It’s the eleventh of September. And that means a lot of things, one of which is our collective remembrance of a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers thirteen years ago today. For me, who fortunately has not experienced loss from the incident, this brings up two thoughts, both of which I would like to discuss today.
One of the most widely discussed topic today will be terrorism. An act of terrorism is often loosely defined as an action to engender intense fear to a group of people to achieve political, religious, or ideological means. In other words, acts of terrorism are often not motivated so much by physical reasons, such as resources or economics, as they are triggered by an ideology. This speaks strongly to the power of ideas. People and terrorist groups die, but ideas are not lost. Even if their thoughts were never publicized and died with them, undoubtedly, as is history, someone else will rediscover the ideologies. So we can’t ever attempt and succeed to destroy or eliminate those ideas from existing; even if all of those ideologies are wiped out by some magic, they will return under the veil of the illusion that dangerous ideas cannot be reborn. In fact, the Great Firewall of Chine attempts to do just exactly that – wipe out any and all ideas that may lend itself to threatening the status quo, because the government knows the power of ideas. But that’s not working, and it’s not just because people find intelligent ways to get around it. It’s because, unlike matter, ideas can be destroyed, and they can also be created ex nihilo. Just because the government blocks out those ideas from entering doesn’t mean someone inside can’t discover those ideologies. In other words, ideas, dangerous or largely benevolent, can’t be controlled. So as I see it, the best policy against ideas that cause undesirable acts of violence is not to attempt to control the spread of ideas themselves, but rather to educate the agents of those ideas – the people. Rather than fruitlessly attempt to bewitch the stream of water in the river to stop, mold the riverbanks to redirect them – to recognize which ideas are beneficial when used in certain ways, and which are not. Perhaps Nelson Mandela put it best, when he said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world.”
Terrorism is one of those ideas that are innately powerful by its circumstance. It’s emotionally charged and politically controversial because of the context in which it is used the vast majority of the time. And because of this unfortunate circumstance, the use of the word immediately paints any situation with an air of incontrovertible finality. But as always, the truth resists oversimplification, because both sides of the act of terrorism are human, however different. Have you once considered the leader of the 9-11 attack, Osama bin Laden, outside the context of terrorism? He probably wakes up in the morning and showers, just like everyone else around you. He probably drinks coke on occasion. He most likely laughs, too. Because he’s human. In fact, he’s probably experienced hilarity, excitement, nervousness, sadness, happiness, and everything else in between. Because he’s human. And I think in considering an idea like terrorism with a wide and difficult range of connotations and emotion, we are too prone to simplify things down and dehumanize the elements of the situation, simply because the sheer complexity of it is too much. But I think it’s especially during those times that it is more important than ever to, to the best of our abilities, imagine the world more complexly, to try to understand history not as a sequence of plot points told by a single narrator, but as a story of complex characters with different backgrounds and wildly varying motivations grappling with their environments.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Is there good art?.
I share new posts like this on my newsletter. If you liked this post, you should consider joining the list.
Have a comment or response? You can email me.