One of the joys of childhood is to be lucky enough to be walking home from school after the rain has abated but the storm gutters are still filled to the brim. Often, the earth smelled clean and the sky was clear. Part of the wading game was to get the water level as high as possible on your boot tops but not to over-brim and soak your feet. This danger provided one source of excitement, but there was also the sensory thrill of water’s music and the rushing water pushing against your legs with a rather considerable force. All of us kids had seen movies where people were helplessly rushed away by river currents, sometimes to be flung over waterfalls and shredded on the rocks below. If you would have asked any one of us in your all serious adult “show me how smart you are voice” whether we thought we would be swept out to sea or over a waterfall, we would have answered of course not. But secretly, it felt like a real possibility.
Here’s the odd thing. Looking back on it, I actually think this is a great strategy for learning. The problem with trying to “practice” something like swimming or floating in a raging river so as to not lose your life should you ever end up swimming or floating in a raging river is this: You’re much more likely to die in practice that you would in real life! For Navy Seals, of course, the equation changes, and may be worthwhile. But I contend that for kids, doing something completely safe, but a tiny bit like something actually life-threatening or otherwise critical could be quite a good thing. In the first place, it would help keep you from panicking. I’m not saying it would be a perfect inoculation, but it could help. Second, it could teach you a little bit about the situation. Yeah, in the case of wading in the gutters, far less force would be involved than in a life-threatening situation, but you are learning something of the way water works by wading in it and watching it flow in the gutter and seeing what floats and what doesn’t and how things tend to get “stuck” in certain places.
Imagine two kids of identical strength and temperament, one of whom had played in raging gutters a score or more times and one who had never done so. Now they fall into a raging river where there is real danger. One of them survives. Well, my money is on the kid who waded in the gutters. Every time.
There are many other childhood activities I engaged in that have echoes of life and death situations such as hunting, tracking, avoiding predators, and even war. Most sports involve acts of throwing, catching, hitting, kicking, knocking each other down. Think of kid’s games such as “Red Rover Red Rover” or “Hide and Seek” or “Freeze Tag” or “Mother May I” — each has skills that could help a child survive in a disaster or accident, or, sad to say, war. These days, many kids instead sharpen another set of skills by playing video games. These skills too could come in handy in another class of disasters. It’s hard to know which is more valuable because of the uncertainty for our future. Probably learning a bit of both would be good. Personally, I like video games but I’m very happy for having waded gutters.
One of those glorious afternoon wades home, however became a horror show. At that time, I was probably around ten years old. My two best friends were 9 (Bob) and 11 (Bruce). The nine year old Bob had a younger brother, Billy. We were all walking home in sight of each other, but Bruce and I were about a half block ahead, I think on Austin Street. Anyway, we heard a scream and looked back to see three teen age boys holding Billy by the ankles threatening apparently to drown him. Bob was trying to get his brother loose, but they swatted him away like a fly.
Suddenly, our pleasure had turned to pain. Our friend Bob was up there trying to get his brother loose. What should we do? I looked at Bruce and he looked at me trying to discern a clue to the right action. I am not still not sure what the best response would be. Four pre-teens against three teenagers would be an extremely one-sided contest. Boys don’t get any real strength until their hormones kick in and that wouldn’t happen for us for another few years. At that age, bigger boys do not just have more strength and range, they are also cleverer and know more. Any way, maybe we should have run back up Austin street, but what we actually did was run home to get some adults involved. (Inexplicably our cell phones were non-existent because of the linear time assumptions we all accept as truth). I am glad to report that Billy did not drown and no-one was seriously hurt. But it did ruin our enjoyment of gutter-walking. First, we wondered if those giant teenagers would reappear another time. Second, it always made us wonder whether running to inform all three mothers had been the best tack. It certainly wasn’t the bravest and we definitely had an urge to help our friend and damn the consequences. But then again, it might have enraged the biggies even more and all four of us might have been actually injured. I, at least, also felt guilty because it was a ubiquitous rule among us kids that you don’t involve parents if humanly possible not to.
One of the most despised type of kid any of us ever ran into was that kid who would go running to their parents at the slightest most trivial affront. I’m not talking about someone who gets slammed against a wall and breaks a rib and tells their parents (though even then, it’s a close call). I’m talking about someone who forgets to collect their two-hundred dollars when they went around GO in MONOPOLY and then goes running to mommy. “Mommy! Mommy! They won’t give me my $200. They’re cheating!” Mommy, who of course, knows absolutely nothing about what just happened, comes in and says, “Now, boys. You’ll have to play fair. Give Timmy his money or you’ll all have to go home.”
The third and final unpleasantness, of course, is that it made me feel inadequate. If I had only been older, stronger, faster, smarter, bigger, then I could have charged them with such a fury they would have backed off and never darkened our gushing gutter play again! At that point in my life, I don’t think a thought such as, “If only I had a weapon like a knife or gun, then, I could have handled them.” ever crossed my mind. But I can totally understand why it might well cross the mind of many boys and young men today. It might indeed do more than cross their mind; it may well inhabit their mind and become an obsession. If I have the right weapon I will be adequate to defend those I care about.
Other folks may take a different tack and go full bore into body building. Some feeling (and not unfounded) might be, “I will be so physically strong, I will be able to defend those I care about.” Still others might mainly focus on trying to acquire sufficient resources to defend those they care about. In our society, if you have more “things”, and more money, it can make the difference between life and death; for example, when it comes to expensive health care or even being able to afford housing away from major toxic pollution sites. “I will be so rich, I will be able to take care of and defend those I care about.”
My own reaction has been somewhat a mixture, but my major obsession has been to find ways that humanity can get out of its own way and solve its problems cooperatively rather than blowing each other to smithereens. “If I can be wise and persuasive enough, maybe I can help defend those I care about.”
When it comes to “defending” there are many possible paths and all of them have value under various circumstances.
These days, it seems that there are enemies of many sorts. Computers may have brought many good things but they have also made an unending assault on our senses easier than ever. I cannot even use my own phone any more as an actual phone because I get so many spam calls. E-mail is serviceable but barely for a similar reason despite various spam filters. Social media is filled with click bait, “Do this one simple trick with a honey crisp apple and a fax machine and never die!” “These pictures of celebrity X with celebrity Y will make your hair turn white and your shoes into thousand-league boots.” And so it goes. This is an annoying enemy but only deadly in the long run.
A much more short term threat is imminent terrorism. Everyone in America agrees that having our citizens murdered is not a great thing. However, people’s ideas about what to do about it are quite varied and probably correlated with the approaches they take toward making sure they can defend those they care about. I am not sure what the right combination of approaches is in the short term; probably all the strategies outlined above are appropriate.
I also know that over-generalizing about people being “bad people” based on their skin color, toe length, religion, country of origin, age, gender, is counter-productive. I understand it’s based on the same generous motive: trying to defend those you care about. This is a motive I share. I can imagine the following metaphor. Let’s suppose that Islam is a religion that is, at its roots, a violent, hate everyone, destroy, “my way or the high way” philosophy. Now, you could view the plant as the ordinary people of Islam. But in the flower there are barbed seeds. When you walk through the garden, they snag your ankles. Annoying. But if you just cut out the part with the barbed seeds, the plant will simply grow a new one. So you have to get the root.
That may be a compelling analogy, but there are several important issues that I have with it. The most important is that the religions and philosophies of the world are not like separate cans of cat food or flashlights. All the world’s major religions share many of their teachings. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are particularly tightly related. In every religion, the culture is heavily inter-twined with it. There is a huge gap between an individual being born in a particular place and therefore being exposed largely to one set of beliefs and how that individual actually practices that religion and how, if at all, it affects their decisions and actions. A thousand years ago, the vast majority of people on earth spent most of their life in a very small area. Their ideas were quite local. Today, the situation for people with access to the world’s information is that ideas from every stripe of every religion are all interconnected in a trillion ways. People are emotionally connected with each other across every national boundary, religious boundary, cultural boundary and so on.
Singling out any one group will not help you defend the people you care about. Why? Because you will alienate an ever growing circle of people. Some of those people will end up with weapons as good as yours, a body as strong as yours, resources as rich as yours, learning as great as yours. Your efforts to “weed out” terrorism actually operates more like the New England fishermen who fought the starfish that preyed on their shellfish by tearing the starfish into pieces — each of which produced a new starfish! That’s not to say terrorists are starfish, but unless you are very careful in how terrorism is dealt with, you will definitely recruit more terrorists.
Wouldn’t you? I mean, just suppose you are and think of yourself primarily as a small business owner. You’ve been pro-US your whole life. You live in Syria and you are a Muslim. Now, people invade your neighborhood and destroy your business. Some of your close family are killed. Now, you are welcomed to America with open arms. You really think you’re likely to become a terrorist and help destroy the country who welcomed you? Not impossible, I grant, but not bloody likely.
Now, contrast this with a situation where the same businessman suffering the same civil war begs to come to America. He explains that he is a Muslim but is a big fan of America. He wants to be a productive citizen. He has a grand-daughter he’s never seen already living in the US. But no. He cannot come in because he is a Muslim. He tries as best he can to defend those he cares about. But he and his entire family are wiped out, except for his grand-daughter in America and one of his sons who survives though his leg has been shattered. He curses his father for the pro-American stance, that, at least in the son’s mind, led to the death of his family. Does he join ISIS? Damned right he does. It has nothing to do with religion. He doesn’t become more religious or more Muslim in his heart when the takes to the path of violence. It is a desire to seek revenge. He cannot defend those he really cares about because they are all dead. But he can make those who caused the death pay dearly.
Part of the difficulty of course, is that everyone is an individual and reacts differently. The same survivor above might have gone a different way. He might have decided Bashar al-Assad was at fault and dedicate his life to destroying him. He might even have decided Putin was at fault; without his support, al-Assad would have fallen long ago. It doesn’t seem quite fair to go around destroying the lives of people because they might be justifiably angry. Let’s say my neighbor’s dog attacks and severely bites and kills one of my cats. Should I be now deported? Should I be jailed because I could have the rather bizarre (but somewhat understandable) behavior of killing my neighbor? Would it matter if I told you I was a Christian? A Jew? A Muslim? An atheist? Maybe I should mention being 1/8 or 1/16 Native American so no doubt there is savage blood in there too, right? What if I’m a Jew but married to a Muslim? What if I studied the Koran, and the Bible but actually think of myself as a Zen Buddhist?
A society that begins to punish people for what they are (which they can’t help) or for what they believe (which can never be proven or measured in detail) rather than for what people actually do is a society well on its way to destruction by its own hand. This is especially true because the actual physical threat to the citizens of the USA and many other countries, while real, is way down on the list of things to worry about. However, that could change. And one of the main ways we can make it a hundred or a thousand times worse is to start punishing people for some broad religious category that can be attached to them. This will grow the number of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers.
But there is another way to aid the terrorists and that is by over-dramatizing and focusing on terrorists events. The worst terror attack I know about is 9/11 where more than 3000 people from around the world died here in America. At the time, there were over 300,000,000 Americans most of whom were “terrorized” by the event and its aftermath, at least to some degree. I’d much rather be “terrorized” than be one of the 3000 dead, but in total, there were five orders of magnitude more people “terrorized” than killed just among Americans. Meanwhile ten to twenty times that many world wide were also more or less terrorized. The actual death of a person happens once, but a terrorist event can be relived and reported and talked about a 1000 times. Naturally, this is not to say that professionals should not investigate these terrorism attacks and try to develop increased security techniques that actually work.
If we put stopping terrorism at the top of our agenda, and are willing to do literally anything to defend against terrorism including subverting the Constitution, then we have multiplied the effectiveness of the terrorists far beyond what they themselves are capable of. If we stop working together to find and solve problems and instead start pointing fingers at each other as the source of all our troubles — game over.
Game. Set. Match.
The carefully laid fire-cracker laid there with the intention of destroying one side has actually destroyed the other side.
Instead, we need to mostly forget about the “big kids” that hang out on Austin Street. We can’t jail them just for being big kids. But we have to develop a number of solutions to make sure they will never pull that trick with Billy again. Meanwhile, we should not let glancing over our shoulder, a necessary caution, keep us from sloshing down those gurgling gutters in our galoshes.
(The story above and many cousins like it are compiled now in a book available on Amazon: Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Revelation. I recount early experiences and then related them to contemporary issues and challenges in society).