse which has kept us from making progress on the problems of the homeless, parental abuse, broken homes, and the explosion of abortion, also makes us incapable of creating an impenetrable wall of protection blocking terrorism, of building the best security fence money can buy, which offers genuine protection (however many billions it would really cost). Would that it were as easy as building a great wall to stop the occurrence of illegal immigration and stem the tide of threatening thugs lurking in the midst of penniless masses as they enter our country. But walls cannot be long enough, wide enough, or high enough to create lasting security. The protection which we should seek comprises something entirely different. It requires a transformation of spirit in each of us personally and the emergence of a culture and society built on transcendent guidelines that stretch not just from coast to coast, but stretch our character and demand more of ourselves and each other. The primary ingredient to protect America isn’t concrete… it is salt. Jesus taught that “salt” was an essential preservative for civilization and that Christians, authentic Christians, live “salty” lives. He also taught that salt that has lost its savor is good for nothing — it is tossed into the dung heap. (Mark 9:50) Christians should always be asking of themselves, “What kind of salt do we possess?” Have we lost our saltiness?
If we decide this type of regeneration, of renewal (dare I say revival?) is impossible, then it will also be impossible for America to stop terrorism for the problem does not merely lurk without, it can be found within. And I am not speaking of the obvious fact that many terrorists have already come across the border and live today in “sleeper cells” in our homeland. To suppose they don’t would be naïveté at its highest level. No I am speaking about us — each of us — and whether we are willing and able to change ourselves, our cities, and our country.
The fundamental reason terrorism is worse in Europe than it is here has less to do with its proximity to the wars in the Middle East, and more to do with a purer form of cultural relativism infused from a longer and more pervasive atheism as well as a more persistent socialist policy that has existed in Europe for a MUCH longer period of time. Despite what most of America’s political establishment assumes today, socialism is not the answer. Utopianism doesn’t work. We can’t build a society based upon the premise that people are basically good and left to our own devices everyone will do the right thing. But we must rebuild America — to “make America great again” (a slogan I seem to be hearing more recently for some reason) by starting with ourselves and building from the inside out. As Michael Jackson said, we need to start with “The Man in the Mirror”.
Islam (moderates and not just radical Muslims) despises our culture in no small part not because we have things, but because we appear to value things more than we value people. They see decadence and moral depravity and conclude that we have lost our way spiritually. Those of us who believe in Biblical Christianity would easily agree with their assessment. The fact that they see Europe and the U.S. comprised of political states historically bolstered by a form of Christian religion that was too often exploitive of their land and people, causes them to judge Christianity and Democracy reprehensible. The fact is the West did exploit these nations through colonialism and imperialism for over 200 years. Yes, we did many good things too. Thousands of missions were built and millions of lives and souls were saved. Public works were put in place. Schools were started, and in many cases repression was ended. But damage was done too. Because of this checkered past, history supplies Muslims a firm basis to conclude that the West has nothing to offer them that they should want. From their vantage point, Western nations deserve to be bombed and burned. Westerners should be crucified and decapitated. It is of course true that much of their spite, when energized by platitudes derived from radical Islamic “faith”, is not just self-righteous, it is deplorable and criminal. Religion today, as in centuries past, has been wrongly employed to justify murder and genuine crimes against humanity.
Nonetheless, this doesn’t change the truth in what I am saying. To put it more concisely: the cause of the kind of terrorism we now witness in the Western world is fundamentally ideologically driven. Westerners falsely assume that the so-called American Dream is what the world wants and needs. We judge that if the rest of the world had more of what Americans seek — consumer goods, wealth, notoriety, two cars, and a mortgage — that the third world wouldn’t hate the first world so much.
Perhaps we self-righteously judge ourselves a victim of our own success. We think, “they hate us because of how much we have.” Our politicians reassure us that the reason we are assaulted is because they hate our way of life. In part, this is true. But maybe there are aspects of our lives that they should hate — and we should too. In our weaker moments, we surmise, “it’s a case of the have-nots seeking to get even with the haves.” But in our better moments, we recognize our proclivity to fool ourselves, that there are big fixes that need making. And perhaps we should be willing to admit the truth: they judge us infidels not simply because we don’t have the same belief system they do, but because we flaunt decadent lifestyles vindicating their opinion of us.
But are we victims of our own success, or are we actually victimized because we are driven by the “success motive”? It is not my opinion that capitalism is evil because, frankly, it isn’t. It has proven time and again to be the most fruitful means to generate wealth and a higher standard of living for the most people. However, building our lives upon a capitalist mentality comes at a price: it’s called avarice. Avarice is an old English word meaning “greed and acquisitiveness.” In other words, we can never have enough. Jesus talked about the rich man that thought the best use of his money was to build bigger barns (Luke 12:18). This man was deceived in believing it was best to store more and share less. Indeed, mammon (wealth) as Jesus consistently taught, is a jealous master — it seldom allows any competing allegiance.
The American Dream, in short, is the capitalist/consumer prescription for happiness. It consists in the gospel of wealth, perfecting the art of self-indulgence, and devising ever more cunning methods to insure our needs are satisfied first. As the Bible says, “It is the love of money that is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) — not money in and of itself. It is exalting this manner of living that undermines our personal character while it depreciates the so-called “social compact” — our agreed sense of what it really means to be an American and how best for us to get along and make our country and the world a better place — which has undergirded America’s raison d’être from its hallowed beginnings.
Ultimately, to protect America, it is not about building walls, it is about rebuilding our character, both individually and corporately. Imagine an America that has been transformed by this aspirational mission statement. Do we really believe that we would be the targets for jihadists except in the most unusual of circumstances? No doubt America has been known, and rightly so, as the “land of opportunity”. And possessing liberty and the opportunity to possess property and to seek personal happiness and to prosper according to our talent and motivation, these things are all part and parcel of being an American. But it is not now nor should it have ever been about prospering at the expense of others. Unfortunately, that is what the Islamic world all to often judges is the real America. We succeed because others fail. We may preach that “rising tides raise all boats”; but to them too many times it seems that our big ship stayed afloat because we shot a hole in their little dingy and it sank like a rock.
Karl Marx had a very curious way of expressing his philosophy, curious at least in terms of how we hear his words today. He argued that reality was material — not spiritual. The universe was made of “molecules and not mind”. His philosophy was absolutely wrong but his meaning, transcribed into modern terms, is right in exactly the opposite way he intended. His philosophy was based upon a reaction to a spiritual worldview that really wasn’t spiritual at all. The European church, whether Catholic or Protestant, was mostly very broken and destitute of authentic faith. Spirituality had ceased being the goal of prelates and priests. It was a church that had no spark of spiritual life. The greatest historian and philosopher just prior to his day, George Wilhelm Hegel, believed that all that is is “spirit” at its core. We don’t want to get sidetracked on what Hegel meant by this, because it is ethereal and very foreign to our ears. Suffice it to say that one of Hegel’s biggest impacts was creating competing philosophies: Kierkegaard and Existentialism on the one hand, and Karl Marx and Marxism on the other. Marx challenged Hegel’s most basic premise, positing that materialism was right and Hegel’s idealism was wrong (the issue was whether “mind” or “matter” was the real “stuff the world was made of”). But what’s relevant to us is what materialism meant for Marx versus what it means for us today. For Marx, materialism meant the world was made of matter only — no spirit — no “geist” whatsoever (geist being the German word for spirit) . Marx would famously proclaim that religion was the opiate of the people. In saying that, he was stating that “spiritual truths” are empty and deceptive. For Marx, it was time to face the hard cold facts that there is no God, there is only matter, and religion is a hoax meant to keep the rich wealthy and the poor destitute. Consequently, he argued that materialism was the solution. In reality, Marxism was just another case of using religion (in his case, anti-religion) as a justification for action — violent and destructive actions that his followers would take to the extreme.
His proposed philosophy of materialism is ironic because in America today, we could say that materialism is the opiate of the people. Of course, we mean something quite different than what he meant: for us materialism aka consumerism conveys we “seek more stuff”. We want a lot more of what we already got and some of what we don’t. We want to pay less taxes so we can get more things at the store. We take on more debt because we believe that “buy now, pay later” is the mantra of human existence in the first world. Consumerism is what makes the world go round and it is what we extol as the virtue of America. Why don’t the Muslims of the Middle East get it? If we gave them more stuff, why wouldn’t they be satisfied? If we let them immigrate to our countries, won’t they just assimilate and adopt our value system of consumerism? Of course, the truth is much more complicated than that and their discontent, as I’ve said, runs much deeper than “things” — having them or not having them. The better part of most any religion is that we are never defined by the things that we possess. What we have often possesses us.
The pathway to protection is quite the opposite of supposing that “giving away things” can buy us respect and peace. No one really wants to be bought off. The poor initially appreciate getting something for nothing, but they still despise the ones who give them “stuff” because, despite what progressives think, nobody really wants to get something for nothing. It is demeaning.
When it comes to Islam, Jihad, and terrorism, America is fighting fire with gasoline.
It is only by demonstrating a society built on a distinctive value system with persons whose lives are ordered so obviously differently can we hope to dispel one of the key reasons they hate us. While it is true that their motive for jihad is hardly pure (we can safely assume it is blended with a heavy dose of envy), we can’t justify our refusal to recognize the need for transformation because we think they are just as greedy as we are, they just don’t have “the right stuff” and we do.
Therefore, I believe the only way to stop conversion to the jihadist way is to preach a better spirituality, present a better and more just political ideology, and demonstrate we live more meaningful lives in America. We can’t torture terrorists into believing in America and we can’t threaten the terror out of those them by talking about worse forms of torture than waterboarding. No matter what the foundational reason and ultimately whether there is a modicum of justification for how they feel toward us (be it the sins of colonialism, imperialism, or just plain jealousy), we can’t win them over to our way of thinking by bombing them to death or torturing them until they admit to something that probably isn’t true anyway. No one believes the Inquisition was a high water mark for human virtue. America should have learned its lesson from Abu-Garaib. We don’t need to go there again.
Nevertheless, our first reaction is always to threaten force with more force. It is most unfortunate that Donald Trump proposes the answer to terrorism is water boarding and even more extreme forms of torture. Ted Cruz suggests we need more police to walk the beat in the Islamic “no go zones” which the Mainline Media falsely tells us don’t exist (a perspective so easy to supply when you are broadcasting from a 50-story tower in Midtown Manhattan). And it is not just Republicans who propose a quick and ineffective solution. Hillary Clinton has demonstrated through her political service a foreign policy proclaiming the solution requires cutting out the cancer by eradicating dictators like Gaddafi and Assad and letting the “people have power”, which hasn’t led to freedom and liberty but to anarchy and chaos. Unfortunately, the right answer involves none of these would-be quick fixes (which aren’t). The solution is much harder, more long term, and can’t be built on a border, no matter how beautiful it is and whether or not the Mexicans pay for it. The answer has to come from within. Each of us has to play a big part. As Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.” The Bible tells us a great man, Nehemiah, once built a wall around Jerusalem. But the first thing he did, the key to his success, was to weep over the ruins. Gauging from his experience, before we can know revival as a person and as a people, we must begin by weeping over the ruins too.
How do we get to this new social compact? In a word: leadership. And right now leadership that is willing to talk tough with the right words and to the right people hasn’t yet materialized. We need someone who knows that we need to talk tough, but the tough talk needs to be directed first and foremost to Americans and not the jihadis. It is up to us to realize that bombing the enemy has its limits, building fences doesn’t keep all the undesirables out, while mending fences (if we are talking about ourselves, our government, and our society) is where we must begin.