I’ve been holding my tongue on the latest round of deadly ISIS attacks for some time. The reaction that has swept the Internet (and, often unfortunately, the real world) has been an overwhelming tapestry that alternately inspires, disgusts, fascinates, angers, saddens, and gladdens me. Everybody on the whole Internet is out grinding out free content on this tragedy, ensuring that the aftermath of this tragedy will make a lot of money for Facebook shareholders. Do ISIS agents hold a lot of shares in Facebook and Twitter? Because the swarm of uncompensated, crowdsourced punditry for all the social-and-web-media megacorps would have made them a hefty operating budget. Mr. Rogers, in the aftermath of a tragedy, advises us to “look for the helpers“—but it never hurts to keep a skeptical eye out for the profiteers, either.
But as the timbre of this massive global conversation changes—as it skews toward hostility, punctuated by increasingly inhumane, ill-aimed, ill-informed, and deadly talking points—I feel there’s something that needs to be said with conviction and clarity, by someone. I’m only sad that I haven’t seen someone else say it yet:
I am not afraid.
Of course, I have less reason to be than some. I’m living comfortably in Canada, far away from the hotspots of sectarian conflict, in relative prosperity. I may be broke, but I’m not even close to “refugee broke.” I may fear for my freedoms, but not to a sliver of the extent that Syrian refugees are. But the special privilege and protections I enjoy haven’t stopped other people—millions and millions of them—from being afraid. So afraid, that they’ve burned down the Mosque of Peace in Peterborough. So afraid that they’ve gang-beaten a Muslim woman picking up her young children from school. So afraid that a Spanish newspaper printed a photo of a Sikh Canadian in a Photoshopped suicide vest, supporting my deepening hypothesis that fact-checking matters far more, now, to the average blogger than it does to many in professional journalism.
In light of these troubling developments, and in a desperate attempt to stop the terror attacks in Beirut and Paris short of the complete success we are awarding them with our reaction, I have written the piece below. It’s part manifesto, part open letter to a bigoted public, part plea to every thinking, human being who has to share the world with good people, and with terrorists—and worst of all, with good people who are at risk of becoming terrorists if we continue to speak and act the way that terrorism expects and demands of us.
Feel free to share the words below if they’re of help to you or someone you know, as long as you credit me. I would like to live in a world where more people can admit the same, and with the same conviction.
I AM NOT AFRAID
I am not afraid.
I am not afraid of our immigrants and refugees. I am not a victim of terrorism, and I’m truly sorry for every cringing Westerner on social media right now whose kindness and goodwill have been shattered, perhaps for ever, by these terror attacks. These pitiable, cowering Islamophobes have been made the truest victims of terrorism. They’re a textbook example of how terror attacks work. The victims of terror are not confined to the blast radius. Those who respond to these tragedies with hatred, who thirst for blood, who pay the violence forward indiscriminately, who shut their hearts to the pleas of the needy because they are terrified—those are the victims of terrorism, as much and probably more than those who were victims of mere violence, a violence whose primary (and sadly successful) purpose was to attack the kindness and goodwill of the whole Western world.
As vulgar as it sounds, ISIS killed those people as a means to an end; and you and I, dear reader, are that end. You and I and all the rest of us in the West are the main event. Through those victims, through the terrible carnage and the suffering of their families, ISIS is speaking directly to you, in a language that needs no translation. And the people who have responded with hatred and intolerance, who have shut their borders to refugees, who have been hostile to innocent Muslims or to any vaguely non-Christian faith that looks like Islam to the grossly uninformed, have heard ISIS loud and clear, and answered back, and given them the answer they were looking for.
So my answer to ISIS, and to the poor, cowering, weak-willed wretches who empower them, is simply this: the one answer they cannot tolerate.
I am not afraid.
Fear is a sign that they’re more effective now than they’ve ever been. Your Fear is a green light to terrorists: “It’s working. Keep it up.” To those who have responded with cold and closed hearts, with prejudice, with unfounded suspicion, with open hostility: you, my terrified friends, you were the real target of those terror attacks—not those poor souls martyred in Beirut (and in Paris, the city most of you in the West really care about). The terrorists only hurt those people to get to you. And your reaction is proof positive that they succeeded.
I will say again: I am not afraid of these people. I am also not afraid of Muslim-Canadians. I am not afraid of immigrants, or refugees. Our Muslim friends need to hear that from somebody—and so do our shared enemies. Fear is a sign that their tactics are working. Every one of us who fails to quake in terror is a sign that the terrorists have failed.
Now, you may say it is foolhardy not to be afraid. What you really mean is that you’re afraid something horrible will happen to me, and you want me to be afraid too. Maybe, someday, I will be sitting in a theater or a public square and get blown up. Shouldn’t I be afraid of that? After all, if I get blown up, it’ll be because I haven’t lived my life cowering in what you consider to be enough fear. Perhaps I’ll pay for my commitment to basic human decency with my life.
I accept that, and I’ve made my peace with it. If being blown to smithereens is the price I pay for living a life without terror, so be it. Blow me up. Load my wallet up with Semtex right now and tell me when it’s time to write the cheque. I, like the people in Beirut and Paris, will die as a victim of chemistry, as a victim of the natural laws of ballistic physics. I will die as they died—a victim of violence.
But it’s you, not poor little exploded me, who will go to your graves as the true victims of terror. The only victims of terror are those who have taken the terror they were given, and let it make lesser people of them. Even under threat of death I refuse to be one of them.
I am not afraid. All the self-destructing idiots in the world will not make me so. Not with all the Semtex and C-4 in the world. Not with all the airtime and attention CNN seems happy to give them. Not with all the cruel things people are saying on social media entirely on behalf of terrorism whether they know it or not.
I’m going about my day with a marginally sharpened awareness that if so many people are afraid, we’re not doing enough to combat terrorists. We need tactical and strategic and logistical ways to dismantle their engines of hate. Education can do that. Support and human kindness can do it. I’ll even admit that military action can, in the right (and limited) circumstances. But this terror I see growing in people helps no one. It serves terrorism alone.
If we don’t have strong enough conviction to accept being blown up as the price we must pay for our values, I don’t know how the hell we expect to stand up to people who do have that strength. It’s not their bombs or their cruelty we’re lacking. It’s their conviction. When we face down a suicide bomber of innocent civilians, what we really confront is the horrific idea that the vilest inhumanity of which we are capable is a value system worth dying for. We face that idea enshrined in our enemies’ absolute conviction, a conviction unto death. Call it madness or brainwashing if you like, but that’s what suicide bombers are armed with: conviction unto death. They believe their mission of violence and brutality is worth dying for. And until we believe that a world free from terror, a world of peace, is worth dying for—not fighting for, not killing for, but dying for—then we really are weaker than them.
The day we fail to match that fatal conviction, the day we let their conviction intimidate us away from our own values, is the day we have surrendered to terrorism. The day we turn away women and children at the border because they might be terrorists, in spite of a stringent screening policy, is the day we say to ISIS: “Well sure, we believe in humanity, in kindness, in caring for our fellow human beings. We believe in responding to conflict with love. But hell, no: unlike you, we don’t care so much about human decency that we’re willing to risk getting hurt over it.”
Cowardice has nothing to do with your willingness to hurt someone else; it’s your willingness to get hurt that matters. It doesn’t mean throwing yourself romantically into physical peril to satisfy some narcissistic dragonslayer myth. Cowardice and courage have to do with whether you will abandon your core principles at the first sign of personal cost. Cowardice is what we exemplify when we claim to value human life when convenient, yet leave people to almost certain death rather than absorb a disproportionately small risk to ourselves to save them.
Or in too many cases, rather than even tolerate their presence without pre-emptively harming them.
Cowardice is not just a situation that occurs on battlefields. It’s occurring right now in our communities. It’s the correlative silent partner of terrorism. It’s the factor that terror attacks are calculated to draw out of us, and it’s the quality within us that makes us direct contributors to the success of terrorism.
I am not afraid. I will not be tricked into fearing or hating good people at the behest of terrorists abroad, nor at the behest of their silent partners, the cowards at home. I will not be coerced into unkindness. I will not be hateful to my neighbour because the quivering victims of terror demand it. I am not a victim of terror, and no weapon in the great arsenal of terrorism, not even death itself, will make me so.
I will remember the violence and the harm done by terrorists. I will remember the suffering and loss. I will mourn the dead, and seek the punishment of the guilty. But outside of those things, I do not acknowledge the existence of terror. It has no purchase in my heart; it does not control my actions; it does not influence my thinking. I will maintain a healthy fear of violence and the people who do it. But that’s all any terrorist is to me from this day forward: a lowly violencist. Violence is the only weapon they have left; their terror means nothing to me. A terrorist without terror is not harmless, but he is far more harmless.
The difference between a terrorist with terror on his side, and one without, is as stark as that between the shadowy monsters that menace us in the bedrooms of our childhood nightmares, and a dirty shirt draped over a chair that casts no shadow.
No more shadows. No more nightmares. I will see terrorism for what it is: vulgar, stupid men, most of whom live very far away from me, who are utterly powerless through any tool in the world save violence, and whose efforts to spread hate are not something to which I will contribute, no matter how many of my countrymen unwittingly join forces with them in this.
All they can do, the only thing they have left in their impoverished little toolbox, is senseless killing. And as far as that killing goes, they can’t even keep up with drunk drivers. Literally, their very best-trained warriors, honed in battle and utterly prepared to give their lives to do us harm, are not capable of killing Westerners on purpose nearly as fast as our slovenly incompetent drunkards are capable of doing entirely by accident.
My only fear is not for myself, but (quite rationally) for the refugees. They are being massacred in huge numbers by ISIS, who count on our cowardice to stop us from helping those people. They want us to believe that we will suffer the same fate if we get involved. But in reality, we in the West are extraordinarily well-protected, even if our news media doesn’t want us to think so, even if every company that capitalizes on our fear doesn’t want us to know it. In the US, Canada, and the UK—and let’s add France to the mix, just to give ISIS a fighting chance—we lose more people to autoerotic asphyxiation than we do to terrorism. Statistics like that do not support the man who pushed a Muslim woman into the path of an oncoming train.
I would sooner die in a suicide bombing, today, tomorrow, any day, than live with the kind of mad, animal terror that must have been at work in that man’s head.
Every one of us is going to die. Most of us will go of some unfortunate medical problem, of the sort that might have been cured if the United States had put $1.7 trillion into medical research since 2001, which it instead spent on its “war on terror.” The statistics say that since 9/11, only 26 Americans have been killed by self-proclaimed Islamicist terrorists. But we always forget the hundreds of thousands of deaths due to medical causes that could have been prevented; we forget the hundreds of thousands who die in poverty or starvation or exposure, who might have been saved. Terrorists have a part to play in every one of these deaths, too, because cowards who direct billions of dollars allow them to.
I will not let my terror contribute to the invisible casualties of terrorism. I reject the kind of terror that tricks frightened people into making bad and short-sighted decisions. I refuse to be an accomplice in the unspeakable damage that terrorism does to us, the lion’s share of which comes not to those dead on the battlefield, but to those who die afterwards on train tracks, in alleys, in shelters, in hospitals.
Everyone remembers FDR’s famous words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. ” But they forget the definition that follows it: “fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” That is certainly the weapon ISIS brings to bear in the hopes that it’ll become the tool by which they manipulate a Western world to vast and overpowering to be overcome by direct force. Like the ring through the horn of a bull, it certainly seems to be doing the trick. But as a sovereign individual, I choose to opt out of that terror, to go about my business with a rational mind, and to combat the “unreasoning, unjustified terror” we’ve been plunged into wherever I see it in others. If we are at least halfway awake while we look for it, we will see it’s not that hard to find.
The tragic deaths of many people across the Atlantic must not be dismissed or downplayed. But we must stop viewing these three-digit fatalities as if they are the true objective of groups like ISIS. Their targets number not in the hundreds, nor thousands, nor millions, but in the billions; and as soon as our dead are buried and our surivors bandaged, we must look to all those insidious terror-wounds which go unacknowledged, unspoken, and dangerously unhealed. We must look to those millions who have had the kindness and trust and human decency blown out of them. We must look to those whose capacities for reason and mercy and empathy have been violently severed. We must look to those whose televisions have brought an unstoppable war zone into their homes for the past fifteen years. We must see the fear in them, and love them who bear it, but loathe the growth of it within them.
We must help ourselves, and others, not to be afraid.
The West will no doubt respond violently and swiftly to ISIS. The men with guns and bombs are in for an unpleasant time. They will destabilize over time, or lose influence on the world stage, as the Taliban or Al-Qaeda before them, and some other group will take their place. That group will probably adopt similar tactics of terror, because every blunderous move we are making in response is proof positive to them that terrorism works. No doubt after a few more innocent lives are lost, the cycle of fighting men with guns and bombs will continue. And for the most part, in spite of our losses, that’s a war we are holding our own in.
It ought to be time, sooner than we think, to reconsider that our “war on terror” has been co-opted into a “war on men with guns and bombs.” That one’s chugging along well enough that it’s time we reconsidered what terror is, and what it means to fight it.
A war on terror, after all, ought to be a war on fear—on the self-destructive, anti-human effects of our own mad, rampant fears. In spite of it all, the war on fear, right now, is the only war we are spectacularly losing.
I am not afraid. I reject the shared belief in human wickedness that informs those people in Syria—and those in the West—who work together to deprive these refugees of home, safety, and dignity. I refuse to let cowardice guide my actions or curb my acceptance of the unfamiliar. I am prepared to put my trust in human goodness, both my own goodness and the essential goodness of others. I am prepared, almost by default, to lay down my life for these principles, because a life without them is a stunted and ugly thing, a ghastly shadow of a human life, and hardly worth living at all.