Cowardice is Not Our Way

The war started for me while I ate dinner in the  wardroom of my ship, a navy destroyer, floating in the Arabian Gulf within eyesight of the coast of Iraq. The phone rang at the captain’s seat. My roommate answered, said “ok” and hung up.

“Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.” he said.

That’s all we knew. I went up to the bridge and took over the watch. Minutes later, the phone in front of the captain’s chair on the bridge rang. It was my roommate down below.

“Someone just flew a plane into the other tower. The towers fell.”

I hung up the phone and looked around the bridge at the other men. They were kids. So was I. My feet felt like they were frozen to the deck. A hand on my shoulder snapped me out of it. It was the captain. He handed me a yellow sticky with some coordinates and nodded to the chart table. A subtle order that started the war. Then he climbed up into his seat on the right side of the bridge and sat down.

That’s when I heard it.

Over the marine band radio, the ones we used to talk to the other ships and boats in the area. We heard laughing. And cheering. And music. As the towers fell, we heard cheers of joy.

A little over a month later, the first shot in the war rumbled out of the forward missile launchers of my ship. I watched it from the same place I was standing when the towers fell. That night, as I went to sleep, safe in my stateroom, I had two thoughts before I drifted off. The first was that we were at war with an entire region; maybe even an entire religion. The second was that I never again wanted to fight it from the safety of a ship.

The next day, my ship was on the cover of every newspaper in the world.

Two years later I returned to that part of the world as promised, with a with a very different group and had a very different mission. The details of the what and the who aren’t important. But what I learned is.

The end to a hard nights work in that life was always signaled by the same two things. The light purple glow on the horizon of the dry flat earth. And the wailing of the call to prayer. One morning, as the low droning sound of Arabic echoed from the speakers over the harbor, one of the young officers from the partner unit my team worked with looked at me. He was a Muslim. And he was born and raised in the area in which we were working.

He was a friend.

“I wonder what that sounds like to you Lieutenant.” He smiled. “It sounds like God to me.”

We weren’t far from where they cheered over the radio on 9/11 in distance. But things were different between him and I. They always are when you do the work to close the distance between people.

That’s the lesson I learned.

My team conducted dozens of operations to fulfill objectives of the Global War on Terrorism on that deployment. My Muslim counterpart, and his team of Muslims, Christians and others were shoulder to shoulder with me on every one. I’d go back a third time a few years later. Hundreds of missions that time. On every one of them, a Muslim was the first one through the door. Sometimes, they were the only ones through the door.

Lying in my bed in my stateroom, ten years earlier, I’d gotten it wrong. We weren’t at war with a region. Or a religion. We were at war in a region that had a religion. And the Muslim men and women that fought with me were fighting because the first countries that radical Muslim terrorists invaded, were their own.

I’m not naive. I know there are people over there that don’t love America. I’m confident that there were even men I fought along side who hated me, my country and what I represented. Some I’m sure eventually wound up on the other side after I left. But there are also people over there that are just trying to get through this life in one piece. And feed their families. And keep them alive. And they don’t give a rip about anything other than that.

We don’t have to do anything for them. They aren’t American citizens. They aren’t protected by the laws of America. And who does and doesn’t enter the country is every bit the prerogative of the executive branch of the United States Government, whose leader we just elected.

Much of America is just waking up to the fact that, in the domain of immigration, the actions of our previous leaders were governed more by the societal norms of decency, charity and global leadership than they were by laws. And when it comes to immigration, the president can pretty much do whatever he wants, within the bounds of the very few laws that dictate how we address other people in other places.

We’re all realizing now that the choice we made this November was that decency, charity and global leadership are no longer a part of the American message to the rest of the world.

And maybe that’s fine. Maybe we should be ok with that in order to preserve our safety and our way of life.

Maybe not.

Maybe we’re pretty safe right now. One third of one percent of murders in America come from terrorist related violence. No fatal terrorist attacks in America have ever been conducted by someone coming from one of the seven countries for which we just banned the entry of refugees. And we are several times more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist.

And maybe our way of life isn’t so fragile.

We cast off the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen by waging a bloody war against them because they taxed us without due representation. Over 22,000 of us were killed or wounded in a day at Antietam in a war to preserve our union and destroy the institution of slavery. We led the largest invasion in the history of man over the beaches at Normandy to free a continent we didn’t live on. And we put a man on the moon using slide rules and a pencil.

That’s our way of life. That’s America. We don’t hide behind a wall like a coward.



During three weeks in October of 2002, Army veteran John Allen Muhammad and seventeen-year old Jamaican immigrant Lee Boyd Malvo shot 13 random people in random parking lots in the Washington D.C. area from the trunk of their car.  Ten of them died.  For 23 days, the nation’s capital and the nation at large was in the grips of fear.  It would have lasted longer had Malvo not dropped a rifle magazine with his finger prints on it at the scene of one of the shootings.  He did though.  And they were caught, tried and convicted. In 2009, Muhammad was executed. Malvo is presently serving six consecutive life sentences in Red Onion State Prison in Virginia.

At the time, my parents lived in the D.C. area. Those events impacted their lives daily.  They talked about parking their cars differently in parking lots. They thought about using gas stations that had limited access. And in talking to them about it, something occurred to me. We were a year past 9/11.  And we were still recovering from those spectacularly horrific attacks. We were unified though, all focused on preventing the next big sucker punch. As a result we had sweeping authorities for surveillance and travel security in place already.  All were aimed at combating international terrorist organizations. I quietly wondered though, what if the real threat were different than the one we knew?  What if it wasn’t a massive plot that involved years of planning, flight school and an international network of support? What if it just took a gun? And some people willing to do it. Maybe even American citizens.  If that happened, we might be in trouble.

That’s a really hard problem to fix.

But it didn’t happen. And I forgot about it.  Until a handful of gunmen walked into a few places in Paris and killed over a hundred people with guns 13 years later. They tried to kill some with bombs.  But that’s hard to do. There’s a lot that can go wrong with a bomb and even when you don’t get caught, or blow yourself up, bombs are sloppy, inefficient weapons. It was the guns that did the trick. And then I remembered that sinking feeling from the past. Perhaps, they’d finally figured it out.  And then San Bernardino three months later.  And then Orlando.  Without question, we’ve entered a new phase of the threat.

The hard problem is here.

There’s a sobering truth to countering domestic terrorist activities in America.  And yes, someone born and raised in Queens shooting people in the name of their religion is the definition of domestic terrorism.  Even if the religion isn’t Christianity.  Because the important characteristic that separates domestic terrorism from other types are the liberties that the offenders are born with. Which results in the following troubling circumstance:  Currently, there is no legal preventative measures that would stop an American citizen, with no criminal record, who has not been observed to be committing a crime, from practicing his religion, purchasing a fire arm and walking into a nightclub and shooting people. And though we might like to think that there is, there isn’t.

It’s a hard problem. One that currently has no solution. And though the issue of the moment is Orlando and the fiery debates that it has brought about, it’s simply one of many hard issues that we Americans face in the 21st century world that currently have no solution.  Like a lack of funding for entitlements, a changing economy that has eroded the middle class quality of life and crippling urban societal decay.  These issues need a solution.  But right now we can’t get one. Because solutions require us to go a few steps past blame. And we just can’t right now.

That’s a really bad problem.  Not a hard one.  But a bad one.

Blame is the standard you are satisfied with when the outcome doesn’t matter to you. Blame is really not where you want to put your energy in circumstances where the current situation has no existing solution when one is needed.  Blame doesn’t stop the bleeding. Action can. Blame won’t. Even intentional appropriate inaction can. But we can’t do either right now.  Because as a nation, we’re walking hand and hand down the path that was the intent of our enemies 15 years ago when this war started.  It’s been a slow boil.  But it’s hit a fever pitch and the result isn’t good.

Let’s try this thought experiment.  What was the first thing that popped into your mind when you heard about the shooting in Orlando?  If you told me it wasn’t, “Was the shooter a Muslim?” then you are in the minority. There’s actually nothing wrong with that question, in as much as there can be something wrong with any group of words. But the reason for asking it is really the problem. Were you hoping for an outcome?  Were you hoping it was? So that you could be “right”.  Were you hoping it wasn’t?  So they could be wrong.  Honest answers to that question highlight a deep problem that we have.  It was a question we cared less about the answer to 14 years ago.  And it tells us something about where we are now relative to then.

Fourteen years ago, the prospective presidential nominee for our strong conservative conscience would not have gloated about its answer by the way.

Why not? Because we are a weaker nation today then we were in the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when John Muhammad and Lee Malvo did basically the same thing that Omar Mateen did.  It’s not because of our military or the economy or even the government.  Though they’re weaker too, but only because they are a reflection of us. We’re weaker because we are a house horribly divided.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, in a speech given in the Illinois State capital upon his acceptance of the Republican nomination for his state’s upcoming Senate race, delivered the famous phrase, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

Lincoln spoke of the scourge of slavery.  And he was right, though he lost the election. In doing so, he developed the national voice that would win him the presidency two years later. The nation would split over our perspectives on slavery and suffer through a gauntlet of death and economic catastrophe not since duplicated. But we saved the union.  And as painful as it was, it was possible because we were split over a tangible issue.  One that had a clear point and counterpoint, a solution and an outcome. Very little time was spent on who was to blame for the bondage.  Today, though, division is actually the point.  It’s independent of issue.  So the debate stops with blame.

Over the last twenty years, the boom in information and human connectivity has allowed people to exist, like they never have before, in the consciousness of other people.  We have a constant stream of perspectives that gets beamed, literally, into our hands, every day.  And what that’s resulted in is unprecedented exposure to information and opinion.  And one thing that we humans don’t like to do is sit through an opinion that is counter to ours without the opportunity to weigh in.  So we’ve chosen to put our consciousness in the spaces where we’re less likely to encounter those opinions. And we have limitless ways to pick and choose them.  From the sites we like on Facebook, to the cable news channels we watch to the Twitter feed we construct through our choices, we are shaping the info we receive and the opinions we are forced to tolerate.  Which means we’re dividing first, then exploring our issues second.  We are foundationally divided. And like Lincoln said, it’s not good.

So when an issue like an American born, Muslim man, legally purchasing a weapon and shooting 100 or so people in a gay night club after pledging allegiance to a nonsensically misaligned bunch of Islamic extremist groups comes up, we can’t handle it. Instead of a unifying debate about how to solve that type of issue, you have people shouting back and forth at each other the importance of their favorite liberty-specifically, which Constitutional Amendment is more important and which one is only conditionally so.

We actually have a group of people who are responsible for doing that on our behalf though.  It’s called our government.  If you’re looking for a startlingly clear example of the fruits of our poisoned tree of division, start there-our three floundering branches of government.

We have a congress that votes only with their own party at a historically unprecedented level.  Which means that nothing ever gets done because nothing ever gets agreed on. The result is a lack of ability to facilitate basic responsibilities like selecting Supreme Court justices.  Or passing a budget without threat of shut down. Then engine is bogged down. And it spreads to the other branches.

We have eight Supreme Court justices ruling on important issues right now. There’s supposed to be nine.  Because you can’t really have a vote with eight.  It’s like having a best of six games World Series.  It doesn’t work.  Just today, as I wrote this, they came to a four-four tie in ruling on the President’s executive orders on immigration.  And they had to defer their decision to a lesser court.  That’s not the intent of our founders or our people.

And lastly, but by no means least, we have one of the most disheartening presidential elections in the history of our country, where for the first time, we couldn’t muster two suitable candidates to run.  It’s bad.

Our government has actually stopped working.  And not the way that we used to just joke about because sometimes they did things that we disagreed with.  In a literal sense, it no longer facilitates even basic effective outcomes. And that’s where we are in trouble.  Because when we get a real live hard problem, like what to do about the rise of domestic, religiously motivated, firearms perpetrated terrorism, we have no hope. The energy pulls all the thinking into the extreme fringes of the debate leaving the majority of us voiceless and defenseless.  Again, this problem wasn’t there fourteen years ago, at least not the way it is now.

Which takes us to the truly sad outcome of our division. We’re losing this war.  Our enemy is a faceless amorphous body with no resources and no state. We can kill them off. We have, just about all of them.  And they come back in different forms. Because they have the one thing that we don’t-unity of purpose.  It’s horrible.  But simple.  And they all agree. They want to hurt the western way of life.  We, on the other hand, care more about our specific brands of outrage then anything else. Which is why fifteen years into this war, we are worse.  They are the same.  That’s the definition of losing.

The conflict that Lincoln led us through was resolved just as much through legal and legislative action as it was through blood on the battlefield.  We simply can’t do those types of things any more.  And it’s entirely our fault.  The people of America-all of us.

So what do we do?  Perhaps we should put our outrage in one spot.  Outrage that we, as Americans, do not have the ability to do the things we used to, as a civic entity.  Which should be in service to upholding and sustaining the American way of life.  Which means relative safety, prosperity and preservation of liberties-all of them, in as much as they can be preserved and still maintain the other two mandates-life and the pursuit of happiness.  Don’t be outraged at people. Don’t be outraged at opinions. Be outraged at a lack of solutions, not the solution.

If you think that eliminating guns are the answer to reducing domestic terrorism, and your congressmen wasn’t sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, then pick up the phone and complain, and vote differently in November.  If you think that healthcare reform has gone horribly wrong and you’re not happy with the outcomes and your congressmen hasn’t been proactive at forwarding an acceptable alternative, then pick up the phone and complain.  And vote differently in November.  That’s what outcomes based civic responsibility looks like. It’s not pissing and moaning about how awful the humans involved in the process are.   That doesn’t do anything.  And doing is the point.

Democracy is a winning strategy when its participants are unified in their desired outcomes. It’s not, when they can’t be.  We don’t have to agree on politics, but we do have to agree that good, sustainable outcomes for Americans, even the ones not like us, are the goal.  It’s time to stop rooting for or against politicians and start rooting for outcomes. This problem is ours to solve. Because what we have right now, is what losing looks like.  But being behind isn’t the same as losing.  Staying that way is. Five months, until election day.  And we’re all on the clock.  You can it get wrong.  And we will lose.

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.


Binary Republic


Everything you see on this screen is a manifestation of billions of 1’s and 0’s.  It is truly one of the great discoveries of mankind.  If you create a large enough pool of binary inputs, and push those inputs down far enough into the most minute detailed elements of an environment, you can create complex computer programs that can do things. They can store massive amounts of information. They can talk. They can control airplanes and operate nuclear power plants.  They can monitor our health.  They can connect us to other humans.  We can make programs so complex, they actually start to mimic human intelligence.  But at their basic forms, they are still, 1’s and o’s.  Entirely at the mercy of our design.  Because we, as humans, have consciousness and the capacity for original thought. Unlike the programs we create, we are not binary by nature.  We are not forced into a variable of 1 or 0 by our designer.  We are unlimited in our capacity to explore and wonder. Our thoughts are limitless.  If you looked at my social media stream right now though, you wouldn’t know it.

More binary..

Within minutes of the San Bernardino shootings two weeks ago, threads started to appear on my Twitter feed advocating for stricter gun control laws.  As soon as Syed Farook’s name was released as the shooter, the Muslim-o-phobia thread took over.  Within 48 hours we had a burning debate about what was to blame. Was it guns?  Or was it Muslims?  When you really think about it, it’s kind of an odd point-counterpoint.  It’s like choosing between walking to school or taking your lunch.  It’s not really a choice. But it’s how the dialogue went, and still is going weeks later.  Like we have with so many other complex issues,  we’ve boiled it down to a binary debate.   Pick a side: Minorities or cops.  Health  care or liberty. Regulation or economic growth. Abortion or privacy….you get the point. It’s a thing that we do.   But why do we do it, when clearly we are capable of so much more?

Why so binary?

There’s a lot that goes into why we do this.  It’s actually not because most of us really feel this way.  There are forces at work here.  Let’s start with what it’s actually not though; our politicians.  Our politicians aren’t causing the problem.  They’re not helping.  But they’re not why it’s happening.  For the most part, they’re stuck in a somewhat binary loop themselves that they can’t escape from as a function of who they are and what they are charged with doing. They can either be for something, or against it.  They can’t be both.  We may desire to try to squeeze moderation into the mix.  But moderation doesn’t work right now.   Again, it’s not their fault.  There’s massive headwinds to being reasonable in politics.  And it’s not the political machine.  It starts somewhere else.

Our programmers…

Look no further than our $285 Billion media market.  You will hear over and over again that the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court in 2010 is ruining our democratic process by opening up campaign fundraising to corporations and other donors that are eliminating the voice of the people.  It’s become a “boogie man” for all things that are wrong with our political process.  Don’t bite that hook.  It’s a red herring.  I’m not saying we don’t need campaign finance reform.  I’m simply saying that campaign finance processes aren’t doing what we tend to say that they are doing.  Campaign finance money tends to exist in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.  Which sounds like a lot to you and me.  In a vacuum it is. When it comes to moving the needle of national consciousness though, it’s nothing.

Here’s something to consider.  The National Rifle Association, that massive evil empire and ultimate antagonist to democracy, spent $28.2M on campaign contributions in 2014.  It sounds like a ton of money.  In media land though, it’s nothing.  It’s $1.8M less than the cast of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory made during the same time frame.  It’s a million dollars less than the Washington Nationals paid their bullpen in 2015.  Which means that more money gets spent on relief pitching in Washington then gets spent on the gun lobby.  And the Nationals didn’t even make the playoffs.  If you’re going to get the attention of the media market, you don’t do it by throwing $28M at it.  You do it by doing things that American people can’t stop paying attention to.  You do it by driving clicks and ratings.  Because that’s what makes the media work.  And it’s not new.  But it is bigger than any other force in our political system and producing content at a scale never seen before.  And it’s sucking the oxygen out of every reasonable political thought we may have.  So they die.  And we’re left with what’s left.  Point and counter-point.  A 1 and a 0.  We’re being programmed.

The Human Binary…

We are addicted to outrage and conflict.  That part isn’t new.  Just like computer programs, outrage and conflict work best when you can focus them on the least amount of variables.  Clearly, you can’t have outrage and conflict with one perspective.  You need at least two.  And more than two is really hard to package.  It’s why team sports work so well. It’s why we have “pairings” for pro golf tournaments on the final day.    It’s why the main good guy has to kill the main bad guy in the end.  It doesn’t work if the villain dies in an unfortunate cycling accident en route to the gun fight. There’s no drama in that.   Conflict is delivered and consumed easiest in twos.  One against the other.  Good and evil…right and wrong.  Conservative and liberal…It’s what we’ll watch.  It’s what we’ll click on.

Here’s the problem with that.  These issues we’re debating aren’t sports and entertainment.  The media serves them up like they are, but they’re not. People’s lives are impacted by them.  These things matter but we’re not entirely sure how to differentiate them from entertainment.  We don’t have to settle for it though.  In fact, this stuff is too important to settle for it. We need to demand more of ourselves.

We’ve evolved past our basic nature in many ways.  When our urge for conflict was harder to feed, before the information age, when you had to go find someone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about in order to engage in debate, we did this better. As a result, our political machine was less polarized and more effective.  There’s good news here though.  We did this once. And we can do it again.  Because doing it is actually  pretty easy.  All you have to do is break the binary code. Break the programming.

What we have to be willing to do better to be better at what we need to be better at?

You can do that with the most powerful thing that we have, that computers don’t; good old fashioned human curiosity.  The greatest force the world has ever seen is our ability to wonder about something.  Wondering leads to questions.  Questions are most useful when we ask them to inform what we want to know instead of consume answers to other questions that are fed to us before we ask them.  When it comes to critical societal issues, there’s one great question you can ask to break the binary code.  One basic infinitely powerful question.

What outcome do you seek for this issue?

If you can try to refrain from jumping to what you believe is right and what is wrong, what you identify with and what you can’t, who is agreeing with you and who isn’t and answer that first magical question to identify the outcome you want for an issue, you’re on your way.   If we paused and did this in aftermath of San Bernardino, we would be two weeks into a much more productive debate.  Here’s what it might look like.

What do we want out of a resolution to the issue of radical Islamic terrorism?  I believe that the answer is that we want Americans to be safe.  Not just from Islamic terrorists. We want Americans to be safe…period.  Which means we have to spend a little time on defining safe.  One question leads to the next important one here.  Are we safe?  Relatively?

We would have to lose 15,000 people this year to radical Islamic terrorist attacks or gun violence to match the per-capita murder rate in 1992.  That’s how far violent crime has dropped in the last 25 years.   That’s about five more 9/11 attacks, this year.  Or, three San Bernardino attacks every day, for the whole year.  Just to get to 1992.  I remember 1992.  It wasn’t that horrible.  That’s not to say that this isn’t a problem. Or that we should be satisfied with backsliding to relatively more violent times.   Every single person who has lost someone will grieve forever at the individual tragedy they’ve suffered.  Nothing I can say can help that.  But if what we want is for Americans to be safe, it helps to understand how close we are to that goal.  The truth is, we’re kind of there already.  No matter what the media tells us.  The facts are clear. We’ve never been safer.

Now what?

We’ve broken the code. Our curious minds have taken us outside of the boundaries of the scripted debate.  Once you do it, you may never go back.  Because it becomes painfully clear that most of what we hear is just binary code programmed into our daily focus to drive a behavior that benefits those that provide it to us. It’s not designed for an outcome.  In fact, it’s designed to keep the debate alive.  It’s designed for clicks and ratings. You can choose to be a machine and follow it blindly.  Or be a human being and ask your own questions.  When you get to that point where you can decide what you want from something,  try to remember that there are a lot principles that we Americans hold dear as a part of our culture.  Not every one holds the same importance for every person.  When you are standing on a burning platform of outrage,  it’s important to understand if it’s actually on fire or not.  Otherwise you’re doing things like trampling on religious tolerance or threatening Constitutional rights because someone coded the debate for you ahead of time.  And we can be better than that.