According to a 2007 list, the State Department was monitoring the activities of at least 45 foreign terrorist organizations. Mention ‘terrorism’ and immediately al-Qa’ida comes to mind…and rightfully so from their numerous attacks around the world and here in the USA. But the use of fear and intimidation is much more wide-spread than these 45 groups…as heinous as some may be…would indicate. Drug cartel violence along the USA-Mexican border has made some cities war-zones, and police chiefs in some areas are assassinated as quickly as they’re appointed. Many areas around the world are controlled by regional or tribal war-lords who rule by fear and force, most notably in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Internal wars in Africa are notorious for their severe human rights abuses by non-governmental armies that practice systematic fear campaigns with mutilation, murder and rape as their primary tactics. Bands of pirates…yes, pirates for crying out loud in the 21st century…hold ships and hostages for ransom with threats of violence off the Somalia coast with little interference. The use of fear and violence by relatively small groups of non-governmental organizations is increasing steadily. Al-Qa’ida may be the familiar face of terrorism for us, but it’s only one among many in almost every part of the world.
Last Sunday, some members of a gang entered a church during their worship service to search out and shoot members of a rival gang who were in the congregation. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, but the attack should send a chilling message to those of us who believe we’re living in a civil society. Chilling too was the initial response of most members of the congregation when questioned by the police…no one wanted to speak up for fear of reprisals from the attacking gang. And just today, a man flies a plane into an office building in an apparent attempt to send a message of fear to a federal agency. Street gangs in all of our cities…organized crime with many ethnic and cultural identities…Americans attacking Americans as vigilantes for perceived personal and governmental grievances. Our civil society where we see ourselves as a ‘nation of laws, not men’ appears to be slipping toward a 21st century version of feudalism in America and in the world. Terrorism has an American face too…and we’d better start talking about it.
I don’t think we’ll find any easy answers to this community and global problem. Our form of government was founded on the premise that laws would protect citizens from intimidation and threat, and that we would truly become increasingly secure as our legal system matured and adjusted to each new challenge. I believe ‘terrorism’ needs to be framed in wider terms than we have in our current conversations. We need to talk about how the ‘rule of law’ can balance and mitigate the ‘rule of powerful men’ (and I am using the term ‘men’ purposefully here to communicate the extreme dominance of men in violent intimidation). It’s sad to recognize… but a delusion to deny…that colonialism is still alive in economic globalization, and that feudalism is still alive in the thousands of groups around the world and in the USA that place themselves violently above the law…for whatever reasons.
It would be comforting to know how to identify ‘terrorism’ in the faces of just a few easily recognizable groups, beliefs and interests. This, however, is only wishful thinking. Get over it! We need to talk with our neighbors about the ‘rule of law’ and what it means in our communities. We need also to talk with each other about our hopes and expectations in a global setting. It’s clear to me that the ‘rule of powerful men’ is the overwhelming norm around the world. So, how can we hold ourselves true to our foundational value in the ‘rule of law’ when our global context is skewed in the opposite direction? No easy answers. There’s a lot at stake in addressing these issues…at stake for our everyday safety in our communities, in our national security and in our global leadership. Perhaps the most important thing at stake, however, is our national identity. The many faces of terrorism require our attention.