Fear of the other has always marked human society. In response to this I frequently hear calls for us to be “tolerant” of those who are different. I don’t think tolerance is capable of overcoming fear. To tolerate something suggests that it is distasteful, that I’ll keep myself as far removed from it is possible but put up with it for the sake of maintaining some greater good. What we need is not more toleration but understanding.
In year 11 I attended a sport and rec camp with other students from my school, Sylvania High. Also attending were students from year 11 at Mount Druitt High Schoo. My image of Mount Druitt high was shaped by the white, Anglo mythologies that abounded in the Sutherland Shire, confirmed by TV news reports just some weeks before camp that showed rioting at Mount Druitt, and fuelled by my reading of The Cross And The Switchblade, David Wilkerson’s account of gang life in the United States. It wasn’t hard to imagine the students from Mount Druitt as a potentially dangerous “other”. I got to camp and discovered that they weren’t a bunch of gang members with flick knives ready to assault me at the slightest provocation. There were just a bunch of teenagers like me.
I see this pattern repeated over and over. The person who is afraid of refugees has a refugee move in next door and all of a sudden discovers they’re fears were misplaced. The person who insists Moslems will never integrate into Australian society, then has Muslims move into their neighbourhood and gets to know them because their kids attend the same school. Instead of fearing the stereotypes they discover that their Muslim friends are generous, kind, and that their faith embodies admirable values.
This is what I mean by understanding. Understanding comes when we engage with the other, when we share meals, tell stories, and open our hearts. Understanding collapses the distance between me and the “other” and turns them from an object of suspicion or fear into a friend. Understanding is built on the backbone of relationship, that interpersonal dynamic that binds us to the other and allows us to see the differences between us not as a threat but as something to be celebrated.
Toleration can’t do any of this and it won’t build a cohesive and harmonious society because fear will always triumph over it. But in understanding built on relationship fear strikes a much more resilient opponent. This is why don’t want to live in a tolerant society. Give me a society built on mutual understanding.
The nutters that run the National Rifle Association in the USA have published an article criticising Australia’s gun laws.In a breathtaking example of the triumph of fictive ideology over brute fact they declare the gun law reform implemented by Prime Minister John Howard has infringed on our liberties without making Australia any safer. The headline, “Australia. There Will Be Blood” suggest a more dangerous place.
Hmm, I don’t think so. Compare the list of gun massacres in the 15 years prior to the gun law reform with the 19 years since.
1984 Wahroonga, Milperra
1987 Top End, Hoddle St, Canley Vale, Queen St
1990 Surry Hills
1992 Central Coast
1996 Hillcrest, Port Arthur
GUN LAW REFORM
And it’s not only massacres that have declined. The rate of homicide has halved since the introduction of gun law reform in 1996.
I’ll take Australia’s gun laws over those of the USA every day of the week.
For a rigorous study of this issue see Andrew Leigh’s paper in American Law and Economics Review V12 N2 2010 (509–557) available at http://andrewleigh.org/pdf/gunbuyback_panel.pdf
Is anyone else disturbed by the tone of the anti-terror discussion? We have the PM calling for heads to roll at the ABC because a guy who was acquitted of terror offences and has since renounced his support for jihad asks some pointed questions on Q & A; the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection not only wanting the right to unilaterally strip citizenship from Australians he suspects of fighting with ISIS but declaring he doesn`t want the courts second guessing him; and the Leader of the Opposition welcoming the deaths of those Australians fighting with ISIS.
It seems that in the rush to combat terror we are surrendering the very things that make us strong and rushing headlong into the abyss of hatred, censorship and lawlessness that mark illiberal societies. This is not the time to waver in our commitment to the rule of law, the protection of freedoms, and the primacy of love but to assert them more strongly than ever.
When someone publicly questions government policy the appropriate response is not to shut down debate by declaring he has no right to be here and then shooting the messenger; it is rather to provide an intellectually robust defence of policy. The free contestability of ideas is one of the hallmarks of liberal democracy.
When citizens join a conflict we oppose and engage in murderous acts, the answer is not to disenfranchise them by the uncontested fiat of a politician, thereby making them another country’s problem, but to prosecute them in a court of law. History suggests any step away from this principle inevitably results in acts of tyranny.
And when anyone, let alone one of our own, dies on the battlefield, even fighting on the side of our enemy, surely we should be filled with grief. I am reminded of an old Jewish story of the exodus. The Red Sea has parted to allow the Israelites through, then closed in on the pursuing Egyptians. The Israelites are celebrating wildly, free at last from their captivity, when someone notices God isn’t there. “Where is he?” Moses asks. To which the archangel replies, “The Lord is over in the corner weeping, for many of his children died today.”
In the face of terror I want to say that I trust in the rule of law, the freedom of speech and religion, and respect for the humanity of all, even my enemy. These are the things that make us strong. Let us not surrender them.
Later this month US Republican senator Rick Santorum is expected to declare his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Speaking this week at the South Carolina Freedom Summit, a self-declared Conservative event, Santorum spoke of ISIS and the approach the United States should take to combating them:
If these people want to bring back a 7th-century version of Islam … then let’s load our bombers up and bomb them back to the 7th-century.
That’s right Rick, load up those bombers and rain death from the sky upon the women, men and children of the Middle East. Don’t worry about the fact that when you carpet bomb a country you don’t clinically remove enemy combatants, you use a very blunt instrument that kills indiscriminately. Don’t be bothered by the fact that bombing a country back to the seventh century condemns people in those countries to years of grinding poverty as their infrastructure is obliterated. What’s really important is for America feel great again.
This is the same Rick Santorum who is avowedly pro-life, who in the last presidential race said
The issue of pro-life, the sanctity and dignity of every human life, not just on the issue of abortion, but with respect to the entire life, and the dignity of people at the end of life, those issues will be top priority issues for me to make sure that all life is respected and held with dignity.
Santorum is typical of many. On the one hand he can compassionately and passionately argue for the right to life at the beginning and end of life, but somehow seems comfortable with inflicting death on the supposedly unworthy in the middle of life.
I’m with Rick on the need to respect and reverence life. I just wish we could extend this same reverence to people who are not “one of us”. If that was our starting point there would be a lot less externally imposed death at the start, the middle, and the end of life.
The great environmentalist David Suzuki has spoken of the shame he experienced when as a Canadian of Japanese descent, he and his family were incarcerated in their homeland during WWII. Being of Japanese heritage they were viewed with suspicion, so untrustworthy they had to be locked up. This experience was so damaging that Suzuki spent his teenage years saving for a plastic surgery operation to have his facial features made more Caucasian.
Seven decades on fear is once more driving hurtful and damaging responses to our fellow citizens. Three men of Middle eastern appearance were attending a football semifinal last week when they were removed from the crowd and questioned for forty minutes after someone reported they were suspicious of the men because they were talking on their mobile phones.
Then we have senator Jacqui Lambi doing her best to reincarnate Pauline Hanson in declaring anyone adhering to sharia law has no place in Australia. Given sharia refers to the teachings of Islam, asking a Muslim to abandon sharia law would be like asking me to abandon the teaching of Jesus. Lambi’s assumption seems to be that a person cannot be a good Muslim and a good Australian.
We need to resist fear driven responses to the current round of terror threats. The essence of political fundamentalism is to demand that individual freedoms be surrendered to ideology. We see this in extreme form in IS, but must make sure our response isn’t a milder form of the same. Our response to terror must not be the limitation of genuine freedoms but to celebrate them more than ever.
So at the same time our authorities must exercise vigilance in fighting crime, we must not allow the “terror” mantle to justify denial of human rights and freedoms. Yes, let’s investigate those who plan to commit horrific crimes, whether these be participation in murder at the behest of IS, men who commit violence and even murderous violence against their spouses, and those who wield violence in any other illegitimate form. Yet let us also insist we will do so in ways that uphold the very freedoms we seek to defend.
And at a time when our Muslim citizens are feeling marginalised may we declare loudly and proudly that we welcome their presence in our communities; value the faith, love and wisdom they have to share; and that we will not allow our commitment to each other and to freedom of religion to be degraded by fear.
Among the living lay the dead. As we dug ourselves in, we found them in layers stacked on top of one another. One company after another had been shoved into the drum-fire and steadily annihilated.
Ernst Junger, German officer
I came across the quote and photo above on Flickr. Each is a graphic, horrific reminder of what war does.
It’s easy on a day like Anzac Day to focus on what is good about war: the sacrifice and bravery of our troops, and those of our enemy; the defeat of aggressors; the defence of our freedom; our ability to band together in the most desperate of circumstances.
It is hard to focus on what is bad about war: the death and wounding of human beings, whether they be soldiers or noncombatant, ally or enemy; the destruction of property and essential infrastructure, that leaves a legacy of poverty and hardship long after the war ends; unexploded ordinance that lies in the ground like a coiled snake waiting for a child playing in a field to step on it; the unleashing of our darkest selves, as hatred, fear and bitterness drive us to actions that are monstrous.
It it is precisely the terrible things about war that we need to focus upon on a day like Anzac Day. I want to acknowledge the sacrifice and bravery of our soldiers, but I refuse to eulogise them, to pretend that honour is found on our side and dishonour on our enemy’s. I want to remember how utterly perverse it is that we train people to kill their fellow human beings and then send them out to do it. There may be occasions on which it is a necessary evil (though I have strong doubts about this) and soldiers may adhere to their code of conduct (for which they should be commended for it shows character under the most trying of circumstances), but killing people is not an honourable thing, nor can it ever be. It is a terrible thing we ask of our young men and young women.
On Anzac Day I also want to remind myself to be critical of those leaders who send us to war. Soldiers don’t have the option of deciding for themselves whether the command to go to war is a good or a bad one. To preserve ourselves from the potential for a military dictatorship it is essential that the military leadership always defers to the civil leadership. So as a noncombatant I want to make clear to our civil leaders that history tells me I shouldn’t trust them when it comes to going to war, that if they want to take us into war they need to make the case and make it very clearly, they need to produce the evidence that war is the only option left, lay it out on the table for us all to see, open it up for critique and analysis.
On Anzac Day I want to remember that war is an evil, one of the worst to afflict humankind, and one I hope we will do almost anything to avoid.