In Control

Those who know me know that I treat my workdays like clockwork. I leave the apartment every day, catch the same bus, and leave work at the end of the day, all according to schedule. Traffic is a variable, of course. Yesterday as I came out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 7:15, blunted with my reading on the bus, I noted we were a bit late for my liking. I got to work before 7:30, though, and was interrupted by a message from my brother, asking if I had made it out of the Port Authority okay. I was a bit confused—weather delays do happen, but what could have made today any different than any other Monday? It was then I learned about the bombing. It happened five minutes after I left.

Now, I’m not trying to over-dramatize this. I was above ground and the bomber was below. I didn’t even hear it go off, although there were a lot of sirens on my way to work. The only serious injury was to the bomber himself. What really got to me, when the idea had time to settle in, was how close I’d been. So were thousands of others at the time. Over the summer I went to Penn Station just after what had been assumed to be a terrorist attack. Jackets and personal effects lay scattered on the floor. People had dropped things and ran. In that case it had been an innocent tazing of an unruly passenger that had set off the panic. I’m not a fan of fear on the commute. I don’t think, however, that we should give in to the rhetoric that our government will surely use to describe all this.

Millions of people live and work in New York City. Such things as these disrupt the flow of our daily lives, but we can’t let the agenda of fear control this narrative. I felt a tinge of it when I headed back to the Port Authority at the end of the day. Police barricades were still up on 8th Avenue. Reporters with cameras were at the scene. A potential killer had been here just hours before. This is New York. Without the overlay of fear, this was simply business as normal. Any city of millions will harbor potential killers. If terror controls the narrative, it has won. If politicians use this fear to win elections, the terrorists win them too. I’m doing what we must do to defeat the fear. I’m just getting back on the bus.

Social Security

Security. If there’s one thing we can never get enough of, this is it. We look at the future with a mix of perspectives: it’s going to get better, or it’s going to get worse. We want to be prepared for any eventuality. The most recent issue of Wired landed at my door and the cover, apart from Leonardo DiCaprio, features the survival guide. Tongue-in-cheek, along with actual statistics, this feature article gives tips on surviving all kinds of potential disasters. From domestic terrorism to zombies. The zombie advice caught my eye. You can make a pretty effective club, it seems, from rolling up newspaper the right way, with a judicious application of duct tape. It may not help much in instance of domestic terrorism, but who can expect to survive everything?

DecWiredSecurity is fine and good, until it becomes an obsession. Here in the United States, we’ve lived with the belief that two oceans separate us from our most hostile enemies. For sure, we have our fair share of natural disasters: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, even a volcano or two, but these are “acts of God” and we like to think that we can handle those. Our greatest fear, it seems, is our fellow human beings. Isolationism is convenient when we want to direct our own destiny, but when other nations get in the way, we like to extend the borders of democracy a bit. And globalization has opened the doors to all kinds of scenarios where security is at risk. Just try flying as a man with a beard traveling alone. I’m not so sure that facial hair is the greatest threat to the future that it seems to be. (Unless, of course, it is trendy stubble, as the picture of Leonardo DiCaprio shows.)

Security isn’t attainable. The future is always uncertain. There’s a rabbinic saying that a person can’t be satisfied today without knowing that tomorrow’s been taken care of. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Or even later today. We fear those who take their faith seriously, and yet the world grows more densely interconnected all the time. Some turn to their holy books to ensure that they are ready for tomorrow. Some even claim that those books tell them in detail what will be coming down the road. Others, I suspect, are gathering newspapers and rolls of duct tape. The future is, after all, what we make it.

Trench Warfare

Once something becomes socially acceptable, it is nearly impossible to change. I’m no prude, but I remember when “swearing” in public was considered bad taste. When I was a tween (and there was no such thing as tweens then) I heard a guy talking to a friend in a department store. They were on the other side of those kinds of shelves where you can see through to the other side. One of them cussed and his friend said, “Man, you shouldn’t say that when there’s a little kid just there.” I wasn’t shocked by the word; I’m more worldly than most people grant me credit for being. Still, the sentiment was appreciated. These days I dodge f-bombs all the way to work. It’s effing acceptable.

Vickers_IWW

The tragic multiple shooting in San Bernardino to which I opened the paper yesterday morning was completely dispiriting. The statistics showing more multiple shootings than there have been days in the past year while Republican hopefuls chain their wallets to their pockets backing the NRA should give anyone pause to reflect, no matter their party. Our gun madness has led to a collective deathwish for our country. The only acceptable solution, according to the GOP, and Texas, is to get more guns out on the streets. The Old West is called “Old” for a reason. We should’ve become more civilized by now. Instead we accept fantasy for reality.

In a land where politics is making love to gun lobbies, the surest investment is the casket industry. It has become socially acceptable to shoot lots of people and then kill yourself or get yourself shot. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t read about such an incident in the news. Swift, decisive action is called for but we’re mired down by politicians who need ever so much more money to campaign. Bread and circuses. I know responsible gun owners. It has become clear that the only real solution now is to do what is socially unacceptable. Give up our guns. If those who are responsible gun owners were willing to lead by example we might stand a chance against a socially acceptable plague that we’re unwilling to name. Even US citizens can be terrorists in their own country.

As Others Think

As analysts step in where angels fear to tread, we have been given expert opinion on why ISIS’s terror in France was counterproductive to its goals. A few voices have chimed in stating that the result of escalation is just what an apocalyptic group hopes for. Rational people, having no idea how a fundamentalist thinks, are scratching their heads. Long I have wondered why universities and other bastians of higher education haven’t sought the advice of experts. No one can understand fundamentalism who hasn’t experienced it personally. Problem is, most people who have experienced it are experiencing it still. Those of us who thought our way out of fundamentalism are passed over repeatedly for university posts, while those better connected (surely not of fundamentalist stock) are handed influential positions from which to scratch their heads. You want to understand fundamentalists? Ask someone who’s been there.

There is nothing rational, in the common parlance, about fundamentalism. It has, however, its own internal logic. If you believe with every mitochondria in your body that the Bible (or any holy book or doctrine) that you were taught is true, and truly believe it, no amount of reason can convince you otherwise. This is (partially) because the ultimate cause of all events is open to question. Science does not address ultimate causes—it can’t. The endlessly creative human mind, however, can rather simply conjure them. If God is the ultimate ultimate cause, and if God said, x, y, or z, then other interpretations are simply wrong. If God has decided an apocalypse is necessary, what use is reason in the face of the impending certainty? Is there no way out?

There is. Some of us have made it. We, no matter our credentials, are not generally well-connected drones of the middle class. Fundamentalism is prized by the poor. Those who have no future on this earth look for another, better world. This is a perspective I understand very well. Our increase in ease of communication and exploding technology with ease of access have only given new tools to those who think in terms of ultimate causes only. You can’t talk a suicide bomber out of action with reason. You need to know the language of belief. We glory in our lack of belief and rationalism. We, however, close our eyes to the fact that the vast majority of people in the world are believers. And we won’t talk to them because they make us uncomfortable. We have written our own recipe for apocalypse.

From NASA's photo library

From NASA’s photo library

Apocalypse When?

We want to understand what worms through the mind of terrorists, and yet we don’t want to be bothered with religion. For decades universities have been shutting down departments of religion because they don’t make money. Religions aren’t materialistic in that way. In the light of the attacks on Paris over the weekend, many have been turning to the media to learn more about ISIS. A piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood, published back in March, pointed out how we have tended to see the movement as political, not religious. Wood, however, demonstrates the apocalyptic intentions of the leaders of ISIS. They are religious. Just because you carry guns and high explosives doesn’t mean you don’t believe.

Apocalyptic thought and politics are a deadly combination. The United States is not immune. Knowing the bent of George W. Bush’s distortion of Christianity, his terms in office were very frightening for many of us. Some Christianities, as well as some Islams, not only anticipate the end of the world but earnestly long for it. Pray for it. In the case of some Fundamentalist Christian sects, world leaders should orchestrate events to force God’s hand in bringing about end times. The fact that we had a president sympathetic to those beliefs should send shudders down anyone’s spine. The idea of an apocalypse is a religious one—there is nothing secular about it. We know the history of the concept, although universities eschew those who look that far back. Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, devised a new religion that reflected the basic dualism we all feel: good versus evil. The only way that good could ultimately win in such a worldview was through the complete destruction of evil. And evil wasn’t going down without a fight. This idea influenced Judaism during the Exile, and thus Christianities adopted it. And Islams. No moral relativism here.

The horsemen close in

The horsemen close in

Religion is not evil. Historically it has attempted to be a moral compass to guide believers toward right over wrong. The fact that any religion faces opposition shoves those weak of mind into an apocalyptic state. Gather the horsemen and try to prod God into action. We don’t see divine activity on any kind of scale that we would recognize. The religious events of the past—the Islamic expansion, the Crusades, the Jewish revolt against Rome—these events are merely political. Those who’ve been conditioned to see God behind human activities, however, view such things very differently. Apocalypses are religious events. No amount of reason will convince a convicted believer to look elsewhere for consolation. Yet we press on with guns and bombs and ignorance of what makes religions tick. And tick they will. No matter how secular we might wish the world to be.

City of Lights

As the civilized world struggles to make sense over the senseless attacks of ISIS in Paris, the question of where to turn emerges. An attack has taken place. Innocent people have died. We are in mourning, and we want to analyze what happened to make the world feel a little less insane. As my wife pointed out an article on CNN, I was shocked by the terms in which the attacks were described. Here I read about ISIS extending its global reach. Top leaders, we’re told, planned the attack. And ISIS is “getting into the international terrorism business.” These phrases are common in just about every business meeting I’ve ever attended. This commodification of terror frightens me. The way we’ve chosen to handle terror is by making it into a business. These are human lives that have been lost—futures of the most promising kind. Not only are we the victims of blind terrorist groups, but we are victims of a world that can’t see beyond capitalism.

Terrorism is not a business. It is evil, but in a world where religious value is never invoked outside the few who still find meaning in matters of the soul, the vocabulary has been lost. How do we deal with ISIS? Just like you would any business. A hostile takeover bid? Gather your resources, make some deals, and if retaliation takes innocent lives, well, some bonds and chattels aren’t worth that much anyway. Have we lost the ability to describe the world in anything other than economic terms? Is humanity simply another business?

Paris_SPOT_1017

I do not wish to downplay the horrible events that took place in Paris Friday night. At least 120 are dead for doing only the kinds of things people do on a Friday night. Yet there is a terror that has been creeping through the world that refuses to be named. When it feels threatened it clears out Zuccotti Park. It has taken over our institutions of higher education. It buys political offices and rewards those at the top until the rest of us become commodities. Yes, some goods are lost or damaged during shipping. We need to have a metric to measure that. And when our eyes are streaming with tears we grasp the nearest—the only way we have of describing what has happened. A new business has come to town. When terror becomes a business all hope is already lost.

Charlie Hebdo

With the tragic news coming out of Paris, a predictable set of recriminations are about to begin. Because of the actions of some extremists, “religion” will be labeled a danger to civilization and the sad loss of life at Charlie Hebdo will be chalked up to secular martyrs in the cause of reason. The reality, however, is not so simple. Fundamentalism, as one of my influential teachers used to say, is not a theological position—it is a psychological problem. Indeed, religion does not cause Fundamentalists to become violent, it is rather that religion is used as an excuse by Fundamentalists to act out their aberrations. The religious impulse, no matter how rational we become, will never go away. Those who fear that civilization will collapse might do well to reflect on the fact that religion is one of the earliest defining characteristics of civilization. It is a formalized expression of a deeply felt need, widely shared.

At times it feels as if we’re caught on a possessed merry-go-round. We weaponize our world without stabilizing economies or opportunities. (I know I’m oversimplifying here.) People turn to religion for consolation. Religions give some people the strength to deal with their difficulties. Others will use their religion to justify their hatred and fear. Weapons are nearly as easily found as sacred scriptures. One, however, is much easier to use than the other. Twelve people lie dead for trying to make the world laugh. Three others are surely feeling justified by the extremity of their faith. There is truth in the concept of weeping clowns.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker

Ironically, in a world where pundits and experts refuse to give any credence to religious beliefs, and do not support the study of religion and its offshoots, multiple times each year we find the press asking why this happens. I’m not suggesting that those of us who study religion have an answer, but I am suggesting that we might have some insight. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction of claiming that “religion” has claimed more victims, we need to realize that criminals have claimed victims, both human and abstract. The shooting at Charlie Hebdo is a sad reminder that simple answers are seldom correct ones. My plea has, however, never been complex: supply education, not assault rifles. That’s something in which we can believe.