What do we do about Terrorism?

The threat of terrorism is growing around the world. Sometimes it seems that we’re living through an age unlike any other, but something I read recently points to the cyclic nature of history.

I picked up a small volume at a used-book sale that contains a collection of accounts from colonial Vermont and New Hampshire, describing the settlers’ confrontations with the Native-Americans. This was the ur-terrorism of the New World. What must it have been like to be living with your family in a log cabin in a small settlement in an endless forest with nothing but a single-shot rifle for protection, and have gangs of people who hate you lurking in the woods, waiting for a chance to cut your throat and take your scalp as a trophy–a sickening, barbaric practice if ever there was one. The warriors would attack, kill some, and take the rest prisoners—men, women, and children—marching them over the mountains in all weathers to their villages in Canada where, if they survived, they might be tied to a stake and mutilated as part of an amusement for the tribe, with the object being to inflict the maximum amount of pain while prolonging the moment of death. These were the terrorists of the 18th century, and the courage it took to live in the wilderness should never be forgotten.

Of course not all of the Native-Americans were out for blood, and some of the whites were equally as adept at terrorizing the Native-Americans, in fact Columbus found a peaceful people, the Arawaks (Taíno), in the Caribbean, and began a process of enslavement and genocide that ended with their extinction as an ethnic group within 100 years. But let’s not forget either, that this was not just a struggle of Europeans against Native-Americans. The various tribes of North America fought and tortured each other long before the whites arrived, some of them happily destroying entire villages and absorbing the survivors into their own families.

So let’s recognize that our ancestors, both Native-Americans and Europeans, fought the same kind of terrorism we’re facing now and go the next step and ask how that earlier threat ended. The answer would be:

1) wiping out villages (i.e., killing everyone)

2) eradicating their food supplies (including the buffalo in the 19th century to deal with the Plains Indians) and forcing them on to reservations

3) “civilizing” them by converting them to Christianity.

No one is going to support 1 in this century, 2 is problematic because would-be terrorists often live among us now, not in separate areas, so that leaves 3.   Just what the Islamic world was afraid of—a Christianizing crusade against them.

But what if we draw up our campaign along different lines?   In my book I suggest there are “universal sacraments”—aspects of life that are sacred, not because a God said they were, but because by honoring them, we become as human as we can be—we find our “higher selves.” Death is a sacrament, but the cult of death is an abomination.   Using terrorism as a weapon to sow fear in a civilian population and targeting innocent people in order to create chaos should be something everyone rejects, no matter what God you serve.

If we could all agree to that and agree we must teach our children that, we could then go on to the root of the problem: how to create a just world where the inevitable conflicts can be solved peacefully. It should be at the top of the list of things children learn.  But I would suggest that this kind of thing is almost never taught in any school in the United States. Am I wrong?

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