Yesterday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, about 40 miles from where I live in LA, has been like freak weather: impossible to ignore. As the weird sense of unreality persists, a day later, it’s also got me thinking about what makes terrorism unlike anything else that kills us.
I remember pondering this question a long time ago back in the early 2000s, when religious extremists and AVB types set off car bombs and threatened war in South Africa in the early 2000s. I began looking strangely at rubbish bins, and parked cars as I walked to walk in Cape Town. But then, the attacks stopped, and I forgot about that fear I felt. That specific fear, that is.
Naturally, I have always been aware that dying suddenly in a violent way was something that could happen to me. What South African doesn’t know that’s a possibility? But there’s something about terrorism that seems different to the ugly, yet mundane, fear of crime. There’s a reason this story from far away at the other end of America was breaking news back home, too, and it’s not only schadenfreude that drives the interest. It’s also the fact that it’s fascinating because it’s so hard to understand.
A mass shooting with a seemingly political motive is even trickier to make sense of in a relatively first world place like California, where driving factors like poverty and political instability are hardly powerful enough to explain it.
Crime vs Terror
What’s scariest to me about terrorism is how unreasonable it seems. There’s no cause and effect. No point, in the end.
I’ve always imagined - and often heard stories from - people who were able to negotiate with those who robbed or attacked them, to preserve their lives. But there’s no way to negotiate with a religiously crazed person who imagines themselves a martyr, and who has planned for months how to kill as many people as possible. Who you are doesn’t matter to a terrorist. Muslim, Christian, Male, Female, Child, disabled, old… You’re going to die.
You can’t pay a terrorist to let you go. Criminals may be scary, but they seem to be doing what they do for some kind of measurable personal gain. While stats show that gang-banger drug dealers in California earn a lot less than minimum wage, they do occasionally reap some fiscal rewards – enough to buy their own meth, even if they can’t afford to move out of their Mom’s house! Terrorists and gun toting lunatics, however, don’t care about money, or even the lives of their own children.
While you can reduce your crime risks by staying in safe places and hiding your valuables, it’s impossible to avoid being the victim of a terror attack by being sensible. “Safe” places are exactly where those who hate other people using the excuse of an ideology or religion will strike: Schools, movie theaters, concerts, cafes, churches, mosques, temples, medical facilities, holiday party venues...
And what’s scariest about terrorism, I guess, is how driven it is by blind and unjustified hate, and how pointless it is in the longer term. No terrorist organisation who train kids to kill by having them decapitate dolls, then film them doing it to humans in real life and posted that on the internet, is ever going to win a national election. While they may control a population for some time through terror, they’ll never persist, they only leave deep scars.
Where are the extremists who set pipe bombs and car bombs in South Africa back in the 90s and early 2000s? If not in jail, they’re certainly not our heroes now. All they achieved was making it harder for us to travel. The killings carried out in the name of the “Struggle” were actions the ANC had to distance itself from to gain the trust of the country, and still struggles to live down despite the evil apartheid establishment they were fighting.
Speaking of Evil…
To my mind, all terrorism achieves is terror, and all that should be felt by those involved is shame. It’s an action of hate so overpowering that courage isn’t necessary and morality and justice no longer seem to matter anymore. It’s bewildering, and hard to believe.
As a child, I was raised to avoid using the word “evil”, because it made it possible to pretend it wasn’t “of” us, and that we could never do wrong like that ourselves. This was probably a good idea, given that I was a white kid, benefitting from growing up in Apartheid South Africa.
But the actions of terrorists – be it in Sandy Hook, or South Carolina, or San Bernardino - couldn’t feel more alien than they do, or more pointless, or more evil. Already, Muslims in Southern California - despite openly and loudly condemning the attack - are being targeted by brainless bigots. Already, the evil is spreading. And yes, I’m calling it: Evil. Sorry, Ma, but I’m guessing you agree.
- Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.
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