Beyond Categorical Terrorism

Kudos to Rachel Maddow for blurring out the face, and refusing to repeat the name, of the young man suspected of joining a prayer service in South Carolina for the purpose of killing the leadership of a congregation with two centuries of leadership on behalf of equality for Africans and African-Americans in this country (USA). When I say I hope other media will repeat this technique,  my hope rests not in personal repugnance, but in the deepest roots of my religious tradition.

Several decades ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association introduced a program called “Beyond Categorical Thinking,” with the intention of teaching us adherents to look beyond the superficials of race, gender, age, economic status, cultural heritage, gender identity, sexual orientation — anything you can see on the surface — in order to open ourselves to a deeper kind of listening. Heart to heart. Dream to dream. Pain to Pain. Idea to idea. Fact to fact.

Twenty years later, or whatever it has been, neuroscience underscores the role of such aspirations when it comes to social choices. Instinctively, we feel more defensive in proximity to someone who looks or sounds different from ourselves. Despite our best intentions, when someone restates a known lie in order to rebut its truth, our ears reinforce the lie and tune out the negation. And reflexively, before our rational mind can flick its switch, the dominant parts of our brain light up — these being our temperaments, our primary intelligences — whenever we engage a situation, actively or passively. “You always say that!” pouts our teenage offspring. “Why do you pull back?” inquire our therapists. So it does take work — constant self-monitoring and recommitment — to get outside our comfort zone, and, just as crucial, to shut down inner messages which say, “Here, and here only, is where you belong.”

Happily, the same neuroscience that seems to doom us to autopilot has discovered that the brain itself is plastic. That doesn’t mean it leaves nasty little fish-killing beads in our waterways, but the other kind of plastic, the one that means “constantly open to reshaping.” Researchers looking into “cures” for stroke — not unlike educators trying to help young people become the first member of their family to graduate from high school — have discovered that constant repetition of necessary practices can teach the brain to work differently. At first, the necessary practice must be guided externally. Even young people nowadays might find themselves in closely-monitored physical therapy for a month or two, pushing an ankle to point a different direction, sweeping our arms in strange directions to strengthen our rotator cuffs. Meanwhile, what’s really happening is that up in our heads, our basal ganglia are telling other parts of the brain to set up new functional arrangements. (This even works with my wife’s Stage Four Huntington’s Disease, which is why this blog has suffered from neglect: she’s had to learn to walk again after a serious fall in October. But walk she can.)

But I digress. Back to Rachel Maddow’s commendable media leadership. The first step in making room for new habits is to get out of old ones. She used her media space to deny this man the fame he sought among a particular population.

The first step we must take as a society is to remove all content labels from extremist acts. To deny them the theological, racial, cultural stature they seek is the first step in undercutting their attractiveness to a generation raised on selfies and Instagram. Whether they commit their crimes in the Middle East or Midwest, in the name of Anglo-Saxon purity or theological puritanism, let their message and faces vanish. Assign them numbers and dates, the way we mark our wedding anniversaries and birthdays. Put them on a map, yes — but say no more than “another murder in Texas” or “another suicide bomber in Ramadi.” Name their weapons and other tools — but only so peaceseekers can more clearly see a “how” that we can manage.

For most of the six decades of my life, I’ve found some kind of pleasure in studying English history. The first thing we have to learn is that the so-called English Civil War included religion-based beheadings and burnings, massive destruction of sacred artworks, and send generations of Roman Catholics into underground worship (from which they fled to Maryland). Yet at the same time, over in Africa, some tribal leaders were waging wars whose purpose was capturing prisoners to sell to English merchants anchored in ancient port cities from which scholars and monarchs had once sailed in grandeur that Europeans hoped to appropriate. Extremism finds most of its victims among its own kind.

So let us remove the faces, the theologies, the ideologies of extremism. White folks do it and white folks fight it. Members of other races and ideologies do it, and in those same communities are tireless opponents of those miscreants.

It’s time for Unitarian Universalism — a religion of the Enlightenment tools of research and reason — to step into wider frameworks with that old theme of getting “beyond categorical thinking.” Yes, we need to combat misdeeds with information about the how, the where, the what. But let our “who” be blandly demographic and our “why” couched not in terms of  theology — that most misused of sciences — but neurological and sociological verities.

Terrorism and Family Ties Call for New Forms of Policing

That two pairs of brothers succeeded in most recent western-based acts of terrorism would not have surprised Oscar Handlin. In The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, he observes that the nuclear family — which had not been preeminent in the previous world of interrelated but subtly separable networks of business, religion, clan, and recreation — emerges, in a new milieu where all these ties are severed, as the most durable social unit. This survival forces it to over-function. A wife might once have been able to chat with grandmothers, sisters, aunts, mother, mother-in-law, neighbors about domestic matters: separation from clan and country forces her to engage these topics with her husband. He, in turn, no longer has uncles, father, grandfathers, cousins, neighbors on whom he can rely, for conversation, for job referrals, for temporary asset transfers.

What he has left, in a patrilocal culture, is his brothers. Sisters leave home upon marriage, but brothers don’t move far from the nest. In the old countries, where people married without leaving the neighborhood or village, this didn’t impact the women as dramatically as it does in western countries. To a large extent, it is trust in brothers, uncles, and cousins (everyone rejects their parents in adolescence) that maintains what little social and economic durability a young man in a foreign country can use.

This explains how intelligence services missed the maturation of these murder plans. When terrorism becomes a family activity, the usual warning opportunities vanish. Most importantly, by eschewing a search for allies, family-based terrorism escapes the risk of failed or frightened allies who drop that dime. Secondly, they do not need a neutral semi-public meeting place, not even a separate safe house. Think of the 9/11 terror cells: a key requirement was the ability to avoid all broken windows policing. Think about why US intelligence quit watching Tamerlane Tsarnaev and French intelligence quit following the Quoereses: in both instances, as planning became more intensive, the terrorists left public view. Clearly they were focusing on family relationships, and sentimentalist assumptions in western culture concluded that they must have given up terrorist ideas and activities.

Eating home-cooked meals and having children has usually been associated with hope for personal longevity, not martyrdom. This tautology no longer applies to every “person of interest”. It would take personal information about each individual to understand why, but clearly, for quite a few, domestic bliss holds a poor candle compared to the bright lights of reconquering a despoiled homeland and regaining or improving the social standing one’s parents threw away by emigrating.

It could well be that while they live in western nations, these young men suffer intense humiliation with each instance of belittlement visited on the women and children they love. It could well be that some of these young men firmly believe that only terrorism will open the door to better social status for their sons and daughters, their faith, their language. If so, as with union militancy in our own US decades of economic turmoil, violence becomes not a rejection of family love, but an affirmation of it. I hate that thought, and do not advance it. But history cannot be denied, and this is what union terrorists once said.

I have often thought the the US has such a high divorce rate because of the way our voluntary emigrants turned their back on wider family ties. To this I now add a potential second form of blowback: socially marginalized families maintain enough trust to build complex plans for terrorism without dropping hints or leaving clues in the public square.

Has Oscar Handlin’s Moment Finally Come?

When Harvard scholar Oscar Handlin published, in 1951, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People, his book won the usual praise and criticism. Unlike so many other academic headliners, though, it also won the Pulitzer Prize and repeated reissues, most recently, in 2002, by the University of Pennsylvania Press. I used to occasionally see Professor Handlin, than an emeritus who had the private study next to the emeritus for whom I happily researched. It is remarkable how little these men in their 80s could be recognized as lions of cultural commentary. Yet Handlin’s book might be more relevant today than it was in 1951. He argued that generations of alienation followed most large waves of immigration, but critics of his era rightly pointed out that the prosperity and cultural integration occasioned by World War II vitiated this problem. But now, with that prosperity and cultural integration decisively in decline, Handlin’s analysis stands up to the current spotlight: recent immigrants, from different countries and to countries other than ours, hold up well to his descriptions.

Recently I purchased this book for a close re-reading. What hit me most immediately was the poetic, almost cinematic, flow of words with which Handlin seduces as much as he persuades. Most of his evocations describe sepia-colored museum displays of Eastern European pastoral cultures that have mostly vanished from the memories of the living and do not resemble the lands vomiting forth new refugees. But his core analysis remains a solidly welded iron framework on which new surface materials easily graft.

Handlin says this:

Immigrants left behind a cohesive and interwoven, almost magically immersive, culture, and thrust themselves into a social environment where nothing was what it appeared to be. Nor. in the new realm, do verbal descriptions and prescriptions set out clear paths to success. This instills loneliness, but also confusion. Against both these sorrows, ancestral religion counterposes connection, security, and order.

Hold that thought for a moment, because I contend that it marks the place where the alienation of the nativist — the person who insists that being born in a country ought, in itself, to count for something — meets the social and religious desperation of the immigrant. Handlin’s point about religion’s tangibility closely match the psychological experience of economically marginalized nativist fundamentalists. Marine LePen has more in common with the Islamists than she has with satirists and scientists. In the Cincinnati of my young adulthood, the widespread registration of African American voters horrified the LGBT community by electing a preacher who had no doubt that all of us were going to burn in hell. Being a member of the liberal clergy, this pairing bothers me. Some of my sympathy is with those who advocate the equality of faith and reason, even as my reason and faith unite to protest either reason or faith, when they call for the death, the inequality, the marginalization of other people.

But that’s my personal quandary. What Handlin offers the present situation, with an urgency unknown since the 1920s and 1930s, is how the immigration experience — even when it succeeds economically — continues as a trauma for the second generation. Young people always want to know where they came from. They want their parents to have stature. So the second generation of immigrants, seeing the belittlement of their parents, look to the old world with some hope that going back would restore the family’s grandeur. Handlin eloquently, poignantly, describes this exploration as an unfolding of disillusionment. The photos show buildings, farms, families, even clothing and cars, that cannot compare to what the second generation now understands as home.

Here’s where Handlin jumped off the page at me:

He contends that in these circumstances, it is the second generation that works hardest to reinforce the religious or cultural heritage that proved transportable, transplantable. It is all they have left of their family stature, their elder-wisdom. And if the new country gives them no additional forms of stature, of wisdom, their need for this vestigial wealth grows all the more desperate. If they cannot make it work in their new country, and the homeland looks fluid, undefended, perhaps they can restore its old order in their time.

So now, let’s think again about these alienated Muslim young people. Their old countries are not just dirtier, less free, anarchically governed — things that might lead them to cut those ties — but most visibly, these nations have been invaded. Bombed. Despoiled by greedy outsiders. Given the comforts many of these countries enjoyed in recent memory, how easy for an unsettled young adult to blame the foreign bombers, the foreign corporations, rather than the domestic elites who invited in the plunderers and bartered the national abundance to put themselves in the global rich. There’s a movie that shows this process in action, but a young adult who hears western politicians sneer at his parents, who must remove her religious clothing under government edict, probably has no heart for damning information about people who look, who worship like her. She or he wants revenge against those who destroyed the only option that now seems most attractive: a return to the land of one’s grandparents, to relax into that magical, unified cosmos.

Perhaps this will sound like an apology for terrorism. That’s the last thing I intend. But as a religious woman, I sympathize with sisters not allowed to wear religious clothing in public. As a person with family ties to places despoiled by war (Germany, Poland, China), I know what it is to yearn for landmarks that no longer stand.

The iconoclasts of Charlie Hebdo did not deserve to die for their indiscriminate anti-religiosity. But neither do the women and men and children of the new Muslim diaspora deserve to disappear behind a haze of bullets and bombs cast by the worst members of their own communities. My own faith is Unitarian Universalism, which calls on me, today, in pain and anger, to remember the dignity and soul of people rendered marginal by outrage among their own.