Breaking The Cycle Of Violence And Hate

As the Boston Marathon tragedy heads toward a bloody and violent conclusion, I find myself agreeing with this thoughtful and provocative response by Charles Eisenstein:

In the wake of terror attacks, politicians are fond of proclaiming, “We will not be intimidated.” By this they seem to mean that we won’t cower in fear, but will boldly root out the terrorists, visit upon them the hand of justice, and hold them to account. “Make no mistake,” about that, they say. We will be tough, and by tough they mean heightening security at home, intensifying counter-terrorism measures abroad, and punishing the perpetrators and all who give them aid and comfort.

Tough and strong though they seem, all of these responses are based on fear. They are the actions of people who are afraid of terrorism. Looking at them, one might say that the terrorists have succeeded after all. Even if their ostensible political cause is crushed, their terror has succeeded in increasing the level of fear in the world.

From fear comes hate, and from hate comes violence. Acting from that fear, we sow the seeds of future terrorism in the world, thereby confirming the image of our terror. It is as Martin Luther King said (quoted in a marvelously brave and insightful piece by Falguni Sheth in Salon, Where does the hate come from? ): “Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody.”

He neglects to explicitly say that the past decade of terror has inspired us to torture, to hack away at the Constitution and Bill Of Rights, and to kill many more innocent civilians than we ourselves have lost to terror. But the basic point is right: we are locked into a mindless and perpetual cycle of action and reaction that is morally dubious, seemingly endless, and a spectacular, stupendous, waste of resources. How many millions more lives could we save, educate and enrich if we devoted our energies and resources away from weapons and strategies of destruction and conflict, and toward strategies of compassion and

I know that sounds incredibly naive. But to that criticism I have one response: how is the alternative working out for us?

Here’s more from Eisenstein:

To build a society of safety and trust rather than security and fear, we are going to have to act from the former rather than the latter. I therefore offer a few modest proposals for how to respond to the Boston bombing. First, let us reverse the cycle of terror by responding, not with heightened security, but with relaxed security, demonstrating that we will not be frightened into retreating behind cameras, fences, and metal detectors. We will bravely uphold an open society.

Secondly, let us reverse the cycle of hatred abroad by ceasing all preemptive and punitive drone strikes and other attacks. Those are the actions of a frightened people. It takes courage to trust that if one holds back from violence, whomever one has seen as an enemy will do the same. But in a situation of mutual distrust, someone has to take the first step. Otherwise, each act merely confirms the distrust of the other, and the violence never ends.

Thirdly, instead of vowing to take vengeance on the perpetrator of the Boston attack, let us proclaim that rather than punish him, he will have the opportunity to face the families of the people he killed and the people whose limbs he destroyed. He will hear their stories and share his own. Then together, the victims, perpetrators and communittee will agree on how best to heal the damage done and serve justice. While remorse and forgiveness may not result, it is more likely to than in punitive justice. (For more on this approach to justice, explore the Restorative Justice website or read this article.)

This response will reduce the amount of hate and fear in the world The perpetrator will not become a martyr in the eyes of his sympathizers. Any response that heightens the already-endemic fear in our society will be a victory for fear. To truly resist terrorism, we must not act from terror. Can we receive the hate of this act and transform it into love?

Eisenstein goes on to rebut all the objections he anticipates to these ideas, and they are worth reading. But here is his conclusion:

[M]aybe it is time to act from a different paradigm of human nature: a belief in our fundamental goodness, our common humanity, our desire to connect, to love, to help, and to serve. Certainly the immediate responses to the tragedy in Boston offer ample evidence for such a belief: people generously coming to the aid of total strangers. It was as if the explosions tore apart the veil of mutual suspicion that keeps us separate and allowed a latent aspect of human nature its full expression. What if we take those acts of selflessness as the true lesson of Boston? Could we create a world in their image? If MLK was right, surely it is also true that peace begets peace, forgiveness begets forgiveness, and love begets love. No less a revolution will create a society where we feel safe and at home amongst each other.

A very brave and provocative response to terror. No matter your personal response, it is well worth pondering, because moving humanity off the destructive and failing path it is on requires a very different way of thinking about our world and how we act.

Random, But Cool, History: The Obliteration Of Black Tom Island

Quick: what was the first major terrorist attack by a foreign power on the United States?

If you answered an ingenious German plot in 1916 to blow up a major weapons depot in New York Harbor, you win a prize.

Aftermath of the Black Tom explosion, an act of sabotage on American ammunition supplies by German agents which took place on July 30, 1916 in Jersey City, New Jersey

However, I am guessing that you didn’t come up with that answer. But it is a story worth knowing. It’s got spies, heroic rescue efforts, a pencil bomb, and an investigation that took years, and Smithsonian’s awesome Past Imperfect blog has the details:

All was dark and quiet on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor, not far from the Statue of Liberty, when small fires began to burn on the night of July 30, 1916. Some guards on the island sent for the Jersey City Fire Department, but others fled as quickly as they could, and for good reason: Black Tom was a major munitions depot, with several large “powder piers.” That night, Johnson Barge No. 17 was packed with 50 tons of TNT, and 69 railroad freight cars were storing more than a thousand tons of ammunition, all awaiting shipment to Britain and France. Despite America’s claim of neutrality in World War I, it was no secret that the United States was selling massive quantities of munitions to the British.

The guards who fled had the right idea. Just after 2:00 a.m., an explosion lit the skies—the equivalent of an earthquake measuring up to 5.5 on the Richter scale, according to a recent study. A series of blasts were heard and felt some 90 miles in every direction, even as far as Philadelphia. Nearly everyone in Manhattan and Jersey City was jolted awake, and many were thrown from their beds. Even the heaviest plate-glass windows in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn shattered, and falling shards of glass preceded a mist of ash from the fire that followed the explosion. Immigrants on nearby Ellis Island had to be evacuated.

German Master Spy Franz Von Rintelen and his "pencil bomb" were responsible for acts of sabotage in the United States during World War I. Photo: Wikipedia

The German masterminds of the attack are straight out of central casting:

One of those newcomers to America was Count Johann Von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to Washington. He arrived in 1914 with a staff not of diplomats, but of intelligence operatives, and with millions of dollars earmarked to aid German war efforts by any means necessary. Von Bernstorff not only helped obtain forged passports for Germans who wanted to elude the Allied blockade, he also funded gun-running efforts, the sinking of American ships bringing supplies to Britain, and choking off supplies of phenol, used in the manufacture of explosives, in a conspiracy known as the Great Phenol Plot.

One of his master spies was Franz Von Rintelen, who had a “pencil bomb” designed for his use. Pencil bombs were cigar-sized charges filled with acids placed in copper chambers; the acids would ultimately eat their way through the copper and mingle, creating intense, silent flames. If designed and placed properly, a pencil bomb could be timed to detonate days later, while ships and their cargo were at sea. Von Rintelen is believed to have attacked 36 ships, destroying millions of dollars worth of cargo. With generous cash bribes, Von Rintelen had little problem gaining access to piers—which is how Michael Kristoff, a Slovak immigrant living in Bayonne, New Jersey, is believed to have gotten to the Black Tom munitions depot in July of 1916.

Investigators later learned from Kristoff’s landlord that he kept odd hours and sometimes came home at night with filthy hands and clothing, smelling of fuel.  Along with two German saboteurs, Lothar Witzke and Kurt Jahnke, Kristoff is believed to have set the incendiary devices that caused the mayhem on Black Tom.

Read the whole thing. It’s an incredible tale.