The day after Bastille Day

Last night I was working late on proofs for the Handbook when I heard the fireworks going off in Aiguillon. It made me smile. I can remember putting the kids in the car and driving there to see them. Later we realized that we had a pretty good show right from our windows, so we stopped going, but for many families it’s a ritual. The kids are excited about being allowed to stay up late and there’s usually an open air dance organized in the town square. Popular music and families and neighbors celebrating their nation, the individual liberty that was won when the Bastille, a prison that symbolized tyranny, was torn down.

When I woke up this morning, the horror was all over the news. French, British, American journalists were commenting pictures that are heartbreakingly familiar. A crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice was a target for a terrorist whose goal was to kill and maim as many as possible. It has happened in Istanbul, in Florida, in Paris, in …. so many places that tragedy is becoming routine. Politicians in power are trying to convince people that they are firm and doing everything possible to stop the attacks. Politicians out of power are scandalized that nothing has been done and promising that they will know how to stop them. I read comments by friends. Some wanted to know if we were all safe (Three of my grandchildren were going to Nice to visit their other grandparents), many offered sympathy. Some were angry and defiant.

It occurred to me that terrorism is a new kind of tyranny. It has no Bastille that can be torn down, because it’s everywhere. No democracy can crush terrorism without becoming a state that is no longer a democracy. There are no rules and regulations, no restrictions that can prevent hate, that can keep a determined terrorist from finding ways of harming the innocent. Gun laws might make it more complicated for some, but terrorists can always find other weapons.

The only real way to stop terrorist attacks is to stop creating terrorists. Every child is born with a fundamental instinct, almost as strong as the basic urge to feed. Look into a baby’s face and smile at it. The infant will give you a delighted look and smile back. That is simple human nature. What happens to transform that smiling baby into a monster that is willing to die as long as it can destroy as many lives as possible?

Let’s be honest. Let’s think about this even if it’s not comfortable. Terrorists are created by injustice. You may not call it injustice, but they do. They feel it as injustice, they suffer it as injustice, and they are willing to die, willing to kill others in order to protest against injustice. There are some wise, wonderful men, who rose above injustice and discrimination and preached peace. Today we honor Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King because they were able to see that violence cannot vanquish injustice. But they were giants. The terrorists who killed in Istanbul, in Paris, in Charlotte, in Florida, in Nice were not giants. They were little, warped men with little, warped lives who mistook newspaper headlines for respect and glory.

There are those who live secure prosperous lives because they were born at the right place, at the right time in the right family. They may not be wealthy, but they believe that they can be, that it is within their reach. Then there are the others, those that learn as small children that there are people who don’t like them, that there are things they can’t do, things they can’t have. They grow and encounter injustice and difficulties that others don’t share.

A strong person may become stronger through difficulties, but some people may be broken by too many difficulties, too much injustice. A few of them, a very few fortunately, follow a twisted path to fanaticism and become terrorists.

So how can we combat terrorism? How can we prevent these horrible attacks? It is very difficult for a government to prevent terrorism but it is easy for its citizens to prevent children from growing up to become terrorists. It takes vigilance, but not necessarily in airports and train stations.

Instead of looking for suspicious strangers and abandoned packages, we should be looking for those who suffer from an injustice that is often cleverly disguised as our own privilege. When you are happy to know that your child is in a good school, it’s difficult to see the children that couldn’t get in. When you are happy about low prices, it’s difficult to see that some people, some children, are working for starvation wages. When you enjoy cheap gas and air conditioning, it’s difficult to see pollution as a major problem.

I’m not a particularly wise or good person. I’m no giant that can lead mankind forward in the eternal struggle for justice. But there is something I can do. I can try to be fair. I can try to be worthy of trust. When I’m not, I can offer a sincere apology. I can look into a person’s eyes and smile. I can look at everyone I meet and try to see behind the fears of rejection and hurt. I can try to see the infant that trusted and I can smile at that infant. If everyone did as much, where would the terrorists come from?

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