When I was in grade school, the world was rocked by the kidnapping and murder of a young boy named Adam Walsh. His abduction was random, senseless, and beyond our ability to comprehend. One moment he was shopping at the local mall, and the next he was gone. Overnight it seemed as if the neighborhood went from being a safe place to ride my bike and shoot hoops with the boys, to a place where terror lurked around every corner. My mom, like many parents at the time, taught us the mantra of the day: Don’t talk to strangers. She even instituted a password system for picking us up from school. Without the password we weren’t allowed to get in the car with anyone, even those we knew. Everyone, it seemed, had become a stranger.
This week, I watched the Democratic Presidential debate that occurred on the heels of the heartbreaking attacks in Paris that claimed so many innocent lives. The attacks reignited the fear of 9-11 and the subsequent acts of violence around the world. It also renewed our use of the term radical Islamic terrorists to describe those carrying out the violent acts. At the debate the candidates were asked about the appropriateness of using that term. They all replied similarly, by saying that the attackers were clearly extremists, but they stopped short of linking the attacks to the religion of Islam. This drew the ire of many observers who claimed the candidates were sticking their heads in the sand by refusing to acknowledge the tie to the killers’ religious beliefs. Just as my mom found safety by labeling people as strangers and warning me about them being dangerous, it seems the world now needs a label to describe and ostracize today’s terror: Radical Islamic Terrorists.
The reason labels like this are dangerous is because they’re a distraction – a trick of sorts to draw us away from our fear of the very real issues of life and death and direct us instead toward “those people, over there, who think and dress differently and worship that God,” while making the determination that all the ways they’re different from us makes them bad. We may say that portions of labels are factually correct – a person’s race, religion or geography – but as the labels broaden, their validity often lessens. There are Muslims from the Middle East who are killing people… just as there are Christians from the United States, and people from nearly every other nation and religion doing the same. You have to wonder, though, if these distinctions aren’t trivial for the mothers of the dead. As they cry out in pain, does the race or religion of the killers matter while they question why their children have been taken from them?
The sad reality is that people sometimes kill each other… and this often happens out of the blue in tragic ways that are hard to comprehend. These acts shake us, they rob us of our sense of security, they buckle our knees. This is the real issue. We aren’t in control, our safety isn’t guaranteed no matter what politicians or religions tell us, and that really scares us. So we label. Because if we can make a faraway group and their ideology bad then we don’t have to be afraid when we walk down the street and see our neighbors … unless of course one of “them” happens to move in next door or sit next to us on the airplane.
The act of labeling things that we see as different is human nature. It’s what the people who call themselves freedom fighters do when they label Americans as devils, it’s what Americans did to justify slavery and the subsequent discrimination against people of color, it’s what my mom did in her desire to protect me from kidnapping, it’s how we walk by hungry people on the street without helping them as we head to dinner and a movie, and it’s how countries now turn their backs on fleeing refugees. We are all extremist labelers trying to make sense of a world whose rules are a complicated formula written in invisible ink. We don’t understand why some people are rich while others are poor, why some children are born healthy and others with disease, or why some people live while others die … so we label, judge, and vilify in order to create some sense of it all. Like the labels we put on jars of unrecognizable spices in our kitchens, we create our own categories and feel like we have a bit of control over the uncontrollable. In the process, though, we rob people of their humanity, of their freedom, and of our love, and replace it all with an often self-fulfilling label. Radical Islamist terrorists.
The Buddhist monk Mingyur Rinpoche said, “There is only one possible motive behind someone’s behavior: the desire to feel safe or happy.” That an evil terrorist wants to be safe or happy is an impossible concept. When viewed through a label, how could a radical extremist terrorist possibly want the same things I want? But when we go beyond the labels we find human hearts, human desires, human fears … just like mine, and just like yours. We can deplore actions, but we can’t deny the humanity behind them. This is why the labels matter: because they strip people of their innate humanity. Perhaps the question we have to ask ourselves is when we say freedom for all, to whom does that extend? When we say love our neighbor, to whom does that apply? How far does that circle go? These are important questions because on their borders live those people we’ve reduced to labels. And when we take away people’s humanity, that’s when terror is born, as oppressed and unloved people struggle to be included in the circle of freedom.
One of the reasons we are so quick to identify and label terror in the world is because we experience so much fear in our own lives. It’s the fear we don’t speak much about, the kind we tuck away deep inside while we conduct our lives. This fear begins as children when at school and on the playground we begin collecting the labels of slow learner, shy, talkative, hyper, bully, chubby, problem child, sensitive, ADHD, weak, class clown. These labels stick and grow on us like vines on old buildings. As we age the labels become the foundation for newer and scarier ones as the playground expands to work, popular culture, and the nightly news. Soon we find ourselves entrenched in labels, unsure of who we are beyond the judgments. Like the people we’ve pushed to the outer extremities of life, we have an interior full of unresolved emotional labels that terrorize us.
We can pretend that terror just springs out of the desert but that’s rarely true in life. Just as we can try to explain dis-ease in our personal lives as the product of something foreign to our selves. Instead, terror in all forms is usually the scream of an oppressed voice that has been calling out again and again for a long period of time. What we finally see and identify as terror is often simply a desperate, last ditch effort to be listened to and understood.
In the geopolitical world the voice of terror often carries a message asking to be free, to be itself, to not be occupied or even democratized. It asks to be allowed the same space as others to figure out its affairs, to make its own rules and to determine its destiny. In our personal lives terror has a similar message, one that begs to be heard. If we close our eyes for a moment … if we connect to that fear … we can imagine the message, maybe not audible at first, but if we listen carefully it’s there. A voice long ago forgotten, abandoned in the pursuit of success and power, it asks simply to be seen, listened to, accepted and understood. “Are you here?” “Will you hold my hand?” “Will you love me?” In both cases we are asked to show up, to listen and to understand — in other words to see beyond the simplicity of labels and to find the deeper human meaning. From this perspective, the solutions don’t seem so far off or impossible as we deal with real people versus mythical fears or monsters on the wrong side of God.
This week while the world prayed for peace, the Dalai Lama was asked for his perspective. “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers,” he said. “I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.” This isn’t to say that prayer is bad. It’s beautiful. It’s also beautiful when we act personally on our prayers. This week I invite you to put your prayers in motion … not around the world or even around town, but within your own heart. Sit quietly, connect to you, and find the unloved parts, the fears, and the inner terror and just be with them. Don’t impose your will or declare war by trying to silence them. Just be there, present, listening, and understanding. This is the meaning of self-love. It’s how we heal ourselves and how we then might have a chance to heal the world. Because if we truly desire to quell the terror of the world, we must first have the courage to meet our own fear with love and compassion.
Big hugs of love,