by Tess Adair
I don’t understand terrorism. I don’t understand any kind of mass violence.
I understand violence on a smaller scale. I know what it’s like to entangle yourself in a heated argument, to feel your blood boil over at an opponent’s idiotic or offensive arguments. I know what it’s like to hear about an injustice and feel it hurt so deeply that you think the only way you could recover would be to take some kind of revenge.
What I don’t understand is what happens in the mind of someone who commits an act of mass violence. Everything from white supremacy to terrorism mystifies me. I might imagine how the thought process begins, but I don’t know how it reaches its end.
What goes through your mind when you build a bomb? Do you think about the flesh it will rip apart? When you look at your mother and father, do you wonder about the mothers and fathers you plan to slaughter? Do you wonder how many sisters will lose their brothers, how many husbands will lose their wives, how many grandparents will lose their grandchildren? Do you relish the spectre of death? Or is it something else? Do you dissociate entirely, thinking only of your imagined heavenly reward? Or do you rehash, over and over, whatever injustice (if that’s really what it is) that compelled you to consider this path in the first place?
At first, I wrote that paragraph using the impersonal “they,” but it didn’t sit well with me. The people who do these things are monstrous to me, but they are people. They are human beings. So, in another life, they might be you or me.
One of the easy outs in spectacular sci-fi movies like Independence Day or Edge of Tomorrow is that the bad guy is usually an alien. We have no trouble envisioning a future humanity banded together, across race and gender and class and nationality lines, in the face of a horrific alien enemy. Perhaps part of the appeal of the genre is the very alien-ness of that unstoppable threat, and how it could give us the opportunity to rise to courage and heroism...and murder the shit out of those aliens. And, hey, who can blame us? They’re aliens. We get to do violence to them. It’s our right. It’s good.
But back on planet Earth, the bad guy is never an alien. The bad guy is us.
The bad guys are human beings. And that sucks. But I think it’s something we need to keep in mind.
Whenever a home-grown act of mass violence occurs, we collectively try to explain it, and, spurred on by the media, we usually blame it on mental illness. (I’m speaking here about explaining the why instead of the how, which is why I’m not talking about guns.) It’s not necessarily wrong to talk about mental illness and violence, but when we do blame mental illness, we never actually talk about mental illness. More specifically, we never talk about our institutional failures in helping the mentally ill.
Because the thing is--even the mentally ill don’t act in complete isolation. Nobody does. Whoever that mentally ill person is, they lived a life before they committed their violence. A life that may have been shaped, at least in part, by our indifference to our country's mental health system.
And if the mentally ill don't act in a vacuum, then neither do religious extremists. We label them extremists, and sometimes when we say it, it sounds like we’re talking about another species. The extremists have taken responsibility for the latest bombing. The Romulans have crossed into the neutral zone.
I understand why we talk about it that way. It’s so hard to imagine that someone who does something like this, someone who gets it into their head to commit this violence and carries it out to the end, could ever have something in common with us. We want to other them. They’re not like us--they can’t be.
But they are.
You know, the funny thing about the aliens in Star Trek was that most of them didn’t turn out to be so alien after all. Even the species that acted primarily as villains were never totally alien. It was a common storyline for a member of the Federation to find themselves stuck in some situation with a single alien or a small group of aliens and have to work together in some way to survive or accomplish something. The lesson was that even someone who may seem to hate you, who may want to kill you, can be sympathized with. And if there can be sympathy, there can be communication.
But first you have to try. If you never try, it never happens.
I mentioned above that I understand where the violent thought process begins, if not where it ends. I can be so angry sometimes. It almost feels like the anger is a force outside of myself, like some external wave of righteous fury overtakes my mind and body. Of course, I don’t mean that as an excuse for anything I might say or do; I know how to behave myself, so there’s no one to blame but me if I don’t.
But sometimes someone says something so stupid and terrible that I just can’t help myself. (Oh really, you think homosexuality is the same thing as pedophilia? You think men are just naturally smarter than women? Do you know what words mean? Do you know anything? Do you know I’m about to punch you in the fucking face?) I need to do something. I need to retaliate.
I need revenge.
So, I understand the impulse for it. When someone attacks us, and our leaders clamor for war, I understand why we don’t all rush to shout them down. We want revenge. I know from experience why we want it. But I also know, from experience, that the revenge we burn for will bring us nothing in return.
I mean, has anyone ever come away satisfied from an internet fight? We could Facebook-debate for hours and not a one of us would be happy about it. Nobody wins the Facebook fight. Because the Facebook fight never ends.
It reminds me of this passage from The Watchmen. After the bad guy is revealed, he makes the classic villain ends-justify-the-means argument, but, being an insecure bad guy, he can’t help but ask one of the good guys if he’s right.
“I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.”
“‘In the end?’ Nothing ends, [bad guy.] Nothing ever ends.”
See, the Facebook fight never ends because nobody can stop the cycle. The most anybody ever does is call a temporary truce--broken as soon as the next controversial post makes the rounds.
The same is true about violence. Violence is a cycle; it begets itself. Revenge is a key part of this cycle. Revenge keeps the wheel turning.
Actually, I take it back. I did see the Facebook fight end once, and it ended for real. Well, technically it was a Twitter fight.
One day, a woman named Ijeoma Oluo found herself the subject of some seriously awful Twitter harassment. On Martin Luther King Day this past year, she began to receive terrible racist tweets from someone, including racist word dropping, vague violence threats, and general ignorant insults.
But Oluo didn’t rise to the bait. Instead of meeting his hate with more hate, or even anger or indignation...she started tweeting quotes from MLK about love and empathy.
He insults her. She says, “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
He calls her the n-word. She says, “Hate destroys the hater.”
He insults her name. She says, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
He keeps up his tirade.
“We must either learn to live together as brothers, or die together as fools.”
“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”
He keeps at it. Finally, she switches tactics and gives up quoting Dr. King. Instead she uses her own words.
He tweets at her, “‘I hope I get shot soon’ - Martin Luther King Jr”
She says, “I wish you peace and love and freedom from the hate that hurts your heart.”
I first read this story months and months ago, but it still amazes me. This random twitter troll throws her nothing but disgusting, vile insults, and caps it off with a joke about the death of MLK, and she gives him nothing but love.
And she keeps it up. Over and over again, he tries to troll her, tries to get her to lose her cool. He spouts the dumbest racist shit, and all she ever does is offer him love, tell him his life matters, ask why he feels the need to mock the deaths of innocent people, assures him she would never mock his death.
Eventually he tells her he’s only 14. Of course, he’s still a troll, so he makes sure to say it in an infuriating, condescending, dismissive way: “look honey. I’m 14 years old you need to chill”
“You need to chill.” He’s not even talking to me and I want to slap him. But she never falters.
“my son is 13 years old, and he would never mock your murder”
Such a simple response, and so apt. And I could never have thought of it through my cloud of rage.
And holy shit he responds. He says her son must have a cool mom. He started by calling her the n-word and he ended by calling her a cool mom. He admits that he’s going through a tough time, and he tells her that a therapist suggested he try to vent his bad feelings anonymously on the internet. (Note to therapists: PLEASE DEAR GOD do not do this. This is a TERRIBLE idea.)
And she’s the one who got him there.
She refused to rise to the bait. She refused to give in to the cycle.
(If you’d like to read more of the story, here’s a link.)
Of course, online abuse and real-world violence are not exactly the same. But I think some of the same mechanisms are at work. If you respond to internet hate with your own hate, you cannot expect to win. You will never convince your opponent that you are right and they are wrong. How could you? You may think your intentions are good, but that bite of vitriol in your delivery will sabotage you every time. Someone will respond to it. Someone always responds.
I don’t know how someone ends up deciding to blow up a building, or burn down a Church, or shoot up a cafe. But I know how the process starts. Somebody somewhere did something violent, and someone responded to the violence with more violence, and the wheel was set in motion.
Of course, I don’t know how Oluo managed to respond to her troll the way she did. I don’t think I could have done the same, if it were me. Maybe it helped her to use someone else’s words at first. Maybe it helped her just to read the quotes, to remind herself of their serenity.
I’m trying to figure out how she did it. How she got to that place of compassion, and how she stayed there. It’s hard.
It’s even harder when we’re talking about real violence. It’s so hard to imagine the people who slaughter and destroy, and to think of them with anything but hate. I don’t know how we can do it.
But I do know that the only way to break the cycle is to try.