Heroes and Villains

I don’t wake up easily from a deep sleep. My wife has had to suffer the consequences of this for years – consequences that include getting whacked across the head with my arm when I roll over too vigorously, and my apparent indifference should she feel scared or upset and want companionship – or if she would like to register her displeasure with a recent arm-whacking; my first response to her gentle prodding is just more snoring, and should she poke me aggressively enough to disturb my sleep, my response is to pet her sort of how one might pet a Wookie, with too much force and not enough aim, my hand making contact and then moving over face, hair, shoulder, blankets, whatever, while I mumble, “’Sokay. Don’ worrry.” Then I roll over and go back to sleep. Not terribly helpful when she heard a disturbing noise outside, or wants to talk about the nightmare she may have had.

This would probably work.

 

But last night, I was torn from sleep by terror: in the middle of the night, my dog barked. Sammy never barks. Not just because he is too friendly and curious to be a watchdog, though he is; but also because his barking noise sounds nothing like a bark: it’s a strange, yodeling kind of sound that starts high and squeaky and ends in a broken-note rumble, kind of like Dory the fish doing whale noise. We call it a bodel, for “bark-yodel.”And it turns out, when one is completely asleep, it sounds a lot like a dog screaming in agony. And before I even knew what I was doing or that I was awake, I was out of bed, out of the bedroom, my heart in my throat as I ran to find my dog and save him from whatever was killing him.

Nothing was, of course; he just happened to be awake (Toni didn’t sleep well last night, and was up and down a lot; Sammy was probably trying to keep her company) and heard something that he felt needed a barking. Might have been the dogs next door, who are kept outside all night by our douchebag neighbors; might have been a glimpse of a rabbit or a cat outside the front window. When I came tearing out of the bedroom in a full-on panic run, I’m sure I scared the crap out of him just as he had done to me. I grabbed him and hugged him and made sure he wasn’t missing any limbs or vital organs; Toni came in (she had been awake already) and calmly said, “He was just bodeling.”

Toni’s face when she realizes that I won’t wake up for her, but I leap out of bed to save the dog.

 

That’s the most scared I’ve been in a long time. Since the night our dog Charlie died, when we woke up in the middle of the night to find him thrashing in a grand mal seizure. I’m sure that memory, which is seared into my nerves and chiseled into my bones, had something to do with moving me out of sleep and into panic before Sammy had even finished making the noise that woke me. After I went back to bed, I couldn’t go back to sleep; I lay there for a good 30 or 40 minutes trying to calm down, and instead imagining other scenarios in which I could suddenly lose my family: I imagined car accidents, armed intruders, catastrophic house fires, you name it. Even once I knew everything was fine, the fear wouldn’t leave me, wouldn’t let go of me that easily. I’m starting to think that once it sinks in its fangs and talons, fear never lets go. It’s always there, and it’s always terrible, and it changes the way you think and the way you act, forever afterwards.

Which is why terrorists murder people. Because the fear, both the fear of being murdered and, perhaps more insidiously, the fear of seeing those we love murdered, will change the way people think and the way we act. Once that fear gains a strong and lasting foothold, we will never tear it out, and it will become much easier to think: Maybe if we just let them have their way, they won’t bother us; then we won’t have to be so afraid.

We really don’t want to be afraid. Fear is a terrible thing. It’s a sickening feeling, and an entirely overpowering one. Really, the only way to stop it coursing through us is to summon up a stronger feeling. Like anger.

How many of us have seen it and heard it in the last week, since Daesh terrorists struck Paris on Friday the 13th? “Those bastards, those maniacs, those savage barbarians – they should be killed. They should be wiped out. We should just bomb them flat.” Other people have turned on a closer target, and attacked those who express sorrow or anger over the deaths in Paris: “What about the people in Beirut?” they ask. “What about Kenya? Where was your outrage then?” For myself, I can’t understand why it’s wrong to feel grief for a terrible loss, even if one hasn’t felt it for some other loss: I don’t think grief is subject to hypocrisy. Though self-righteousness certainly is; because the reason more people weren’t grieved by the attack in Kenya was that the media didn’t report it the same way, not because people saw the story and thought, “Pssh, who cares? They weren’t white Westerners.” (Okay, Trump probably thought that.) And if you were one of the people who attacked everyone else for their uneven outrage – where were you when the attack happened in Kenya? Or in Nigeria? Or Beirut? Or now in Mali, where a hotel was attacked by armed gunmen yesterday? Did you spread the word? Do what you could to make up for the mass media’s failings? Take advantage of social media, which has the word “media” in its name for a reason?

Probably not. Because the goal of these people is, in my estimation, the same as those calling for fire to rain down on the Middle East: getting angry stops us from feeling afraid. Ask the average American gun-owner why he feels he needs a deadly weapon by his bedside, and you will probably get the same progression: he will speak of an intruder, someone threatening his family; and then he will speak of his intent to bring bloody vengeance with the fiery sword. The word “motherfucker” will probably make an appearance. A red rage will gleam in the eyes of the most mild-mannered.

Because violent anger leaves no room for fear, and violent anger feels better. Violent anger has a target; fear makes us the target.

And you know what’s even easier than violent anger? Hatred. Because hatred doesn’t need to be stirred up, doesn’t need an immediate, proximate cause; hatred just sits inside us, calmly simmering, and spinning off little bursts and pops of bitter cruelty. Hatred never has to fade, the way anger does, leaving room once more for the fear to rise up again. And hatred gives the illusion of control, which anger takes from us as much as fear does. When we hate, we can pretend to act rationally: we can speak calmly of the need for caution when deciding what to do with the four million Syrian refugees; we can say that it isn’t in the best interests of this country to uphold the ideals on which the country was founded; we can pretend that our proud role as global leader doesn’t include acting responsibly; we can say that the last thing we should do is treat other people precisely the same way that our people were treated in the past. We can turn our backs on people in desperate need of help that we could easily provide. When we hate, we can lie. When we hate, we can betray. And because we hate, we can pretend that we are doing the right thing.

There’s an obvious parallel here. The new Star Wars is coming out soon, and so like many other fanfolks, Toni and I have been watching the movies. We started with the more recent trilogy (Because epic stories should be experienced from the beginning. And because the supreme irony of these movies is that the biggest fans followed the same progression: fear that the movies would be bad led to anger over what flaws there were [Flaws that were already present in the original trilogy, and ignored because childhood things are shinier in the memory than in the hand.] led to hatred of JarJar Binks and the artist formerly known as Saint George.), and so the downfall of Anakin Skywalker was fresh in my mind, all this past week. When I saw rational, good-hearted people speaking out on Facebook against refugees, or for violent and brutal retaliation, I immediately thought, “That’s because of fear.” And then right on the heels of that I thought, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred. Hatred leads to the Dark Side.” This was confirmed for me when I saw posts claiming that all Muslims are dangerous; that all Middle Easterners are potential terrorists and not to be trusted, just like the Russians; and when I saw someone tell a Marine “If ya could take out some of those sand worshipers for me that would be great.”

The Jedi and Sith are metaphors, allegories; but what they represent are quite real. The Dark Side is the pursuit of power and dominance; and the road that leads to it begins with fear. Fear for our loved ones and for ourselves – fear that very well may be founded in reality (I won’t say “rational” because fear never is); when Anakin feared for his mother’s life, he was correct: she was in danger, and she did die before he could save her. Terrorists are a threat, and as the actions of Daesh clearly show, they are a threat to all of us, to anyone, anywhere; because they seek power and dominance.

But here’s what really matters, here’s the heart of this issue: you don’t fight the Dark Side with power and dominance. When you do that, you become it. You fight the Dark Side by removing the fear of those who serve it. When Luke trusted his father, showed love for him, Anakin lost his fear of being alone; he turned away from the Dark Side and remembered his goodness. And because of that, the Sith were destroyed.

I am not saying we should embrace the terrorists themselves; they have gone too far, have been completely corrupted – there is no goodness left in them. Emperor Palpatine had to be thrown into a nuclear reactor, after all. But just like the leaders of our terrorist organizations, Palpatine used others, and then discarded them when it suited him, when doing so would cause the most harm, and bring him the most power and dominance. And just like Darth Sidious, the only ones who can stop those people are the people they corrupt, the ones who serve them and believe in them. We in the West have killed dozens of terrorist leaders; and all that happens then is another one takes their place. The current leader of Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the third to run this particular organization; the first two (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – remember him? – and Abu Ayyab al-Masri) we killed. We might as well call them Darth Maul and Darth Tyrannous. (I really don’t want to point out the parallel in the similar first names, or the fact that all of these names are not birth names, but were adopted for symbolic reasons. But I will point out that George Lucas is an extremely smart man.)

What we need to do is what Luke Skywalker did. We need to trust that there is still goodness in people. We need to encourage that goodness. We need to deny our own fear, even at the risk that the thing we fear will happen anyway. Look: we are all going to die. There is no guarantee that we won’t be dying really soon, in an accident, or even in an attack. There is no guarantee that our loved ones won’t be taken from us; in fact, they probably will. I am sure that I will grieve for Sammy as I grieved for Charlie. All we can do is try to make the world we leave behind into a better place. We can remember what would make our loved ones, our lost ones, proud, and try to live up to that. We can honor our dead, and our ideals; we can live up to our responsibilities; we can be good people and do the right thing.

And we can fight back against fear, and maintain control over ourselves. Not power and dominance over others: control over ourselves. As long as we react to the fear, we are giving power away to others, and losing our control. We are increasing the power of the terrorists, because we are feeding them terror. And when we react with anger and hatred, we are doing the same: it is no coincidence that terrorist activity swells after each callous, arrogant intrusion into the Middle East from the West. No coincidence that Daesh is centered in the Iraq that we made when we invaded, that al Qaeda and the Taliban were centered in the Afghanistan that the Cold War created.

I don’t mean to blame the West for the actions of terrorists: they are the ones who turn to the dark side, who allow their own fear to turn to anger, to turn to hatred; I blame those who pull the triggers, who detonate the bombs, who hijack the planes. Even more I blame those who take scared, desperate people and, for their own aggrandizement, turn those scared people into human weapons, in order to create more fear and misery. But blame is not the solution. The solution is to remove the fear, from both sides, from all of us – and the only way to do that is with kindness. With compassion.

By the way: I’m not Yoda. This is Yoda. (He even sounds like Yoda.)

 

Just imagine: if instead of four million angry, desperate, miserable refugees, stuck in camps in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts, who have nothing to turn to for solace but their own faith, and who are therefore easy pickings for the corruptors who call themselves prophets of that faith, there were four million people living in the West, filled with gratitude to the nations and the people who saved them and their families from the villains – those same corruptors – who destroyed their lives and homes. Imagine if the Syrian refugees stopped thinking of the West as their enemies, and thought of the West as their home. Imagine what allies they could be in the quest for a lasting peace and a stable Middle East. Imagine the people who could become leaders, diplomats, mediators between the countries of their birth, and the countries that welcomed them in when they were in desperate need. Don’t you see how that would make an end to organizations like Daesh and the Taliban? They drive the people out, with anger and hatred; and we take them in, with compassion, and without fear.

It would bring us strength. It would grant us control. It would make us Jedi.

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