The Scourge of Our Time

Have you normalized it yet?  Have you gotten used to it?  I have.

Not yesterday morning when I woke up to breaking news on my Twitter feed.  Or to messages of prayer and outrage on Facebook.  Or to another running live feed on CNN.  I normalized it long before that.  Someplace far away from here.  Sometime after some kid blew himself up at a funeral in a crowd of women and children before we could stop him.  Perhaps before a different group across town blew themselves up outside the city operations center and then  blew themselves up again when the first responders arrived.  Or maybe it was a few months later when our corpsmen, a mother away from her family on deployment, took a round to the head from a sniper while she was handing out medical supplies to locals in need. That’s about the time that I started to settle in on the idea of it all. That’s when I started to understand what it was that we’re in for.

Now, I don’t blame you if you’re not there yet. After all, this is all new to you.  And fresh in the headlines. Except that it’s really not.  The real live feeling of danger and even fear may be.  But the terrorist attacks, they’re kind of an old story by now.

It’s been 18 years since our embassies were blown up in Kenya and Tanzania. I’ve been to those sites. Talked to people who were there.  They remember it clearly.  We don’t.  It’s been 16 since the USS Cole had a hole the size of a minivan blown in the side of her.  I had a classmate on that boat. He wasn’t one of the 17 who died.  I saw him the other day.  It didn’t even come up.

The same amount of time has passed between 9/11 and today as had passed between the end of the Vietnam War and the election of George H.W. Bush.  We’ve been at this for a long time.   Perhaps we should feel frustrated that it’s not ending.  Or perhaps we might look at it a different way.

Radical Islamic terrorism is the scourge of our time.  Like global wars were the scourge of the first half 20th century and the fear of nuclear annihilation was the scourge of the second half.  It’s purposely sensational and inherently frightening to everyday Americans.  But it’s not going anywhere. I’m sorry to be the bearer of that bad news.  It’s not going away if you somehow make all guns illegal.  It’s not going away if you ban Muslims from coming into our country. It’s not going away if you go and destroy ISIS.  When I left Iraq six years ago, every bad guy that we’d been chasing for most of the previous ten years was dead or captured.  They’ve all been replaced.   And the ones we kill or capture now will be replaced.  We’re on about our fourth generation of extremists by now.   That’s how this thing works. It’s being fed by an endless well of destitution and instability.  Turning off that flow is a generation away, minimum.

And one other thing.  It’s not going away if you call it radical Islamic terrorism.  And it’s  not going away if you refuse to.  So ignore that noise.  That’s politics.  And the only thing politics can do here, is hurt. There are good Muslims and bad ones.  Just like there are good and bad people of every religion.  But the bad ones are using their religion for evil right now. This one is more complicated than our urges to generalize allow.  So put your energy elsewhere.

So should we care at all?  Of course.  Because it can actually get a lot worse than it is now.  And it might.  And if you made me guess, I’d say it will.  So we should care.  And make smart decisions and investments that we need to in order to keep our people safe.  If you are frustrated with law enforcement, then let’s put the political pressure there.  Not on hate and misguided blame games.  I’ll caution you though, this work is immensely difficult.  It’s not finding a needle in a hay stack.  It’s finding a needle in a stack of needles. And you miss sometimes. And looking at it in retrospect always makes it seem clear as day.  But it never is.   That’s how it works.  Like I said, it’s not going anywhere. So invest wisely and pay attention.

But that’s not all we should do.  There’s something else critically important that we have to remember that great societies before us have done under much, much worse circumstances.

Like our friends across the pond, the Brits.  Over a period of 267 days from the summer of 1940 to the Spring of 1941, London was bombed 71 times by the Luftwaffe.  32,000 civilians were killed. Another 87,000 injured.  That’s two and a half Orlando attacks a day, for most of a year. Not off in a far away land.  In their home town, where they worked.  Where their children went to school.  And their most potent defense against such unimaginable horror was simple.  Stay British.  They took precautions. They moved nonessential people to other parts of the country.  They ceased certain activities, but above all, they stayed calm, and carried on.  And there’s a lesson there for us.  It’s this.

Live your American life.  Nothing short circuits the grand plan of the Caliphate like us not giving a rip about them or what they do. That doesn’t mean we tempt fate and take no action.  We will do what we must.  Go to war, pour money into security and police and intelligence activities.  Do all of it in the name of safety.  If it keeps Americans safe, and if we still get to behave, at our core, like Americans, then I’m all for it.  But if you think that electing a “strong man” or trampling on personal liberties is going to turn off this switch, then I would challenge your thinking.

This problem has no one cause and no one solution.  That’s a lesson others aren’t heeding though.   Places like Poland are passing sweeping legislation that give broad and unchecked power to the government in the event of vaguely described terrorist activities, something that hasn’t happened in their country since 1939.  All in the name of fear and the illusion of safety.  It’s political.  And we know better.  We’re America.  Not Poland.  Land of the free is more than just a song.  But it carries a price.

We lost 50 people yesterday.  And for their friends and family, it probably doesn’t feel like a price worth paying.  It never is for those that pay it.  That’s the thing that will never normalize for me. I can normalize the activity.  The dark, empty sadness of the loss of human life though, I pray that never goes away for me.  But I’m past the outrage.  And horror and fear.  And on to another emotion.  A burning will to stay America-who we are.  Stay free and protect our liberties.  Just live life.  One foot in front of the other.  One breath at a time.  Amidst a horrible see of danger and destruction that’s been with us since we were us, in some form.  An unbroken line of human tragedy.  It’s part of the human condition.  My faith taught me that.  As well as to love and accept everyone, including my enemies.  Hard to do I know.  But it’s commanded.

I’ve been done with the fear game for a long time.   There’s darkness in this world.  There always has been.  Always will be.  But I’m over it.  And the sooner you are, the sooner you’ll be free from this fools game of panic and blame-free to move on to the next scourge.   Whatever that one is, I pray that it impacts as few of us as Radical Islamic terrorism has.   For now though, my thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those impacted by this iteration of our nation’s struggle.  My energy goes there.  Sadness and love-the only thing I feel any more when I see this.  Because all the rest doesn’t matter.  Just the sadness of loss.  And the hope and healing that comes with love.

Like I said.  I’ve been at this a long time.