EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Let’s Change the Future

On reclaiming our humanity in times of fear

I have a strange feeling, like I’ve been here before.

Everything looks familiar. The highly coordinated Islamist attack on a “Western” nation; the bloodthirsty demand for revenge; the calls to war abroad and the suspension of liberties at home; the simplification of the world into good guys and bad guys, the civilized and the barbarous, the us and the them.

Yes. I have definitely been here before.

It was about a decade ago. I remember it well. I remember the way an attack by one terrorist group with a specific agenda became a carte blanche upon which spurious rhetorical claims, baseless wars, and horrific policies were written by the United States government and co-signed by its people, then cashed to the detriment of innocent Muslims and Arabs across the world.

I remember that, having experienced the literal terror of watching planes fly into our buildings and seeing thousands of people die, we let the fear of further attacks dictate everything. I remember the way nothing could surmount the possibility we held in our minds that it could happen again.

So we divided the world. We created a policy and convinced people that objection to that policy was support for terrorism, so that opposing U.S. actions could not be taken seriously. We conflated independent terrorist organizations with Arab nations, and then declared proxy wars against these states. We pretended that anyone who fell into the suspicious gaze of the War on Terror was automatically worthy of being branded an “enemy combatant,” and we held them in detention camps, with little or no evidence, without the right to challenge their imprisonment, without access to counsel, without the assurance of a fair trial, and without even the knowledge of when — or if — they were going to be released. We drew up and renewed the PATRIOT Act, allowing the U.S. government unprecedented powers against its own citizens. We convinced ourselves that it was alright to torture human beings for information.

As the years went by and the immediacy of the fear faded, the picture became clearer. And we were shamed. It became not just acceptable, but righteous, to condemn our actions. Some of us advocated for the rights of detainees, and won some important victories. The wars became almost universally discredited. The U.S. elected a President who campaigned against abuses of power such as had been justified by the War on Terror. And we paraded torturers as pariahs before the world. And as the dust cleared and gave way to new geopolitical events, we saw with horror that our actions, ostensibly meant to free the world from terror, had created new places for terror and other miseries to take hold. The misadventures of the 2000s became a national embarrassment. We knew better.

And now, we’re being asked to forget again. We’re in that same place, only now the surroundings are more French than American.

Following the attacks in Paris, which themselves were motivated by intervention in Syria, we of Europe and America hear that bombs must fall. We hear that refugees must be detained or blocked. We see flags being raised to affirm nationalist affiliations instead of human dignity. We hear angry and Islamophobic voices, and we see that critics are quickly written off as naïve. We hear that terrorism is about destroying the Western way of life, and that this is a cataclysmic battle between two irreconcilable conceptions of the world. We are told that civil liberties must be curtailed in order to address an existential threat. We see everything reduced to good and evil, right and wrong.

We are being asked once again to forget the effects our actions and policies have on other parts of the world and on other cultures. We are being asked to set aside everything we learned after 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We are being asked to deny the human rights of others, to reconstitute justice as not respect for them, but vengeance upon them. We are being asked to soothe our fear with the blood of more innocent victims — victims of our strikes and our policies. We are being asked to turn our ears away from the dialogue, and to close our minds off to the critical self-awareness, that help us know how to navigate the world responsibly. We are being asked to re-adopt the mental framework in which anti-Western sentiment is so completely inexplicable that it can only be pathological, which necessarily means that we are on the side of goodness — and the only proper response to an attack upon good is to destroy evil.

The world is stripped of its histories, and of its people, with their deep subjectivities and complicated relationships. There is no need to understand these complexities, to engage. For there are only abstract qualities. And in this simplified world, where we must prevail and the other must be vanquished, we are being asked to re-engage in the atrocities that re-cast revenge and reprisal as “defenses of our way of life.”

When we were in the middle of the chaos of the War on Terror, people then had strange feelings of déjà vu as well. They saw around them the old needless persecutions of the Vietnam War. They remembered the national shame of the Japanese evicted from their homes and held in internment camps for fear of disloyalty. They hung their heads as the West willingly erased its memory in order to avenge itself.

Today, I try to imagine the future. I try to imagine what will become of the throngs of innocent refugees, themselves desperately attempting to get away from terror. I try to imagine what will become of the nations of the Middle East and the people who live there, and what new arrangements will follow from the West’s seemingly unquenchable urge to assert itself. And all I can see is more victims, more deaths, more displaced persons, and more groups pulling members from the disaffected strata of various societies, reminding them of what the Western world has done to them.

Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle recognized that all that was needed to appeal to a people’s sense of fear was to present them with a terrifying and credible threat against which they have the capacity to act. And as the psychologist Thomas Pyszczynski has noted, the kind of existential fear that we associate with terrorism is so overwhelming as to subordinate all other considerations to it. Anything becomes justifiable when we are afraid of being terrorized. And so we forget the consequences of what we do, only to realize them later, when it is too late.

And then forget them again, the next time we are afraid.

Is there any hope for us? Can we see things another way? Let’s try. Let’s try hard. Let’s think with Hannah Arendt. Arendt points out that we do not have the privilege of removing ourselves from the flow of time; we cannot see things from a true outside perspective, in which everything is clear. But this does not mean that our fate is to be helplessly pushed along by the ever-accumulating past, mercilessly ground into the front edge of an inevitable and ever-approaching future. There is always a small space between us and the future, even as we are constantly being carried into it. We can thoughtlessly span this gap by walking straight ahead, thus forming a future that is in complete consonance with the past, a stiff and rigid timeline that refuses to deviate where it should. Or we can move sideways, surprising the future and sending it off on a new course, breaking the inevitable shape of the flow of time and redirecting it toward new possibilities.

The key is using the space. It is a space of thought, where we have a fleeting opportunity to evaluate, and undertake actions that are more than just reproductions of the typical. It is the space where it is possible to prevent the past from becoming the future. It is a small moment, but a moment that is always directly in front of us, in which we can conquer the seemingly inevitable and drastically reorient our history.

Arendt’s little space that lies “between past and future” is, here, the space where our humanity is to be found. It is the space where fear doesn’t have to reign and mislead. It is the space where the value and dignity of human lives are preserved. It is the space where the world regains its complexity and speaks to us, as a teacher to open-minded students. It is the space where compassion can win over hatred, where restraint can win over reprisal, where unity can supplant division. It is the space where the iron grip of the past can be wrenched from our shoulders, giving us access to an alternate future greatly preferable to anything we’ve seen so far.

It’s the space where you are more than a helpless pawn of irresponsible powers. It’s where you are liberated from your implication in the ongoing horror of the world. It’s where you become free to act, to make a difference. And it’s a space for all of us to use, together, in all our differences and misunderstandings and complications and complexities, in order to prevent the unacceptable from becoming the order of the day, and the day after, and the day after, and the day after.

It’s the space where I’ve committed myself to live. I invite you to join me here.

Zachary Sunderman

  • Ali Shames-Dawson

    People have been clamoring for smart, sensitive, nuanced responses to the attacks. This is just such a one. Thank you, Zach.

  • Charles Turner

    no thanks

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