Serpent Blog

Who Are We, Really? 

We are told that terror is something beyond us. Something outside us, waiting to enter. Terror is a plane. Terror is a bomb. Terror, we believe, comes unexpectedly, and from far away. Terror is a mystery - an angry Jihadist in a ski-mask, a band of bearded men hidden in a mountain cave. They show us grainy videos to bolster such perceptions. They play crackling audio tapes. The Arabic language has become terrifying. We feel terror in the ghostly reverb of the daily call-to-prayer. Islam has fused with terror. Muslim, for many, means terror. Kill them there or kill them here.

But here has never been a refuge from terror. Not so long ago men were routinely dragged from their beds at night, grabbed off the streets or abducted from jails without trials. They were tortured, mutilated and killed. They were strung up like cuts of meat in public places and burned alive before ecstatic crowds, with children in attendance, and ladies in summer hats. Their body parts were sold as souvenirs. Terror is not an import.

Let us speak now of our terror - the American holocaust - the hundred years’ war against those of us who are black. Thousands of men and women, murdered for perceived offenses against a white illusion of superiority. Slavery and the systematic subjugation of black peoples did not simply end with Lincoln’s proclamation of freedom, it just took on a different form, a new and jagged texture. Five thousand documented lynchings in that time alone. Uncounted were the beatings, mutilations and dismemberments, the rapes and the burnings that sought to cauterize the spirit of Africans forced to live as second-class Americans. Terror is homegrown.

Our reign of domestic terror against dark-skinned people reinforced psychologically that which slavery could no longer accomplish legally. Slavery, sometimes referred to as our great shame, was the first act of American terror and Jim Crow gave it a Christian name. But is it a shame or is it a symptom? Historians euphemistically call slavery our original sin thus participating in a sort of rhetorical revision, and weaving terror into the idealized poetic fabric of our savage beginnings. As if slavery, and not our inherent violence, racism and materialism were all that stood between a nation and a notion.

We were never innocent. Though we are, each of us, a child of God, the name of that child is Cain. Remember, we were born in an uprising. To arms! To arms! is a call to kill. Our collective soul was forged in the fires of violent revolution and tempered in a great and tragic civil war. We glorify our westward expansion, proclaiming it manifest and sanctifying it destiny. We celebrate the rugged individualism of the pioneers who decimated the natives of a land we conquered by force. We idolize the cowboy, the outlaw and the gun, that demonic technology, refined and perfected for the rapid expulsion and accurate delivery of flesh piercing metal, designed to kill human beings. Our formative history has acquainted us well with terror.

We are, at our core, killers. We justify killing in the name of stopping killing. We kill to preserve order and peace. We kill to promote democracy. We kill terrorists and anyone who gets in the way of killing terrorists. We kill criminals, who are mostly black men who’ve killed other black men. We kill the president and we kill the man who killed the president, and we kill the president’s brother, and we kill our greatest preacher of non-violence. No wonder our children, when angered, and armed with weapons designed for efficient mass-murder, kill their teachers, their bullies and themselves. Violence is not just ingrained, it is continually reinforced. The actions and policies of our government and our system of justice, condone and perpetuate killing as a practical solution to our vexing problems. The news and entertainment media, to which we are addicted, thrives upon violent imagery, elevating it to an exalted status, creating a powerful form of subconscious propaganda continually renewing the call to violent conflict resolution. Terror is home-brewed.

We tolerate murder and violence, daily drive-by shootings and street-corner homicides in our own cities. So why would the genocide in Rwanda phase us? How could the campaign of amputations in Darfur shock us? Why would systematic mass rape in the Congo horrify us, let alone register on our consciences? These brutal acts of terror are reduced to imperceptible headline crawls below our latest celebrity scandals. They scroll by faster than the legal disclaimers in the ads for our luxury cars. We consider ourselves lucky that our murders and our rapes occur on a much smaller scale. Here, it’s controlled, zoned-in and manageable. There, it’s safely distant. We don’t have to think about it because they, those people over there, are poor, and dark and not as civilized as we are. We believe we’ve got terror contained in all those far-flung theres, but we’ve got our own strategic reserves right here.

There is no here or there. Such a concept is a conceit. The world is flat. Physical borders hinder, at best, human passage not information or ideas. Here or there embodies one dimension in this new age of connectivity – place, geography, nation. There is no longer a time or a cultural component to there. What is there? Iraq? Afghanistan? There is amorphous. There, is the Middle East. “Fight them there or fight them here” is a tacit acceptance of destruction and violence outside our borders. It permits suicide bombers and roadside explosives, as long as they are there. It allows for acceptable levels of wounded and dead American soldiers – who are our children, our fathers and our mothers. The word terror, and the catch phrase here or there creates, in the minds of soldiers and their families, a logical framework for another catch phrase - the ultimate sacrifice. We accept that some of us must be sacrificed to keep the there there and the here clear – clear for business as usual, clear for the politics of division, clear of the terror of a sudden , violent, unjustifiable death; which was always here.

We train young people to kill in the service of a flag bearing thirteen stripes of revolt and fifty stars of union, a union won with bullets and held together with hair and bone and blood. Liberty, our founding fathers told us, comes at a price. Freedom, must be fought for and won. Thomas Jefferson, to whom we credit the eloquent language of our declaration of freedom and our basic human rights wrote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” “Blood”, he says, “is a natural manure”. So, when the great father of our democracy, a slave-owner and author of all men are created equal baptizes the essential idea of America with blood, our very foundation is then built upon the premise that we must kill in order to be free. The freedom to kill, then, is the purest of our freedoms. We reserve the right to kill if one of us is killed or if we believe there is a credible possibility we may be killed. We won this right at Lexington and Bunker Hill and upheld it at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dresden and Mai-Lai. Now that’s terror.

We, as a nation, and we as members of a living species on this planet, are caught in a cycle of ‘preventive’ violence and violent reprisal. Violence, which will always breed bitterness and contempt, perpetuates itself. Violence is a virus that has invaded our souls, tricking our minds into believing in its own necessity and thus replicating itself over and over again. We have become the hosts for this virus. And the relationship between this virus and its host has become symbiotic in that our government and our rampant corporate greed benefits from the illusion that violence and killing and war seem natural and unstoppable and thus go on. And that is because we have allowed it to be unstoppable. Terror is not the use or threat of violence to achieve a political end. Terror is violence and violence, in all forms and for all reasons, is terror.

We must end it. We must live by a code of peace and non-violence that is reinforced by the policies of our government, the practices of our media and the conduct of our people. My must stop executing men who are prisoners of the economic conditions and hopelessness created by the system that incarcerated them. We must stop killing those we call terrorists and address the conditions that created them in the first place. We must stop celebrating violence by broadcasting it and glorifying it.

“Only a refusal to hate and kill can put an end to the chain of violence in the world and lead us toward a community where men can live together without fear”.

These are the words of a man who preached non-violence, practiced non-violence and died violently because of it. Martin King uses the word fear, but fear of violence is terror.

Until we stop the rampant killing that plagues our inner cities, and address the conditions that beget drug use and street gangs and school shooters, until we admit the 2nd Amendment was right then but wrong now, and that a Government, if feared enough to warrant preparations against itself is inherently flawed, we are doomed, and will continue to send our children to die in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and on the streets of America. We must resurrect the spirits and ideas of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The time for Doctor King was certainly then, but is definitely now. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. The war is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence? A time comes when silence is betrayal. These words spoken by Martin King are not just prescient, they are universal truths.

“The virtues of love, mercy and forgiveness should stand at the center of our lives…We must blot out the hate and injustice of the old age with the love and justice of the new. That is why I believe so firmly in nonviolence.”

The terror we fear so much is not far away, or foreign, or unique to a time or a people. The terror of an unearned, undeserved, cruel and violent death is ubiquitous and local and entirely man-made. And there is a way to stop it. That way lies in our wills and in our hearts, where actions and ideas are sprung.

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