First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
How to Fight Terrorism
Rev.Samuel A. Trumbore November 3,2002



Spoken Meditation


(from the journal of Deborah Dewey (member of our congregation),who began sailing about a year ago. describing a sailing adventure in October 2002)


We departed from Annapolis in rain, but not strong storm conditions.  Within 24 hours, we emerged from the mouth of the Chesapeake through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal into Delaware Bay, and that entire picture had changed.  The weather was now ugly as we entered Delaware Bay.  It became harrowing as the tail end of Hurricane Kyle battered us with 12 foot waves in roiling seas.  We were slammed down and sideways both.  Facing these conditions while trying to maintain a course was probably hindered by the darkness, and the ability to only see as far as one wave on either side of us.  Of course, this also meant that we could not see any other vessels that were in the area, or any landmarks, lighthouses or buoys for guidance.  This left us with only the handheld GPS and our compass for our use in setting and maintaining our position and course under intense storm conditions.  As we took watches at the helm, we wore a harness and tether so that we would not be washed overboard and lost at sea.  Had anyone been washed overboard, we would not have been able to locate  and retrieve them in the conditions we were experiencing. We lost all communications, including contact with the other two boats traveling the same route.  We endured these conditions for about 24 hours as we continued our voyage up the coast of New Jersey.  Once my watch was over, I realized what true powers of concentration one can sustain when really needed.


By the time we reached Sandy Hook, the conditions had moderated. We emerged into the quiet and almost still waters of New York Harbor.  I was lucky with the timing of my watch (9pm to midnight), and stood at the helm for the incredible passage of the boat into New York Harbor, under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and up to the Statue of Liberty.  This was an awesome experience in the old-fashioned sense of the word.  All hands were on deck, the bridge was brilliantly lit, and the waterway was surprisingly quiet.  We made the passage with only the minimum of speaking necessary to ensure that we did not run aground or into any of the extremely large freighters or barges with which we shared the waterway.  It was an experience both shared and individual at the same time, in stark contrast to the wild seas we'd previously experienced.  As we continued up the East River, and observed vessels of  varying size and purpose, we realized that virtually anyone could sail into New York Harbor. One small motorboat with a blue flashing light passed by us, but did not stop and board us or make radio contact.  We assumed this to be a police boat, but couldn't see it adequately to be sure.


We have gotten accustomed to building security checks and airport security checks, but there is little obvious policing of the waterways surrounding New York City.  We then realized our real vulnerability.  It was a sobering and frightening revelation for us all.




I was moved when I first heard Deborah Dewey describe her experience of entering the New York Harbor and passing the Statue of Liberty.  The horror of September 11th followed by the relative calm of the last few months has lulled many of us into the feeling of having found a safe harbor from terrorism.  In reality, strong and powerful as this nation is, we are terribly vulnerable to attack.


Now imagine sitting in the White House and feeling the burden of the security of this nation on your shoulders.  Imagine listening to the catalogue of threats we face from outside and inside our borders reeled off to you by your military advisors.  Nation states hungry for nuclear weapons scouring the world for parts and plutonium; chemists in hidden laboratories stockpiling biological and chemical weapons; men and women, even children, despairing of any quality of life on this planet, angered by oppression, deciding to blow themselves up and seeking a better life in the hereafter; and so-called allies unwilling to share the burden of addressing these concerns. 


A decade after the end of the Cold War, we are now seeing the emerging new world order taking shape.  Today our enemies are not large nation states like Russia or China.  Even small nation states like Libya, Yemen and the Sudan that used to harbor terrorists have seen they can no longer polarize against us and not feel our wrath after September 11th.  We have the most powerful military on the planet by far and therefore have become the defacto police officer of the world.  Today's greatest threats are small terrorist organizations with access to weapons of mass destruction.  The question policy makers are wrestling with is how do we deal with this new world order?


I'm not sure activists on the left or the right of the political spectrum have really been willing to address this new reality and the need to adapt our ideas to it.  The NRA types want to continue to be able to stockpile guns not realizing that domestic terrorists, like the sniper in Washington DC, can take full advantage of this protection to get access to the weapons of terror.  On the other side, the peace activists of the Viet Nam era want to reframe today's conflicts in the old language of anti-war rhetoric.  Both sides tend to want to take old ideas and recast them to fit the new threat environment.  I think we need to come up with new ideas to respond creatively to new conditions.


What is different about today is the capacity and willingness of small groups, even single individuals, to wield tremendous power.  Terrorism has existed for a very, very long time.  In Biblical times, the Zealots terrorized the Romans.  The Vikings terrorized the British and Irish sea coasts.  The Native Americans terrorized settlers on the frontiers.  What is new today is their capacity to inflict harm.  Instead of a knife, spear, arrow or sword, a small band of terrorists can unleash weapons of mass destruction that can kill thousands.  Airplanes, trains, trucks, boats, even envelopes can become the delivery mechanisms.


Is all this talk of terrorism starting to make you a little anxious?  Is it stimulating your concern about your mortality, your fear of death perhaps?  What are you willing to give up to feel secure again?  An increase in taxes to strengthen our national defense?  A few civil rights perhaps?  What is it worth to you, what will you pay, what will you sacrifice to protect your family from harm?


The fear of death is a central driving force of human psychology.  This was the powerful insight of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker.  He believed that this fear of death that underlies human aggression is a byproduct of self-awareness, of being a creature aware of its own mortality.  Kierkegaard saw self-awareness as a two-edged sword.  Its gift was the awesomeness of the experience of knowing that you know.  Its curse is the terror of knowing that someday that knowing will come to an end.


As we might remember from how we felt on September 11th, that feeling of being intensely aware of one's vulnerability without facing an actual threat is extremely unpleasant.  If you have any doubt, reflect on what life was like in Washington, DC before they caught the sniper.  Becker proposed that to cope with the awareness of the possibility of our demise, it must be denied and pushed to the fringes of consciousness.  An inability to suppress this fear of death becomes disabling.


Terrorism would not work if we didn't have this vulnerability built into our consciousness.  Small acts of violence can affect several orders of magnitude more people than the actual victims.  Mass media amplifies the effects to an even larger audience.  The 24-hour news cycle can drive us insane.


Into this highly reactive and fearful environment, the rational conversation about how to fight terrorists with access or potential access to weapons of mass destruction struggles to begin.


Our President has begun that conversation in his National Security Council Strategy published on the White House web site.  He claims the policies of deterrence, based on the idea of mutually assured destruction, can no longer be effective with a "rogue" state or a stateless terrorist organization.  Bush put it in these words:


The gravest danger to freedom lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology.  When the spread of chemical and biological and nuclear weapons, along with ballistic missile technology—when that occurs, even weak states and small groups could attain a catastrophic power to strike great nations.  Our enemies have declared this very intention, and have been caught seeking these terrible weapons. They want the capability to blackmail us, or to harm us, or to harm our friends—and we will oppose them with all our power.


Key to understanding Bush's strategy for dealing with the new world order is power.  To make the world secure, our nation must establish a Pax Americana, dominating the world and preventing the rise of any other power, small or large, to challenge or threaten us.  We will do it for great and noble goals, of course.  Bush pays high praise to the values we hold dear.  He writes:


In pursuit of our goals, our first imperative is to clarify what we stand for: the United States must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them. Fathers and mothers in all societies want their children to be educated and to live free from poverty and violence. No people on earth yearn to be oppressed, aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police.


All well and good as long as you are white.  The knocks are now coming in this nation for those who are of Arab descent.


In making the use of unchecked power the centerpiece of our threat reduction policy, our nation can easily slip into the role of tyrant. Our need for oil to feed our people, move our vehicles, manufacture our goods and maintain our military power can easily overshadow our concern for liberty and justice at home and abroad.  And if we abuse our vast military superiority in pursuit of our selfish national interest, we become the great Satan many in the Arab world believe us to be.


This potential is why Kamel Daoudi's autobiography is so important.  Kamel is an Algerian-born computer specialist who lived most of his life in France.  He now awaits trial on suspicion he was part of an Al Qaeda plot to blow up the American Embassy in Paris.  From his prison cell, the twenty eight year old man wrote three essays in French about his middle class childhood, his turn to Islam and his political radicalization.


His story is one of an average immigrant child with a love of languages and a hunger to find prosperity and help lift his family from poverty.  He dreamed of becoming an aeronautical engineer while he attended the University of Paris.  What greatly troubled him, just as he was about to achieve his dream, was the canceling of the elections by the Algerian government once it was clear the Islamist Party was poised to win in 1992.  This set off a civil war, with France siding against the Islamist Party and calling in their Foreign Legion, doing everything possible to prevent Algeria from becoming an Islamic state.  "The massacres committed by the Algerian army were the last straw for me," he wrote. "I could no longer study serenely."  This, by the way, is the kind of wrath we will face if we want to take up a policy of regime change against governments we perceive as potential threats.


Kamel was further radicalized experiencing racism when his family was evicted from their left bank apartment and had to move to a poor suburb of Paris.  He writes, "That's where I became aware of the abominable social treatment given to all those potential "myselves" who had become conditioned to become subcitizens just good for paying pensions to the real French when the French age pyramid starts getting thin at the base…"  Do any of you hear echoes of our own situation here?  Think of our own aging population and who will be paying our social security checks in thirty or forty years.


Then Kamel became converted: "So I reviewed everything that I had learned and put all of my knowledge into a new perspective.  I then understood that the only person worth devoting my life to was Allah…Everything suddenly became clear to me and I understood why Abraham went into exile, why Moses rebelled against the Pharaoh, why Jesus was spat upon and why Mohammad said, "I came with the sword on the Judgment Day."


The article ends with his proud statement: "My ideological commitment is total and the reward of glory for this relentless battle is to be called a terrorist.  I accept the name of terrorist if it is used to mean that I terrorize a one-sided system of iniquitous power and a perversity that comes in many forms…I will fight any form of injustice and those who support it.  My fight will only end in my death or my madness."


What is sobering about Kamel's writing is how it so perfectly juxtaposes with the power our President feels is the way to deal with terrorists like him.  I heard on NPR, just recently, that there are around a billion people between the ages of 15 and 24, the age of radicalism.  Their perception that we are using power unjustly will have terrifying consequences.


What Kamel's story makes clear to me is that power cannot be the only arrow in our quiver.  In fact, it can be only a weapon of last resort.  The language of pre-emptive strikes is quite dangerous when we cannot absolutely know another's intentions.


Thankfully, there are other approaches to terrorism that have been presented than reliance primarily on power.  I recently reviewed a fascinating book called Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why: a 1999 Government Report on Profiling Terrorists.  It analyses groups from the IRA, the FARC in Columbia and the PKK Kurdish separatists to Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo.


The study found that many groups with political or social goals survived and grew in power only when they had the support of a significant constituency of disgruntled people.  These groups tended to dissipate when the political climate changed for the better, particularly when an authoritarian form of government was replaced by a representative form of government, creating a channel for their grievances to be addressed.


Religious fundamentalist terrorist groups are tougher nuts to crack.  They are the ones most likely to use weapons of mass destruction because their goals transcend this world and look for validation in the next.  These groups are likely to be strengthened by repressive military action.  The more effective approach is through legal, financial, political, diplomatic and psychological tactics.  The last thing one wants to do is to make them into martyrs, further feeding the organization's fanaticism.


Whether religious or political, the root causes of terrorist violence are social for terrorists seek to punish the social order that has wronged them.  Our terrorism strategy must be able to address the social ills that breed terrorism while at the same time working aggressively to dismantle terrorist organizations and neutralize their threats.  If the social ills are not addressed, the terrorist organization will regenerate and rise from the dead.


To his credit, President Bush does recognize the importance of the political: "In many regions, legitimate grievances prevent the emergence of a lasting peace. Such grievances deserve to be, and must be, addressed within a political process."


Another important approach to reducing terrorism is to realize that the individuals that make up these organizations can, and do, lose faith in their cause and their leaders.  They are not one-dimensional automatons.  Their hearts can be turned.  They too experience a strong fear of death, particularly if their self-sacrifice loses its transcendent meaning.  One important way to dismantle a terrorist cell is to offer amnesty to the group's members to get them to disband.


Our most powerful weapon against terrorism is right here in this country.  We must realize our vision of a tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, pluralistically religious democracy where people have strong protections of their civil rights.  We believe, in our President's words, "that people of many heritages and faiths can live and prosper in peace."  Youth like Kamel are radicalized when they believe they are excluded from this kind of a society.  We must win their hearts and minds with more than Britney Spears and Coca Cola.  We need to embody and to intentionally export our civic values and work to see them realized where oppression now reigns.


We can be part of this kind of anti-terrorism effort by engaging in public life, as we are able.  There are many ways we can participate; from reading the newspaper and discussing public events, writing and calling our representatives, to involvement in social and political organizations.  Democracy cannot work without an informed and active citizenry.  The most important way we do this is to vote in public elections like the one on Tuesday.  This most precious right, to choose who shall govern us, must be protected at all costs.


The struggle against terrorism ultimately cannot be won with power.  It can only be won by winning the hearts of the peoples of the world.  It can only be won when we see our differences as potential assets. It can only be won when we live interdependent and interconnected through our common humanity.

Copyright © 2002 by the Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.