Monday, March 30, 2015

ISIS, Nat Turner & the War on Evil

Whenever one of my communities rises up in fear, anger and outrage, and seeks to wage a war against EVIL, I try to put a damper on my emotion, to force myself to look beyond the obvious. And I recall Nat Turner.

How many people today remember who Nat Turner was?

ISIS scares the hell out of me, as it apparently intends to do. It is seeking - with apparent succees - to draw the non-Muslim world, and the Shiites, moderates and other non-extremists within the Muslim world into a conflict to bring on the End of Time. I recently had my understanding of ISIS deepened considerably, by reading the article, "What ISIS Really Wants", the feature article by Graeme Wood in the March issue of the Atlantic ( If I was afraid before reading it, this article took me a couple of levels deeper into my fear, because it argues a kind of inevitability to the path that ISIS is marching. I had persuaded myself that the single-minded and merciless warfare of ISIS, offering destruction to anyone or anything that opposed its One Creed worldview, could not possibly stem from the core of Islam, any more than the hyper-racism of Nazis or the KuKluxKlan stem from the core of Christianity, in my view. Wood, in his article, argues otherwise, and with a heavyweight roster of Islamic scholars backing his view.

So what to do? My gut desire is to see every possible step taken to simply wipe ISIS and what it represents from the face of the Earth. And this feeling - generated by fear and the hate that follows - is direct and strong and sure enough that it causes me to support any political effort to send arms, soldiers, planes, money...anything necessary to bring this about.

The success of ISIS will bring about the end of so much - maybe everything - that I value in life. No time or space here for half measures, for diplomacy, compromise, cultural or religious sensitivity and understanding. This is a clear instance of GET THEM BEFORE THEY GET ME!!!

But again, I am compelled, by memory, by history, by the passionate reasoning of a good friend (you know who you are), and by the story of Nat Turner, to slow myself, to get hold of my passions, and to look and think more deeply.

In 1831, the name Nat Turner evoked the same sense of terror, of rampant evil, of immanent death and destruction that ISIS evokes in much of the world today. Nat Turner's actions, on the 21st of May of that year invaded the imaginations of gentle, settled, civilized people, with the spectre of the world turned on its head, of demonic fanatics set lose to inflict their wickedness upon the godly, of Satan ascended from Hell and determined to bring about the apocalype. His act of terrorism lasted all of two days, during which time fifty-five or more white men, women and children were killed. Ironically, Turner claimed he was inspired to his acts by visions from God.

Why did this happen? Does it matter why? Does anything matter beyond stopping such a any cost, and from preventing anyone from ever again unleashing such evil?

In anger, we want to shout, NO! There is no reason. Because reasons can become justification. And justification can force consideration, and understanding...even compassion. And in the face of terror, who has room for understanding and compassion. Destoy the offenders of Peace. And maybe later, maybe after they've been wiped from the Earth, there will be time and space for a little understanding and compassion. Maybe.

Except it possible to prevent a thing from recurring without understanding how and why it came about?

And...doesn't the fear response to terror override our ability to look honestly into the causes that generated that terror in the first place?

Nat Turner was an African slave in pre Civil War Virginia, in the United States. He was property in a society that denied his humanity. He was caught up in a system that brutally suppressed him and his kind. He had no recourse within his world to address the evil being imposed on him. And so he responded to atrocities, by God's direction, with atrocities of his own.

Naturally the citizens of rural Virginia were terrified at the Nat Turner uprising. And, very naturally, the anger, desperation and fear unleashed by that revolt left them little room for contemplation and reflection about the horrors of their own society that led to the rebellion of anger and hate.

When the uprising was quelled, not only were the conditions that generated it not explored. Slavery was intensified, made even harsher. Scores of slaves were killed, and the controls on slaves throughout the south were tightened. Repression endured, and became one of the factors to generate a brutal Civil War, thirty years later. And though slavery ended, oppression and rebellion did not, but endure to this day. Because, even now, root causes have never been thoroughly explored and rooted out.

Does any of this make ISIS any more benign, any more forgiveable? No, it doesn't.

But it does force me to consider, before I join the cry for "an eye for an eye": How did this threat arise in the first place? Is this really as simple a matter as Good versus Evil? And, considering that ISIS too paints the world in exactly these tones, defending itself as the champion of God, and the rest of us as steeped in evil.... Shouldn't this give me pause?

I'm not interested in defending ISIS, any more than I would expect a white person in 1831 Virginia to defend Nat Turner after experiencing the slaughter of innocent loved ones. But I don't think it's too much to hope that someone at that time understood that, on some level, the dehumanization that their society profited from and depended on, played a role in bringing those atrocities to pass.

And likewise, while my passions are inflamed by the videos of beheadings, and the reports of mass executions, and the calls for peace-loving people in my community to be randomly killed, I have to ask myself: what evil, what dehumanization, is being done in my name? And while I don't know the ins and outs of politics and religion and history in the Middle East, I do know, absolutely, that drones are being sent into residential communities, to kill those deemed our enemies, while the death of innocents is excused as "collateral damage". I know that hundreds of individuals, who have done nothing, have been tortured and imprisoned, without due process, for years at a time. I know that an entire war was launched against Iraq, and many thousands killed, in retaliation for actions it had no part in, and based of manufactured evidence. Are these acts not the epitome of dehumanization, of evil? And do these acts have nothing to do with the advent of ISIS, and with the festering of anger and hate that it feeds on?

ISIS needs to be fought. It needs to be defeated. But if we can only attack and root out the evil in others, while we turn a blind eye to and depend on the evil done on our behalf, how can we claim to be on the side of Good?

I don't claim to have any final answers. I don't know how we, as the communities that we are, go forward from here, defending ourselves and defending the good. But I know that it will take honesty and true courage, self-awareness and a degree of humility. Otherwise, our solutions won't be solutions at all. And evil - both ours and theirs - will prevail.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Persistence & Change

Today is the tenth consecutive day of the thaw, yet the snow and ice endure.

It’s a telling demonstration of the persistence of Winter’s hold that despite the drips and trickles and streams of water from all the melting, there is no difficulty in finding a chunk of ice or a heap of snow piled three feet high.

However much we think of things as fleeting, it seems to me that the power of persistence holds sway in the world. Winter will not be so gently nudged aside.

February was an epic month – the coldest ever recorded in Toronto. Not for a single second did the temperature rise above freezing, and we became accustomed to the feeling of twenty below. Pipes froze and burst, furnaces failed, and the thought of welcoming the open air became difficult to conjure. People died. And what a way to die.

I’m put in mind of persistence as one of the pillars of existence, alongside its contrary sibling, change. What havoc the two create. But also, what order and flow they bring about.

There is the persistence of the child in the adult.
The change of seasons, going round and round and round.
The persistence of anger,
and the slow dismantlement of feeling that makes us human again.
Memories form like rocks,
insisting on what has been that cannot be undone.
But they are molded by the dancing chisel of truth,
malleable under the unceasing rain of time.

And beauty.
What is most beautiful: hope or what it points to, love or that it grows,
life or that it flickers and extinguishes its bittersweet before we can know it?

Winter comes, it dies, it comes again. It has never really left.
Nor has Spring.