As the news media exploded hysterically with the news of the latest terrorist attack in London, my first thoughts were not of its’ tragic effect upon innocent people, but of how it would effect the upcoming British election. Am I an insensitive political junkie? Someone who has little empathy for my fellow humans? Jaded by the drumbeat of terrorism around the world? Maybe the answer is “all of the above”, or maybe from my perspective it is the reaction of someone born before the end of World War II, who has grown up in “interesting times”. It seems the context of the world around me, that exists outside the realm of my personal experiences, has been replete with death, violence, war, natural disasters and most of all human tragedy of epic proportions.
From the all too close, haunting memories of the NAZI holocaust that permeated the Jewish family in which I was reared, to the fears of nuclear holocaust dominating my elementary school years. From the murderous viciousness of the segregation and oppression of people of color, to the murder of a youthful President that had filled my generation with hope of change from the repressive, conformist 1950‘s. From the ill-fated adventure wreaking death and destruction in Southeast Asia, to the removal of a deceitful President who was ridden with debilitating paranoia. From the election of a memory challenged actor to turn the job of President into merely another role-play, to the collapse of the dreaded nation which was the villain in America’s Cold War fantasies. From the ridiculous impeachment of an indiscreet President, to the strangely corrupt election of a President who lost the popular vote. From the indelible effect of 9/11 upon the national psyche, to the misguided war against the wrong nation which killed hundreds of thousands under the pretext of saving their country. From the election of America’s first Black President, to the racism, falsehoods and bigotry employed to try to neuter him. Finally to the rigged election of an incompetent and incoherent reality TV Star, who has improbably managed to become our country’s worst President in record time.
Yes, the 8 decades I’ve lived, could indeed be called “interesting times” in the sense of the old Chinese curse. My shorthand account above doesn’t even approach the dismal reality of it, with the violence, murder and various genocides that have characterized the world around me that I’ve lived in during the times of my life. So, call me what you will, when this latest terrorist tragedy befell Londoners, my thoughts immediately turned to the political, rather than the human effect of these hideous murders. Dismiss it as self-justification, but as my life wanes in my latter years, my thoughts go to my children and grandchildren, and by extension to the children and grand-children of all of humanity. Humanity, which in the context of the information revolution has the opportunity to finally deal with all of the ills of our common, bloody history, at the same time can also be said to be on the cusp of our complete annihilation as a species. The balance between these two extremes is precarious and devolves into humanity’s age-old battle between change and stagnation.
The frightful reality of human existence is that change is inevitable and inexorable in all of our lives. The undeniable proof that this is so is in our common mortal fate, Death. Some have said that the knowledge of our certain death is what separates humans from animals. While I am not certain this is ultimately true, it does reflect the underlying and potentially terrifying truth we all learn and must learn to deal with, in order to carry on with our lives. From the earliest iterations of human society, the leaders and the elders of the human community have tried to find means to motivate us humans to defend ourselves against the malaise of nihilism.
At its’ earliest social/community beginnings, the defense universally adopted was religion and the belief that human affairs were guided by a God, or Gods. This, or these, entities were posited to control our lives and depicted as requiring certain behaviors from each of us, lest death and disaster would befall us all. By invoking a “power” outside us and above us, our individual, fleetingly mortal existences were thus given some meaning and in many instances the fear of our own death was allayed by the promise of some kind of existence beyond our passing. The gut wrenching fear of imagining our life’s termination was tempered by these beliefs and melded with a higher communal purpose. In allowed small groups to evolve into ever larger conglomerations, as clans became tribes and tribes became nations. This common faith allowed for the inevitability of change by tempering it with a framework of eternal sameness. It gave humans the illusion that as seeming chaos swirled around us, there were constants that we could all cling to.
Well by my reckoning humans have had about 10 millennia of cultural history leading up to present times. During those perhaps 10 thousand years, the rate of change for humanity from the perspective of the lives we lead has changed completely, yet we have been anchored by our religious beliefs, which to a large degree have been responsible for maintaining the fabrics of our society. Long ago though most of the major human religious beliefs became intertwined with the fate of political structures. Thus for instance the “Render unto Caesar” of the Gospels. By the same token though, the same religious glue binding together communities and binding them to their political leaders, could be used by the leaders of those communities/nations to attack other communities/nations. Ostensibly these attacks were perpetrated in the name of God(s), but really they were for the advancement of some selfish motives and had little to do with any notion of a higher morality.
The three main religions which stemmed from the Hebrew Torah all are in agreement that murder is a sinful affront to the Will of God. This is actually true of all of the main religions of humanity. However, that solemn commandment against killing of others has nevertheless been twisted out of recognition by Kings, Presidents, Fuehrers and religious leaders alike in order to justify making war against some imagined enemy. Which brings us to “terrorism” and how this murderous tactic, justified in our times by religious belief, is something that evokes fear and terror in us all.
The fact is that terrorism is far from a new tactic in the annals of human conflict. Terrorism is a tactic used in human history when a particular faction has fought against another, far more powerful faction. From Spartacus against Rome, to American Revolutionaries picking off Redcoats from the cover of foliage, terrorism has been a tactic to even the odds in a conflict between sides. Terrorism can be so effective because most humans lead our mundane lives with the threats of our demise pushed into the background in order to function day to day. Yet when despicable terrorist attacks like the one in London occur to people just living their normal lives, it chills us because it is a reminder of how easily our own existences can be threatened. When fear overwhelms us, our human reaction is defensive and we desperately seeks means to allay our fears and make the feelings in our chests and our throats subside. It is in those times of almost un-reasoned fear and our all-to-human need to strike back to allay our anxiety, that we become the most vulnerable to manipulation by those who would use our fears against us.
As I have written over and again, I believe that the forces of authoritarian fascism are once again moving to turn the concept of nationhood into nationalistic entities where the power of forceful coercion rules over any concept of the rule of law. In our times, the chief tactic of these fascist partisans has been to use whatever threats of danger to ordinary people that exist, to frighten those people into supporting them and their draconian solutions. Donald Trump was elected President by the use of fear, whether from people of color, immigrants, Muslims, women, or liberals. In the midst of his incompetence, cupidity and deceit, he is trying to maintain his now tenuous grasp of the Presidency by invoking fear. Throughout Europe most obvious fascists are also working on the same tactic of fear-mongering. The terrorist attacks we are seeing all over Europe are being used by these extreme right wing bigots to frighten people and push them towards their side. I must admit that my own personal fears are directed at the threat of impending fascism, rather than the belief that terrorists acts such as these will destroy our countries.
My career was spent trying to improve the lives of others, awash in empathy for the sadness of the human condition and supporting movements trying to create a better world. If I allow myself I could weep for the folly of human existence that created these malignant acts in London, but I think that it is equally important for us to see how the forces of those who would oppress us all in their self-serving quest for power, will try to use the sadness and fear deriving from this terrorism, as a fulcrum to oppress us all.