Monday, December 7, 2015

On Turbulence and Terrorism

The roots of fear are what is unknown to us and what cannot be controlled by us. In a word: vulnerability. And the deepest vulnerability of the human condition is, of course, death. Our own, and those of the people we love. In this way, turbulence and terrorism share some common features.

As I write this, I'm sitting on a plane from New York to Seattle. There's more than a little turbulence. Enough to be disquieting and remind me that I don't know certain things that seem to matter in this moment: the mindset and skill-set of the strangers who are piloting this plane and in whose hands my life and those of my family now reside; the structural integrity of a complex machine whose most basic engineering and operation I'll never understand; the weather conditions that prompt me to exert what little control I think I have by tightening my seatbelt and occupying my mind the best way I know how.

The pilot knows this: he gets on the intercom and apologizes in a soft, deep, reassuring, disembodied voice reminiscent of a Hollywood caricature of God. He tells us it won't be much longer and says something banal about altitude and air traffic control. The tone and content of his words tell us we shouldn't be afraid--we are not truly vulnerable. Finally, he turns off the fasten seat belt sign and delivers on his promise.

But of course it's all a lie--a beneficent lie, but a lie nonetheless: we are always vulnerable, not because of turbulence necessarily, or terrorism, but simply because we're alive.

And in this way terrorism is like turbulence: it's something that, unless we are its perpetrators, we don't understand and we can't control. And it makes us feel vulnerable more acutely than just going about our business. (Business in which we are also, always, perpetually vulnerable simply by virtue of existing).

When a white American shoots up a school or an office, it's terrifying. But it's not called "terrorism." When a Muslim American (far less frequently) does literally the exact same thing, it's called "terrorism."


Presumably because the act was motivated by allegiance to an ideology that we as a society feel we can't know and can't control.

The different labels are misleading though, and belie a false sense of comfort. We also cannot know and cannot control the white American terrorist, but we think we can. We think we know him, because we perceive that he is more "like us." And in being "like us," fear is diluted: he is less unknown, and therefore more controllable, and therefore we are not as vulnerable to his terroristic impulses as we are to those of the Muslim American.

That's the false narrative we're lulled into believing, anyway.

We refuse to apply the label "terrorist" to this white American, because doing so robs us of that perceived familiarity and corresponding diminishment in our perceived vulnerability.

But let's be real.

In the end, turbulence is turbulence and terrorism is terrorism. The causes of each are less interesting than what each does to our sense of fear and vulnerability, but they're no less important.

We need to understand the causes of both to solve or at least mitigate both: A pilot should understand the way a plane operates in turbulence and how to diminish it for the comfort of passengers. And free governments should be elected to understand the causes of terrorism for the safety of its people. Not just affix neat labels in order to placate ourselves, or to take legal bribes from the NRA, but to look at the conditions we collectively create--virtually unfettered access to guns chief among them--that aid and abet terrorists.

Both those we don't know, and those we think we do.

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