Facing Up to Terror


I have made several attempts at writing a post following the bombing at the Boston Marathon. It’s too close to home for me to be able to compose my thoughts sufficiently clearly to put them out for public scrutiny. But I do owe something to this blog. The word, cowardly, keeps coming up in my mind. Technology, my favorite bete noire, enables such cowardly acts by separating the actor in time and space from the consequences of whatever action is being taken. By this assertion, I do not mean to condemn technology, only to point out, as I often do, that it has a dark side. The reaction to such cowardly acts has been to double down on security measures designed to prevent the next heinous act. More technology with the inevitable result that our lives are encroached upon in some way. Again, I do not mean to make a statement about the value of such measures; only to point out that they have undesired consequences.

And this brings me to another word being used in the media, senseless. I agree that this act was cowardly, but not that it was senseless. Senseless to us, but not to the perpetrator. To the perpetrator, it is completely rational. How can one’s action be senseless and rational at the same time? With our dominant view of objective reality, we act out of a belief that we know the truths about the world and that our truths are the only ones that are correct. It doesn’t matter if the truths are the result of direct experience or some derivative idea based on the experience coupled to subsequent rational reasoning. All the cultural institutions of modernity in which we act have been constructed and evolved with this premise as the bottommost tier. Prior to our so-called modern culture, the truths that drove cultures were built on various theocratic dogma that served to explain the experiences for which science later provided better arguments.

Some cultures and some individual worldviews still rest on theocratic or dogmatic grounds. There is little point to try to carry on a rational conversational with anyone with such a basic belief in how the world works and what is the “truth.” The best that can result from interaction is an agreement to disagree at the level of fundamental beliefs. The worst is exemplified by the bombing, that is winning an argument through unmitigated force. I can offer no easy solutions as this is the subject that has engaged the best minds of humans for ages. But as the destructive power of technology continues to grow, we cannot ignore this challenge.

In a related way, unsustainability could be seen as the result of terrorism against the earth and its inhabitants. Our modern beliefs have created a culture that views the Earth, and increasingly, its inhabitants, as economic resources. For those of us that frequently characterize the way we live in the US and other affluent nations as senseless, the historical way we have argued with those perpetrating the terrorist acts rests on of some rational foundation. Rationality is the foundation of everything that has been done and is being done in the name of sustainability. This hasn’t worked and won’t work. We who worry about sustainability-as-flourishing are coming from a worldview incompatible with that of the mainstream culture. We have as much chance of winning our arguments as convincing a would-be terrorist that their plan is senseless.

We do have to talk to one another if the terrorism is to cease. By now you should get it that I am using terrorism to refer to acts perpetrated against those more or less powerless to defend themselves as were those killed and injured in Boston. But the same can be said of the habitats destroyed, the species made extinct, the poor who are made poorer, the future generations who will have a diminished Earth to inhabit and so on. And any such talk must start with the acceptance that each of our different beliefs, the truths we use to argue and justify our acts, are contingent and fallible.

Opposed to these differences that make living together so difficult is a single important truth. Human beings (I believe) are special creatures because they care about the world in which they live. If we can start with a (tentative) agreement on this belief, then I am confident that our differences can be resolved by both rational argumentation and pragmatic experimentation.