Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Sorrow of London Town

"Cockney Feet Mark the Beat of History, Every Step Pins A Memory Down. Nothing Ever Can Quite Replace The Pride of London Town." -- song lyrics by Noel Coward Evil commuted into central London this week. Three bombs detontated in the city's underground Tube subway system, and one vaporized the top portion of a doubledecker bus on the street. Upwards of 50 people have already died, 700-plus wounded, and many unaccounted for. Even now rescue teams cannot get to some of the shattered bodies at certain stations deep below the city's surface. Britons' traditional stiff upper lips are quivering with grief, but still they are gamely carrying on, undeterred in their intention to live as they've always done, and fight terrorists wherever they find them. The carnage recalls the horror of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, as well as our own indelible experience on 9/11/2001. The question everyone seems to be asking, helplessly, is "how can we rid the world of terrorism?" We can't, not completely. We can only give it our best effort: fight wars, pass laws, hunt fugitives, check IDs, convict criminals, profile foreigners, interrogate suspects, guard borders, search vehicles, inspect bags, translate chatter, neutralize cells, unlace shoes, monitor airwaves, pursue Osama, freeze funds, gather evidence, and...cry ourselves to sleep when the sorrow grows too deep. Terror has been around a lot longer than, say, the killing of Israeli Olympic athletes by Arab terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. Ironically, one of the earliest identified groups with characteristics of modern terrorism were the Jewish Zealots. They fought against Roman rule of Judea. They were referred to as "dagger men" who would carry out assassinations of both Roman occupying forces and Jewish collaborators with the ruling regime. The Zealots felt that living as Roman subjects would compromise their Jewish beliefs. Zealot terrorism gave way to an open revolution which resulted in the siege of Masada (yes, you can rent the movie!) where many of its followers died. Now, of course, "zealot" has become a noun inextricably linked to fanaticism. In our own American history we have that whole Indians vs the Settlers thing. Native American Indians sometimes rode in, torched settlements, and maybe even carried off a few women and children to be forced to learn native ways. ("Shops-with-Wampum," or "Longs-for-Video-Games.") Can we blame them? Surely we weren't expecting them to pack themselves off to a reservation, join the U.S. Cavalry, or just simply disappear. At the same time, U.S. soldiers and settlers were known to have massacred a tribe or two, offered smallpox-infected blankets or violated a treaty now and again. Surely the Indians weren't expecting us to stay bottled up in Delaware, moored to Plymouth rock, or cloistered on Cape Cod. We weren't going to leave the country unsettled. So Prairie Etiquette and Neighborly Negotiation broke down. Terrorism erupted. It isn't a new thing. Only the variations and means of delivery are new. Terrorists think their cause is more important than the innocent lives they are taking. I guess the struggle for power is more crucial if you think living on this earth is more important than what happens to you after you die. Is your soul worth a worldly political gain? Only if you're planning on running for Mayor of Hell. (Eh, won't speculate on what THAT campaign would look like.) It doesn't matter if you're a ranking member of Al Qaeda or the lone nut Unabomer, who for years sent package bombs to oddly selected targets such as airline executives, scientists and academics. His nemesis was "technology," and you can see how well his campaign to eradicate it worked! Determined individuals can wreak terror even with few resources and a shockingly simple plan. D.C. snipers John Muhammad and Lee Malvo proved that a few years back. They terrorized the entire Washington metropolitan area using only a junky car and a rifle, shooting at residents via a hole in the trunk. If it were not for taunting notes and clues left by Muhammad, they might never have been caught. The could've killed daily, had they wanted to, and had a far higher body count. Good thing bullets aren't cheap! When people talk of "stopping terrorism" they refer to a state of relative calm in which politically-motivated terrorists or personally-motivated crazies refrain from inflicting their violent fantasies on society. They can never be entirely stopped. I'm always amazed at how few of these incidents there are, considering what I believe to be the high number of crazies we currently have running loose in our country. Most of them are "good citizens" most of the time, if you think about it! If they all took to the streets at once I'd have to cower with my family in my laundry room hoping that the high spin cycle drowned out the shooting outside. Terrorist acts are willful ones, and they outrage us because they are unnecessary. But maybe we'd be better off viewing them as unfortunate things that happen, like a tornado leveling your house. You can shake your fist at the sky, but then it's time to contact the insurance company. In that sense terrorist acts are no different than car wrecks, plane crashes and natural disasters of every stripe. The fact that someone planned a terrorist act makes it more horrible, but no more avoidable than a lightning strike. You take your basic precautions and hope for the best. I don't want to die in a terrorist incident, but neither do I want to die in a tsunami or in an appliance malfunction. We all want to die peacefully in our sleep when we're 85. Well it just isn't possible! Some of us have to catch malaria, forget to take an important pill or get hit by the crosstown bus. We should be ready to die at any time. Terrorism is nothing but a reminder that we all need to have our spiritual affairs in order because our final prayers might not be issued from a hospital bed. We may not have time to pray at all.

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