The New Abnormal:
Reflections on Paris
We are hearing expressions of shock
and sympathy for Paris on all sides, which is appropriate as far as
it goes – but it’s not nearly enough.
It is clear now that instead of
lurching from crisis to crisis, we need to get off this disastrous
After expressing our condolences we
should be saying, “Let us now pledge ourselves to get to the root of
this problem” – and have the courage to follow that inquiry wherever
When Mahatma Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj
or Indian Home Rule in 1909, as it were firing his first shot across
the bow of the empire that he would finally sink, he addressed the
now classic essay not to the British (the original was published in
Gujarati; only when the British banned it did he bring out the
English translation, ironically, and reach a vastly greater
audience) but to his own countrymen. And he told them, “The British
did not take India; we gave it to them.” His purpose was not to
offend but to awaken them, namely to the fact that they were not
helpless, as they supposed.
They had agency waiting to be taken.
And so do we.
ISIS is a monster, but it is not a
monster that simply sprang up from the earth for no reason. ISIS and
modern terrorism is a monster that is partly of our creation. We
created it in “shock and awe,” where we laid waste a nation of some
37 million people for a “reason” that was a lie, in the atrocities
of Abu Ghraib, in the innumerable small acts of intolerance that are
likely now to increase, in the checkpoints of Palestine where
pregnant women lose their babies because they are not let through –
and all the acts of humiliation and oppression being meted out to
the people of Palestine as we speak. And it is in these places that
we can uncreate it. We cannot defend ourselves against terrorism by
creating more of it. Then how can we?
Gandhi had another gem to share,
later, when his nonviolence matured. Reporting from his own
experience he famously said,
“I have learnt through bitter
experience the one supreme lesson, to conserve my anger. And as heat
conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger conserved can
be transmuted into a power that can move the world.”
The crisis in which we find ourselves
demands first of all that we learn this “supreme lesson.” Of course
we are angry. How could we not be? But what will we do with that
anger? Hunt down the perpetrators and visit punishments on them
along with innocent bystanders (because let us not fool ourselves,
‘clean, surgical’ strikes in the age of drones are a myth)? Lash out
against other Muslims or Arabs (or what have you) in random attacks
– in other words, respond in kind? Or will we, as Martin Luther King
said, “express anger under discipline for maximum effect”?
So the first step in this mighty
conversion – the change of course that will bring back to the
security that’s slipping away from us – will be to face the fact
that we are not merely victims; we are caught up in a spiral of
violence that’s at least partly of our own making.
There are terrorists out there, but
in order to deal successfully with them we have also to address two
internal enemies righteous indignation (aka anger), and complacency.
In addition to the sorrow we’re feeling and the anger building up
behind it some editorials are saying that New York, Madrid, Mumbai
and now Paris are the “new normal.” There is no such thing as a
“normal” that leads a civilization over the brink of what MLK called
“spiritual death.” We have to come to grips with the violence that
we have actively or passively made ourselves a party to.
Fear, anger and grief are raw
material to awaken us – if we use them as such. If we do not use
them constructively – and a few suggestions follow – they will work
• Don’t let
yourself be drawn into hate speech, against anyone. Support one
another in your grief, but not in any desire for revenge.
• Never be drawn in to the belief that this has something to do with
“Islam.” Any more than American troops with Bible verses on their
weapons have anything to do with the religion of Jesus.
• Never accept this deteriorating state as ‘normal.’ We have agency.
• Familiarize yourself with the real history of a key conflict,
Israel-Palestine, which means seeing past the one-sided
presentations our mainstream media. Ex: www.ifamericansknew.org.
• Learn about constructive alternatives to this conflict and others,
(for example, Michael Lerner’s Healing Israel-Palestine) – and stand
up for them. I strongly agree with George Lakey in
his recent article in Waging Nonviolence that “To protect
themselves from terror, citizens in all countries need to gain
control of their own governments and force them to behave.”
• Constructive measures do not rule out saying ‘no’ where it has to
be said. Demand that our governments explore non-military
relationships with Mideast states (and deny, for example, Israel’s
request for yet more military aid). There is such a thing as tough
These suggestions can be strengthened
immeasurably if we build a framework behind them that can eventually
shift our culture away from its dependency on violence. We have
found five effective things anyone can do to build this
infrastructure from the personal ground up:
• Limit our exposure to the violence
and vulgarity of the mass media.
• Learn everything we can about nonviolence. www.mettacenter.org
• Consider getting a spiritual practice, if we don’t already have
• Relate in a personal way with everyone, wherever we can.
• Get active! And don’t be shy about explaining why we’re doing all
this: because all life is precious and deeply interconnected, as the
wisest humans always knew.
This is not a
time for revenge; this is a teaching moment. We cannot afford not to
learn its lesson.
Posted on November 14, 2015
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