Terrorism: Accepting the Unacceptable

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Monday, September 19, 2016

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.” - Og Mandino

Just when I feel like it’s safe to take a time-out from the news for a day or so, we’ve got more terrorism.

I won’t even try to summarize the latest developments… but the super-quick picture is that there were attacks in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota this weekend.  The debate rages on about whether these were terrorist attacks.  At its base, though, it’s pretty clear to me that each event is causing terror.  Whether it’s a bombing, a stabbing at scale, or an active shooter. This stuff is terrorism.  What is its purpose?  To scare the hell out of us.  It keeps happening because it keeps working. 

Yes, I said that. 

People who want to scare the hell out of us are going to keep doing this sort of thing. 

I would love to be the person who sees these attacks… and then spreads harmony and peace, and says that all will be well. 

I would love to be the voice of reassurance… saying that this is something we have to get through, and then we can get back to life as it was.

That’s not how it works, though.  And I can’t do it. 

The world evolves.  Time moves forward.  We don’t get do-overs.  This planet didn’t come with a rewind button:  we’ve got to live with the cards we’re dealt.  To be honest, a lot of us don’t have a terrible hand.  But that doesn’t mean terrible things don’t happen.

Fear is Brutal

Terror is called that because it strikes at our core; at our hearts.  It’s primal. 

I’m telling you that we’ve got to look it dead in the eyes

When we can do that, we can find the strength to move through it.  To gain strength.  To gain our footing, our anchor point, our grounding.  Our RESILIENCE.  I am convinced of that.  Doesn’t mean it will happen right away - the grounding - or even in full.  It doesn’t mean the fear goes away.  But maybe we can lessen it.  Maybe we can take some actions that allow us to stop holding our breath.  Just a bit.  

I did a community radio interview about fear and 9/11 last week.  It took a while for me to share the recording, as I have been processing the conversation in my own mind.  In the interview, I didn’t talk as much about the acceptance of fear as I might have liked.  Because it is so damn difficult.  Because true terror is so utterly raw.

Our deepest fears relate to our very survival, and to our very deep love for our family, our friends, and our humanity.

Fear mobilizes. 

We want to act.  Run.  Yell and scream.  Shoot guns.  Throw stuff.  Hit things.  Break glass.  Protect people.  Drive aggressively.  Cry uncontrollably.  Hide in a hole.  Call for help.  Bring in reinforcements.  Mobilize.  Join a movement.  Champion a cause.  Do something intense.  We want to JUST DO ANYTHING.  That doesn't mean we will do any of these things.  But, fear mobilizes.

One thing we don’t often want to do with fear is to look at it.  BECAUSE WE’RE AFRAID.  Dammit.  It’s true, though.  Fear is freaking terrifying.

Looking Terrorism In Its Eyes

My quick peek at the news and the pundits after this latest round of terror attacks indicates that we’ve got the standard responses going on.  We don’t want the attacks to define us.  They don’t.  We don’t want this to become “the new normal.”  Well of course not; no one wants that... except for terrorists and perhaps some psychopaths.

Politicians are saying they can stop it.  They can’t.  Terrorism experts are saying we’re probably going to keep seeing this sort of thing.  Because we will.

Let me tell you something.  While we don’t want this to become the new normal, wishing it away doesn’t make it so. 

So then what?  To start, we can look at our own sphere of control.  Using that, we can ask some basic questions:

  • Is what you fear within your sphere of control?
  • Is what you fear within your sphere of influence?
  • Is what you fear something outside your sphere of influence? 

We start there, and maybe we can get to acceptance.  I’ll get back to that in a minute.

I don’t want to live in a world where terrorism - include active shooters - becomes more commonplace in the US.  Here’s the thing, though:  I worked for the US Department of Homeland Security from 2005 through 2014… with a heavy emphasis on all things terror-related.  I have studied sociology, environmental science, mass communication, and politics. 

The bottom line is that there's not much reason to believe that we are going to see an increasingly stable world, and thus less terrorism.  All indications are to the contrary.

In reality, we have an increasing world population living in high-hazard zones and competing for resources on a finite planet.  It is much more likely that we’ll see more terrorism.  Not less.

And let me take this non-political moment (for real) to say that it is a bunch of BS to think that policy changes (on immigration, either way) and border walls (which are insanely expensive) are going to solve the problem of terrorism. 

This is a game of whack-a-mole.  Build a wall; people tunnel under it.  Put sensors there, and they’ll go around.  Drugrunners aren't the only people who can operate go-fast boats.  There's more than one way to get into a gigantic country.

If you remain in doubt, get yourself a map of the continental United States.  Take a gander at the east side of it, and the west side, and notice that both of those sides are made up of coastline.  BIG coastline.  Oh - and rivers that go inland from the coasts.  Also, there’s the Gulf of Mexico:  more coastline, and more rivers.

While you’re map-gazing, check out the length and complexity of the northern border.  Imagine that you are an intrepid terrorist; willing to die for your cause.  Is a bit of cold and forest and Canadian access and really long road going to keep you from sneaking in, if it is in fact that important to you? 

Imagine that you are the US Government.  How much of your staff and budget can realistically be dedicated to monitoring and policing the gigantic and often-open space that is the northern border?

Imagine further that you are the US Department of Homeland Security, charged with protecting the US from those who seek to sneak in and disrupt our lives and economy.  Even when acting in cooperation with other government agencies, would you think you would ever have enough people, guns, sensors, drones, aircraft, vehicles, intelligence capability, and funds to a) detect, and b) stop everyone who seeks to do us damage? 

That question doesn’t even include those homegrown folks who wish to do us harm.  That’s another challenge entirely. 

It can’t be done.  We can’t have 100% security.  We won’t.  If we try, we’ll bankrupt ourselves.

Which brings us back to the terrorists.  They seek fear; it’s goal number one.  After that, they are seeking disruption, and destruction.  Of our economy, and our way of life.  One way to bankrupt ourselves (and our economy) is to spend ourselves into oblivion playing whack-a-mole with a bunch of suicidal fanatics.

Don’t get me wrong:  we need security.  Finding the right security balance is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of our time.  But there is no realistic way we can ever guarantee it.  


I put that in all capital letters in case you haven’t read any of my other stuff, which often makes the same point.

We have GOT to find a balance.


I know I said above that I would get back to acceptance.  There are a lot of ways we can experience fear, but this article is about terrorism. 

So.  There isn’t much to the acceptance bit, because here’s the thing:

We are going to get hit. 


This stuff is going to happen again.  Whether it’s a bomber or an active shooter or ISIS or a knife-wielding sociopath or a truck full of fertilizer… we’ll probably see more of it.

It really sucks.  People we love could get hurt.  People we don’t know almost certainly will get hurt.  Tragedy will strike; somewhere. 

So what will you do?  Will you hide out?  Have a drink?  Pretend it’s not happening?  Lash out in anger?  Blame it on some force outside your control?  Vote out of fear?  Spread discord?  Act like you can’t do anything?  

Those are all options.  But you CAN do some stuff.  Whoever is causing the attacks may be outside of our sphere of control.  How we deal with it isn’t.

Here’s What We Can Do

First, we can hold space for ourselves, for those we love, and for those affected.

We can feel the fear.  The pain.  The loss.  We can be human.

We can have a deep look at our own fear.  We might need to create the space to do so, because this stuff is not for the faint of heart.

We can talk about our fear. 

We can be vulnerable

We can figure out what parts of our fear are within our sphere of control, or sphere of influence.  Once we figure that out, we can take some action - or plan some action - to mitigate that fear.  This may well be a huge undertaking.  Don’t be surprised if it is.  If you allow it to happen, you will feel better after going through the process.  It might suck in the middle, though.  Sorting out our fears is tricky business. 

We can talk to our kids, our family, our parents, our students, and our colleagues about what we would do if - heaven forbid - our office is attacked.  Or our school.  Our church.  Our block.  This process is another potentially large undertaking.

We can join a group, and help people.  Or just be a community.  Or a family.  And have fun.

We can get to know our neighbors.  We can ask what we can do to help each other out.  We can start doing it.

We can support our local first responders, because they’re going to be the first in if Something Bad happens.  That is, the first in except for those who are around when the attack happens.  That could be you.

We can live in gratitude. 

We can dream.  We can shoot for those dreams. 

We can see the wonder and beauty in the world around us that is not involved in an attack.  Amazingness is everywhere.  Even in the darkness.

We can be mentally ready for some chaos.  We can walk through some worst-case scenarios.  Research has shown that firefighters, cops, and soldiers react faster and more effectively if they have thought through a scenario before experiencing it - or if they have seen others handle it on video or elsewhere.  The response is even better if they have actively trained in it.  The same goes for any of us.  We can think through stuff; we can practice it.  At home, at work, at school, and even at church. 

Even if you never have to deal with an attack… let me tell you something.  If you do some or all of these things, you’ll be ready for something.  Because:  stuff happens.  Your resilience will be useful, even if not always in the ways that you expected.

We can choose not to live in a state of terror and panic and fear.  Well, we might need to live in that state for a bit.  We do need to process.

But we can choose to live in a state of resilience.  For the long term. 

When I was growing up, the church we went to had two huge words at the front of the sanctuary.  I didn’t understand them until a few years ago.  The words were these:



We can build our own resilience.  THAT is how we fight terror. 

We live.

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