by Nick Inman
Our usual response to terrorism is a mixture of outrage, condemnation and incomprehension. It makes no sense. Terrorists act in a way that is alien to us: kidnapping and beheading innocent people, firing sub-machine guns around bars and detonating explosive belts in crowded places? If there is an explanation it must be that they are irrational, evil, and/or mad.
We are indignant but worse we are impotent. What else can we do except cower at home and let the authorities respond on our behalf by tightening security and dropping bombs?
Anyone who considers himself or herself “spiritual,” as I do, cannot stop there, seething with righteous but futile anger and hate. That is no way to nurture peace. The first thing we have to do is decouple our automatic stimulus/reaction mechanism and then think how else we might respond.
The Dalai Lama urges us to seek the resolution of conflict by non-violent means beginning with prayer and compassion – not just for the victims but for the terrorists as well, whose hearts, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, are “not yet capable of loving.”
Compassion for the ultra-violent is a noble ideal and a good way to start to do something about terrorism. I am sure some great souls are capable of slipping into it immediately there is a new attack but for most of us it is not that easy. Compassion is complicated and sets many traps for us. It is too easy to proclaim compassion in words without doing it; or to use it as an excuse for passivity; or do it as a religious or ideological obligation without meaning it; or to take a knowing-wise stance as if bestowing charity. The word needs some unpacking if we are to adopt it in an effective and sustainable way.
What do I need in order to enter a state of compassion? I need more than a theoretical grasp of cosmology: that we are all one in one great system that works perfectly if only we can perceive it, that love solves all problems eventually etc.
I need to understand certain things, especially my own place in the universe. And I have to do this on my own. Understanding is always individual act. It cannot be done collectively, in public. I cannot be told how to do it by politicians or news reporters.
Understanding is hard work and it is not risk-free. I will be required to leave my comfort zone. If I am to understand the terrorist I must abandon any notion of superiority. If I tell myself, “I would never do that which he has done…” I am engaged in projecting and judging the other. I must put this belief aside for the moment, that he is different to me in his very nature, and seek a position of genuine humility.
Compassion only begins when I put myself in the shoes of the other, regardless of superficial religious, cultural or political differences. If I am part of the same universe, the same humanity as the terrorist, I must join with him at some point, on, as it were, the same level.
Only by giving up (at least temporarily) some safe ground – my smug, self-righteousness and my most cherished beliefs about human nature – can I hope to close the gap between myself and any other person.
I must give up the reassuring mechanisms that keep the world at a distance, to which I have grown attached. I must curb my prejudices and stop classifying other people by the groups they belong to and the labels that are easy to pin on them – maybe which they want to have pinned on them. I must suspend any notion that my morality is simple or absolute. Finally, I must be willing to ask myself any question that I have for him? If, for instance, I want to know “Why did you act in a certain way?” I must have an explanation for my own behaviour. If I want to discuss his attitude to death, I must be willing to stare hard at my own,
Only by clearing the ground in this way can we get down to a conversation, individual to individual.
Ideally, what I want is to sit down and talk to the terrorist whose actions have so offended me in the past and to the terrorist who may still be to come. That, of course, is impossible for several reasons. It is tempting to try to think myself into the head of some “typical” terrorist but that is absurd: every man or woman who I call a terrorist is an individual acting from particular motives in particular circumstances. A generalisation only ever leads to a general and vague understanding and that will not help me find compassion.
Fortunately I have a resource close to me. Myself, the potential terrorist. The way into someone’s mind is through my own. To understand him I need only look inside me. I need not assume anything about him. All I need to do is explore the space between us, setting out from the only possible starting point and moving towards him.
Why, I want to know, am I not in his position and he mine? Supposing I was to find myself in his situation right now, how might I have got there? If he is able to want to take a specific action, I am capable of wanting to do it to. I contain the capacity for tenderness and love, or for being a monster. What course of his life brought him to his fate?
To be born into an incarnation on planet earth is to be given the same basic ingredients of life. These are, of course, immediately played upon by circumstance. It is this that creates the great variety of the world; it is this that engenders everything I do not like. But for all the diversity, all of us grow up facing the same set of issues that include:
- How do I cope with the biological urges of my body
- Who gives me my identity? How much of it can I choose or change? How do I balance the “in-here” me with the “out-there?”
- How do I make sense of my life: what can I do with it to make a contribution to the world?
- What do I mean by happiness, how important is it to pursue it and how do I pursue it?
- What do I think about other people – do I need their approval or love – and what are my moral values? Do I adopt those of my family, the society I live in, the religion I was born into – or do I dare make choices that those around me disapprove of? What should be may attitude to the needs and rights of other people?
- What is my relationship with the supernatural, particularly the divine? This question has two aspects: how I experience this in private, inside, and how I experience it in public.
- To what degree am I attached to the world? How detached can I be? Is it all as real as the say it is? What does and does not matter?
- How do I handle fear; how do I prove my courage; and how do I approach death – my own and that of others? What cause is worth sacrificing myself for?
- What do I think of traditions and its received wisdoms? Do I accept them without question or rebel against them?
- Am I capable of hope? If the world is becoming more as I would like it to be, am I able to see it?
- How can I express the energy that wells up inside of me? how can I have power over myself and over others?
There are many other such issues that all human beings either ponder on or try to ignore. Each of us deals with them as best we can, from the moment of self-consiciousness to the moment of our extinction. Inside, we try to build a model to live by and with determination it can become coherent and functional. But it may just seem – to myself and to others – that it is incoherent and dysfunctional. “Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman. “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
It is quite a challenge being human. I like to think I manage it better than someone who resorts to armed barbarism – that is my working assumption – but I shouldn’t let my overconfidence cloud my assessment of myself and the other.
We are not that different in the core of our ambition. Each of us arrives at the same point: I want the world to see things my way which I insist is the best or right way. He is the same.
Of course, we radically part company, the terrorist and I, the moment that he makes it his mission to impose his world view on other people by killing and destroying; and I make it my mission to talk peace and reconciliation, however impossible things seem.
But there is another difference between us. I, at least, have a choice of how I respond to his intimidation. Even if I disapprove of his actions, I need not sever the thread that connects us by being born into the same species.
Maybe I am just lucky with the conditions in which I live; or maybe it has nothing to do with them but I can decidee to strive to learn, however difficult that may be, instead of resorting to murder and self-annihilation.
In the short term at least (and, I would argue in the long run) there is nothing good for anyone in terrorism and there will always be sensible public measures we have to take to defend ourselves against it and cope when it happens. But we need not let that blind us to the challenge it presents each of us with personally. Do I go along with the herd in the wake of a terrorist atrocity, accept defeat and talk defiance? Or do I respond as if it is a challenge to my core beliefs, to examine them and if necessary reaffirm them as part of my continuing spiritual awakening?
About the author:
Nick Inman (born in Yorkshire in 1956) is a writer and photographer specialising in France and Spain. in 1984-85 he spent nine formative months living with the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is the author of A Guide to Mystical France: Secrets, Mysteries, Sacred Sites, as well as Politipedia, The Optimist’s Handbook and Who on Earth Are You? He lives in southwest France.