The eleven o’clock news started last night with the story of Corey Lidle, the Yankee pitcher who crashed his plane into an apartment building in New York. He was a fairly new pilot who was flying with a friend. Who knows exactly what happened. Since it was late and I don’t like going to bed with heavy stuff on my mind, we listened to the most basic details and then changed over to The Daily Show. When I turned on the news this morning, the spin on the story had moved from being one about a man in a small plane to wondering if it could have been a terrorist attack. Granted, I don’t like the Yankees, but I’ve never thought they were terrorists – except, perhaps for Derek Jeter. Beyond the obvious visual similarities between this incident and the planes going into the Twin Towers, which plays upon our fears (though different by degree, without question), I struggle to find any reason to think an accident in which a small plane crashes into an apartment building would bring us to a point of almost contemplating a change in the color on our national terror alert warning system.
Yes, the accident happened in New York City.
Yes, it involved a plane and a building.
Yes, it is frightening to see the video of the aftermath.
And have we so capitulated to the way in which our leaders and our media play to our fears that we jump like lemmings into the sea at the assumption that terrorists have struck again?
Who is a terrorist, anyway?
The dictionary says it’s “a person who terrorizes or frightens others.” In the darkness last night cranes razed the Amish schoolhouse where the girls were executed by Charles Carl Roberts IV last week. He was described as a troubled man and a murderer. The media even used all three of his names, as they do with serial killers. But no one called him a terrorist. Why not? Have we loaded that word with so much power that it explodes our capacity for thoughtfulness most every time it’s detonated? We have been conditioned to run scared and to think of it as a euphemism for Muslim extremists. We don’t even talk about Timothy McVeigh in the same context as Osama bin Laden or Mohammed Atta.
If a terrorist’s intent is to incite terror in the hearts and minds of his or her victims, then those we do call terrorists are quite successful: we are a frightened, frightened nation. How can we see ourselves as The World Power and cower in fear at the same time? I think the biggest reason is we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that violence is the only language worth speaking in these days.
The British medical journal The Lancet released the findings of an estimate on the death toll in Iraq since the US invasion began. Their estimate is 2.5% of the population – 655,000 people – has been killed. If 2.5% of our population were exterminated, we would lose 7.5 million people. North Korea tested a nuclear weapon this week and has everyone clamoring to respond. Iran keeps trying to develop its own weapon. Pakistan is talking about a nuclear test, which means India will not be far behind. We keep telling them to stop, but we lead the race. We tell them not to fight, and we invade. We tell them human rights are important, and we keep folks locked up at Guantanamo. Then, when a small plane crashes into a building, we are frightened before we are saddened.
Before anyone writes to tell me I’m being idealistic, I understand the realities of the world. One of those realities, which we are seeing lived out everyday, is violence breeds violence. Another is responding to violence with violence only destroys; it solves nothing. Then there’s this reality: since we first invaded Iraq, we have spent almost 340 billion dollars. (That number will be quickly outdated.) What if we had spent that money in nonviolent ways, eradicating disease, providing education, or building homes? Most of the world doesn’t have potable water. One in four people on the planet have never talked on a telephone, much less checked email. What if we had used that money to pay living wages to the people who make most of the stuff we use and wear?
One more question: why is that money available for war and not for these other things?
Fear makes us do foolish things. As long as we choose not to learn that lesson as a nation, the terrorists win.