Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Who is a Terrorist?

Terrorism is a word we use a lot these days. We are engaged in a war on terror. We identify certain people as terrorists. When you think of the word terrorist, what is the first image that comes to mind? The first image, without thinking about it.

What does your terrorist look like? Is it a man or a woman? From what part of the world? Of what faith? Of what race or ethnic group?

Okay, now imagine that you are a Native American living on the plains in the 1800's. You are cooking breakfast early one morning and you hear horses coming. Soldiers ride through your village killing everyone while other soldiers play music. Would you call them terrorists? What did they look like? Where were they from? Of what faith? Of what race?

Or describe a “revolutionary.” What is the first thing you think of? Is it the revolutionary soldiers we revere today who fought for our independence from England? Were they called heroes in England? Or terrorists?

In her book Taking the Leap, Pema Chodron talks about the word “haji.” Soldiers serving in the Middle East learn to use this word to dismiss or dehumanize civilians, as in “They’re just haji.” But in Islamic culture, the word is an honorific term for one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Words. Words that we attach different meanings to. Meanings that connect us or separate us.

One time I was walking in the hills outside a charming Bavarian town in Germany. I followed a path through the woods to a small church, peacefully nestled in the trees. As I approached the building, I could see that the outside walls, protected by colonnades, were covered with pictures. When I got closer, I saw that they were old photos of soldiers. Young men sent off to war, probably from the nearby town. Loved and honored by their families. Some of them might have killed or been killed by our young men sent off to war. Standing there in front of hundreds of pictures, it was hard to identify the heroes and the villains.

I remember an argument I had years ago with my soon to be exhusband. I wanted the divorce. He didn’t. I wanted him to understand my reasons. I wanted him to agree that what I was doing was best for both of us. I desperately wanted him to see that I was not a bad person. We sat in two chairs facing each other and argued for hours. I was exhausted. I’m sure he was, too. Suddenly, I had what I can only describe as an out of body experience. I found myself sitting in his chair, looking through his eyes at me. I felt his feelings and thought his thoughts. He felt angry at my stubborn refusal to acknowledge what I was doing. I was destroying everything that he cared about. I was breaking his heart. He felt helpless to stop me. His perspective was crystal clear to me and completely understandable. Reality depended on what chair I was sitting in.

It is hard to imagine what the world looks like from the chair of a terrorist. The very label identifies that person as “other.” Not like me. Dangerous to me, to people I love, to a country I love. I remember that if I separate myself from anyone I separate myself from God. How can I open my heart and feel compassion for this person? I remember the example of Amish grace and forgiveness. I remember that everything we do or think or say is either an expression of love or a call for love. I drop the label. Namaste.

(Please understand that nothing in this post is intended as a political statement or as anything disrespectful to our brave men and women in uniform. I seek only to share some of my own struggle to see everyone as a child of God.)

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