Bertrand Russell described the 18th and 19th century Romantic movement in literature and philosophy as founded upon the notion that it is the heart, not the head, that animates the human experience. Truth is derived through emotion. The truth of a thing depends on how deeply it is felt to be true. It seems that something of a new age of Romanticism is upon us, particularly regarding perceived threats to our way of life. We are consumed with fear that someone or something might destroy or damage our society, so we try to eliminate the sources of fear. But in the process of trying to eliminate the source of our fears, we do more damage to that which we were concerned with protecting than any actual threat ever could.
Auburn University shut down its campus the other day because someone scrawled a threatening message on the wall of a campus restroom. Discovered three weeks earlier, the graffiti promised a rampage of biblical proportions on the anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. I mentioned to my son, who is a second year student at Auburn, that I could only imagine how the walls of the restrooms will look as it gets closer to final exams. He agreed.
I could have used a sharpie my last semester of college to get a little extra time for finals—I was taking eight classes and they were killing me. But back then nobody would have given a ripe damn what sort of nonsense I might have scrawled on the bathroom walls on campus. American society and culture had bigger fish to fry, worrying over whether it would be the Soviet Union that would bury it politically and militarily, or Japan, who would do it in economically. The possibility of some deranged soul pulling some outrageous stunt like happened at Virginia Tech would not have registered on the radar screen, even as only a few years earlier the University of Texas had seen its clock tower shooter. Scrawling threatening messages on the bathroom walls wasn’t a strategy for eliciting attention back then because it would have been ineffective. But now, we are so afraid, and so adamantly convinced that fear can be eliminated if only we could eliminate all possible threats, that no measure is too great, no caution is too burdensome to bear, in the service of pretending that we can eliminate threats.
But threats can never be eliminated. Attempting to do so anyway means the deranged has won the battle for attention without firing a shot or blowing up a bomb. And in so far as the attempt to eliminate threats impairs the purposes for which society exists, such as with a university, the dispensing of knowledge in classroom, then the self-inflicted damage far exceeds anything a deranged gunman might have conjured.
The Auburn University scare and overwrought reaction came at the same time Boston was caterwauling over memorializing the anniversary of having been the latest victim of terrorism. Vice-President Joe Biden stood before Bostonians and proclaimed that, “…it was worth it…” but probably meant to say that the struggle the injured endured to overcome their injuries was worth it. After all, he is Joe Biden. But he ended in thunderous defiance of the terrorists, who in this case were two rather confused young immigrants from Kyrgyzstan, from the LA Times:
“We will never yield, we will never cower, America will never ever, ever stand down,” Biden said. “We are Boston. We are America. We respond, we endure, we overcome, and we own the finish line! God bless you all, and may God protect our troops.”
The very fact that a crude bomb that succeeded in killing only three people and wounding about two hundred more—a routine occurrence, except usually far deadlier, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and not unusual in Palestine, Israel, Egypt, etc., etc.,–warrants a rally and some impressive chest-thumping by the second-ranking politician in the government, means nothing else than that the terrorists accomplished exactly what they intended. In fact, they probably accomplished far more than they had hoped, leveraging a thin sliver of explosive violence into an emotional pity party lasting at least a year long, not to mention also shutting a whole city down to look for the perpetrators. Had it been a routine gangland slaying of a few Southies in Charlestown, nobody would have raised an eyebrow.
This age of opulent wealth, where the greatest problem facing the average person is in deciding what to eat, not in figuring out how to secure the resources necessary to acquire something to eat, has fostered a new of Romanticism where emotional indulgence, along with gastronomic indulgence, is de rigueur. It is utter emotional claptrap to proclaim that America won’t cower in the face of two disturbed young men. Of course it won’t, unless it decides to. No two disturbed young men, or two thousand disturbed young men, or even two hundred thousand disturbed young men, could present anything but a niggling irritation to the continuance of American civilization, no matter what outrageous things their disturbed minds lead them to believe or do. But to feel the need to proclaim that “America will never, ever, ever stand down,” implies that America might otherwise stand down, except for the proclamation.
Then some white supremacist decides to commit a ‘hate’ crime against a Jewish community center. Check that, some lunatic decides to kill a few people because they happen to be, or at least he thinks them to be, Jewish. Which is hardly remarkable. In a population of over 300 million, there are bound to be a few crackpots willing to go the full monte in expressing their rage at a world that seems indifferent to them and their concerns. What was remarkable, however, was an editorial published in the New York Times that essentially claimed most white supremacist crackpots get radicalized in the military, from the article:
The report [by the Department of Homeland Security in 2009]singled out one factor that has fueled every surge in Ku Klux Klan membership in American history, from the 1860s to the present: war. The return of veterans from combat appears to correlate more closely with Klan membership than any other historical factor. “Military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists carrying out violent attacks,” the report warned. The agency was “concerned that right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.”
The apparent affinity veterans have with hate groups, and their occasional violent outbursts, also have roots in resurgent Romanticism. These trained killers can’t be loved or welcomed back into a society shameful for having created them, and so they lash out in rage, much in the manner of Shelley’s Frankenstein, who killed his creator and all those around him because his creator failed to make him loveable. If it’s okay to wallow in indulgent emotions for having suffered an act of random violence, it appears it is also okay to wallow in indulgent emotions in order to commit one.
I understand a bit of what the veterans might be feeling. My daughter asked me the other night during a discussion at dinner about returning to the United States after having served in the first Gulf War, whether I kissed the ground in Atlanta upon my return to terra familiar. I told her that, no, my attitude at the time was more one of “Fuck America” for having sent me to kill people just so rich white soccer moms could have cheap gasoline for their hulking SUVs. And I still feel that way about the war. But I haven’t spent the last two decades wallowing in self-pity. And I did nothing to express my anger and disgust at what I saw then and still see now is a country that is no longer worth fighting for. I just went about the business of life, trying to live in the world but not of it, perhaps something in the same way an ancient Skeptic might have lived.
But what this article and study reveal is that our fighting of this amorphous War on Terror is a net creator of terrorists, if by terrorist we mean anyone who wants to garner attention for their cause, however twisted their cause might be, through violence. We had to know that invading Iraq and Afghanistan would create some new terrorists among radicalized Islamists. What we might have missed is that it would also create some domestic terrorists among the people asked to do the invading (which it has, though in the particular instance, the Kansas City killer was a Vietnam era veteran). More broadly, when a man is asked to forsake his humanity so that he might kill others, it had better be for a good reason, or his resentment at having been so asked might well radicalize him against the entity that asked him. And really, there is no justification worthy of killing another man than that he has first tried to kill you. But the killing monster, once created, can be quite difficult to restrain.
(Incidentally, it is utterly irrelevant to anyone except the politicians that an outburst of violence such as happened in Kansas City be denominated a hate crime or not. Hate was undeniably a motivating factor, but hate is quite routinely a motivating factor in a murder. Just as are lust or money or power. I wonder, if the crime was motivated by a more politically acceptable reason than racial or sexual bigotry, but instead by something like homosexual lust, should it then carry a lighter sentence? There are any number of motivations for murder. That one of them might be hatred of another’s membership in a group enjoying protected status, like gays or blacks or Jews or women, hardly makes the deceased more dead. And in a death penalty state, it is not possible that it makes the potential penalty more severe. Hate crime enhancement affixed to criminal charges of murder are just prosecutorial plumage.)
The Kansas City killer was an old man, in his seventies. By my reckoning, he knew he was soon to die and wanted to go out in a blaze of glory such that he wouldn’t be quickly forgotten. Which is, in a sense, the motivation most people have for murdering others. The quest for immortality resides deeper in the human heart than even racial or religious bigotry.
There is really no question that the US government is breeding more terrorism than it thwarts through its War on Terror, in much the same manner as it supports the illicit drug industry through its efforts in the War on Drugs. Which is not surprising. Without wars to fight, the US government might just be reckoned irrelevant, and it fears irrelevancy more than any returning veteran ever did. Fear is the coin of the realm.
St. Augustine perhaps summed things up best:
All wicked people, just like good people, desire to live without fear. The difference is that the good, in desiring this, turn their love away from things that cannot be possessed without the fear of losing them. The wicked, on the other hand, try to get rid of anything that prevents them from enjoying such things securely. Thus they lead a wicked and criminal life, which would better be called death.