Black and White vs. Gray

At drinks on Saturday night we ended up discussing the tendency of people to like simple answers.

Coloring your life in black and white makes it easy. There is good and bad. There are things that are allowed and things that aren’t. And there is no gray area in-between.

But that almost requires the belief in evil, a belief that some people actually wake up in the morning with bad intent. Because people do bad things so therefore there must be bad people.

But are there?

Don’t we all have some internal logic that makes what we do sensible? When I took a training session on Crucial Conversations we were trained to ask “why would a reasonable rational person do that?” Of course that assumes that the person you are discussing is both reasonable and rational.

When I worked in an office – things broke – problems occurred – people disagreed. But not because someone woke up that morning and said to themselves “I’m going to cause problems at work today”.

So why would a young man get up one morning – strap on explosives – and attempt to destroy an airplane?

I spent some time reading the comments posted with the story. That was hard. Some of the time it was like willingly walking into a gutter filled with fear, hate and filth. But I wanted to know what people were posting.

Comments on news stories (or blogs for that matter) are not indicative of the feelings of the country as a whole. They are a subset of a subset of a subset. First off they are people who are online and read the news and who leave comments. And in the case of a sampling of the comments I read – they like their world in black and white.

They like to label things.

“All terrorists are Muslim”    

 And blame people.

“It was his Father’s fault.”

And blame organizations

“It was the US Embassies fault, the Netherlands fault, a failure of our security screening processes.”

Then there are those that are trying to counter those feelings. Questioning the simplistic ideas and trying to wait for more information. The more information that came out – the more these views predominated.  

Terrorism is a story of the “have-nots” attempts to hurt the “haves”. It is an impulse of hate and fear. Fear of what can’t be controlled. Hate of those who have what you want. Hate of those that you see as destroying or taking away what you have. It has nothing to do with religion. All religions have produced terrorists – when they feel subjugated by other groups. Our memory is simply too short – we have forgotten our home grow terrorists – McVeigh and Nichols and the atrocities perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan.

So why did this young man decide to become a suicide bomber?

We will know more as the days progress, and no doubt it will be couched in the language of religion. But this isn’t about religion. This is about control. And someone convinced him that the only way he could take control was by strapping on a bomb. Listen not to the words – but to the tone. Not to the quotations – but to who they are aimed at. The subtext will tell its own story. Stop listening for “Allah” or “Islam” and listen to what lies beneath.

There are no easy answers to why this young man did what he did. He did not come from poverty. From what has been reported, he did not come from an extremist family. His family was worried enough about him and the changes in his behavior to warn the authorities.

There is a complicated story here – filled with small steps that eventually led him to a flight landing in Detroit.

It won’t be an easy story – and although there will be people that we can paint in black and white – there will also be a lot of gray.

~ Tess Anderson


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