In 1994 I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana in order to pursue a PhD. I had worked my way through college as a nurse’s aide, and then served in Peace Corps. As with my previous jobs, I was inspired to attend graduate school as part of my drive to serve. I had come to recognize that universities are the manufacturing plants that churn out truth. I wanted to have my hand on the assembly-line lever. My parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Coal mining and the one immigrant lynching in the family were decades in the past, but invisible forces as toxic coal sludge remained.
When I told new acquaintances my name they snickered and told me a Polak joke, or told me how anti-Semitic Poles are, or, weirdly, insisted that I was a recipient of white privilege, so there was no excuse for me or my family members to be poor, and to work low prestige, manual labor jobs. I would produce the scholarship that would change all that.
I had no money, but I was put to work for a professor. That would take care of tuition and pay a small stipend. During my first semester at Indian University, my father died. I missed four workdays in traveling home to New Jersey. Upon my return, my professor harassed me. After a month, I reported this harassment to a dean. She asked me to testify against the professor. The dean said that the professor was a psychopath who had ruined many, who had almost killed someone, but that no one would risk speaking up against her for fear of being labeled racist and sexist. The professor was a black woman. My testimony was necessary to protect others. Only I could perform this important service, I was told, because, unlike others, I had no standing, no fellowship, no pension, no connections with powerful people that would be put at risk by my testimony. I had, I was told, “nothing to lose.”
I did testify. I had to meet with many powerful university officials over the course of six months. I did this while taking a full load of graduate courses and mourning my recently deceased father.
I became quite ill. I had no health insurance and just enough money for bare survival. I had to beg to see doctors, and when I saw them, they had no idea what I was talking about. My own research lead to my diagnosis. Nystagmus, this sudden, new, involuntary darting of my eyes back and forth, was the telltale symptom. Eventually I would be diagnosed as having a perilymph fistula, a wrecked inner ear. These can be caused, they say, by scuba diving, weight-lifting, and childbirth. I had done none of those, but I had cried very hard and I had been under a lot of stress.
Imagine that you are trapped in the bottom of a mesh sack, and that sack is being spun around constantly by the fist of a giant ogre. Your feet never touch ground. You can’t tell left from right, up from down. Your vision is so blurry you can’t recognize your own face in a mirror, never mind read or write. You vomit constantly. You curl up in the corner, shutting yourself down, waiting and praying for the ogre to release you. These symptoms plagued me, intermittently, for six years. During those days when the symptoms were more or less in abeyance, I knocked on doors. I wrote letters. I begged. I pleaded. I needed medical care. I was turned away again and again, by priests, by senators, by Oprah.
Graduate student life is materially bleak for low-income students. You work, you study, and you sleep. There’s no time or money for parties, travel, or even normal socializing. I lost friends, but I rationalized it by saying it was only temporary. Once I got sick, though, I entered a blurry, blighted, parallel universe where I was the only living thing, and I was barely living at that. The idea that I was going through all this hell for a higher good – the work I would do for people like my parents – was a cruel joke. The nystagmus made it, much of the time, impossible to read or write. People with normal lives lived in a different universe that never made contact with mine. Fortunate people don’t intend to abandon and erase their friends and neighbors when their lives go south. But they do.
The people around me who were supposed to represent decency, compassion, and justice had all closed their doors on me. University officials who were supposed to represent high ideals had allowed a monster to blight the campus. They did so because they were cowards, enslaved to phony race narratives. I had been told that I couldn’t receive a fellowship because I was “the wrong minority.” I enjoyed “white privilege,” and the fellowship I might have gotten had to go to a black student. In fact this black student was middle class. And yet I was also told that I had “nothing to lose” – no fellowship, no pension, no standing – so of course I was the perfect human sacrifice to do the university’s dirty work for it and blow the whistle on the plague their cowardice had created.
I’d been politically active since my teen years. I had long known people who colored outside the lines of the law in their search for what they understood as justice. I had once worked on a campus with many Palestinian students and employees, and we debated terrorism a lot. One of my co-workers self-identified as a terrorist. He said that he could tell that my thirst for righteousness was as strong as his. He asked me to marry him and join the cause. I also knew an eco-terrorist who torched a housing development. Certainly during my years in Peace Corps, and in Poland in 1988-89, I had witnessed violent upheaval.
Unbidden, a vision sprang up in my head. The vision involved violent death for those who had done me wrong, and who, because of their venality, were probably doing others wrong, as well. As I had been told again and again, I had “nothing to lose.” I could not assess those who had wronged me as worthy of the protection accorded to the innocent.
It’s normal to want to hurt others whom we understood to have hurt us. In August, 2004, scientists published “The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment” in Science magazine. Researchers instructed two subjects to play a game. If player B cheated player A, player A was offered a chance to retaliate against player B. Player A was attached to a PET scanner. The researchers discovered that while player A contemplated revenge against player B, his dorsal striatum would become active. If player A decided on a large punishment, his dorsal striatum fired intensely. “Many people voluntarily incur costs to punish violations of social norms,” they wrote. “Evolutionary models and empirical evidence indicate that such altruistic punishment has been a decisive force in the evolution of human cooperation … people derive satisfaction from punishing norm violations” The dorsal striatum “has been implicated in the processing of rewards that accrue as a result of goal-directed actions.” In other words, “revenge is sweet.”
In order to want to hurt others, most normal people need to be convinced that they have been hurt themselves, and that there is no other route to righteousness other than violent revenge. When I first watched Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi rally, I was struck by Hitler’s speech that closes the film. The viewer has just been overwhelmed with the massive, intimidating power of Nazi Germany.
Thousands of uniformed Nazis stand in formation. Hitler, though, focuses on Nazis as starting out as a tiny, vulnerable “minority” who encountered “bans and persecution” and must be willing to “sacrifice.” SS chief Heinrich Himmler takes the same tack in his Poznan speeches that justify genocide. All these Jews and Slavs we are slaughtering are actually dangerous threats who would otherwise victimize us, Himmler insists to his audience of mass murderers.
Like those who have committed terroristic crimes against humanity, I had reason to feel aggrieved. In spite of my grievances, I never gave in to my vivid terrorist fantasies. There’s a very specific reason why. I’ve long been a student of the Shroud of Turin. Most studies of the Shroud focus on its remarkable physical properties: its encoding of 3D data; its lack of pigment; the mystery of the image’s formation. To me, it was an aesthetic, rather than a physical aspect of the Shroud that confounded me. I knew that no one was creating images comparable to the Shroud in medieval Europe.
This anomaly inspired me to read every book I could find on the Shroud. Given that the Shroud depicts the frontal and dorsal images of a scourged and crucified man, those arguing for its authenticity, from Yves DeLage to Frederick Zugibe, have had to demonstrate that the Shroud’s depiction is accurate. Reading their work, one is guided through a grisly curriculum on the science of Roman crucifixion. Zugibe went so far as to simulate crucifixion with living volunteers.
Growing up Catholic, I had been almost blind to images of crucified men. We are surrounded by such images, from large crucifixes that dominate altars to small crucifixes on necklaces and rosaries. I never gave much thought to what Jesus endured. Reading about the science of crucifixion, though, was a gut-wrenching experience. Every detail, from the retraction of the thumbs to the high bilirubin content of the blood on the Shroud, documented horrific torture.
The man on the Shroud is covered with bruises consistent with a Roman scourging. Even before being crucified, many victims were scourged with a flagrum, a whip terminating in lead weights or animal bones. These weights dug into the victims, tearing off so much flesh that internal organs might be exposed, as described by Eusebius. “Bystanders were struck with amazement when they saw them lacerated with scourges even to the innermost veins and arteries, so that the hidden inward parts of the body, both their bowels and their members, were exposed to view.”
Similarly, I was not as impressed as I might have been by Jesus’ words, spoken from the cross before he died, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Don’t get me wrong. I believed in Jesus, and the crucifixion. It wasn’t till I was immersed in study that I really got what Jesus endured, and the implications of his words, “Forgive them.” Or, indeed, of the words I said multiple times a day as part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The reciprocity of that line put the brakes on my vengeance fantasies in another way. When my lizard brain took dark turns, I reminded myself: God loves the persons who hurt me every bit as much as he loves me. He died for them, just as he died for me.
Yes. Yes. It was excruciating awareness of Jesus’ suffering, my conviction that Jesus endured that suffering for me, and Jesus’ insistence on forgiveness, that made it impossible for me to give in to my anti-social fantasies of terroristic revenge. Further, the line “forgive us our trespasses” forced me to confront my own failings. Yes, I had been sinned against. But, yes, I was also a sinner.
When I was a kid, I had engaged in physical and verbal assaults on other kids. I cringe in shame now when I think of things I said and did that reduced my fellows to tears. I can’t turn back the clock. I don’t want to live with those blots on my soul or character. Only God can forgive me. And he has.
No, this is not a religious tract. Not at all. I’m not asking anyone to believe as I do. Rather, I’m saying this: there are many hurting people in this world. There are many wrongs. Terrorism is a seductive siren. The voice says, “You have been wronged. You are utterly outside of any system that can right that wrong. There are people out there who have hurt you. You have the opportunity, and even the duty, to right this wrong. If you don’t do it, no one else will.”
Recruiters know very well that they can fatten their ranks and weaponize their troops by instilling a sense of victimization. ISIS recruitment videos focus on Muslims as helpless victims. Researcher Charlie Winter wrote in 2015, “Like all jihadist groups, Islamic State relies heavily upon the victimhood narrative – the idea that Sunni Muslims are being persecuted by a global conspiracy – to justify not only its most heinous acts, but also its very existence. In many of its most renowned, brutal videos, victimhood is closely entwined with the ‘punishment’ that follows.” In other words, ISIS, before committing a sadistic atrocity, “justified” that atrocity by citing victimization of Muslims.
People build their lives around the stories they believe. If you believe a story that says that God’s son, an innocent and good man, endured unspeakable suffering and died for your sake, and instructed you to forgive, that makes it very difficult for you to justify terrorism or violent revenge of any kind. Yes, it is possible for someone to self-identify as a Christian and to become a terrorist. No doubt that combination involves a great deal of cognitive dissonance. If you believe a story circulated on an internet video telling you that whites face genocide unless you shoot up a mosque, you invest in that narrative.
My friends hate it when I say this, but I keep repeating it. My Arab, Muslim friends who have voiced to me, approval of terrorism are not horrible human beings. They are people who have shown me great hospitality and care. They are hard-working, law-abiding and loving family members. Rather, they have been indoctrinated by the story they grew up with. In their story at the human level, not the political, they were untaught about 1,400 years of caliphate history. They were taught that they were victimized by colonialism and racism and that the god they have been taught to believe in tells them that it is their duty to right wrongs with violence.
When I talk to Muslims about jihad violence, they almost always lead with, “But we have been so victimized.” They are awash in stories of Muslims being hurt, being wronged, and being helpless. They believe that violence rights these wrongs.
In her memoir, I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai describes her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, as a truly great man who defied the misogynist customs of his village and raised a daughter who would go on to be the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history. Even such a fine man was not immune to the story his culture told. “The talib [singular of Taliban] talked of jihad in such glorious terms that my father was captivated. He would point out to my father that life on earth was short and that there were few opportunities for young men in the village … Heaven with its seventy-two virgins sounded attractive. Every night my father would pray to God, ‘O, Allah, please make war between Muslims and infidels so I can die in your service and be a martyr.'”
Ziauddin is not alone. Many other Muslims talk about their attraction to jihad in their youth. Christian evangelist Al Fadi was a Saudi-born Wahabi Muslim. “During my high school years I was fascinated with the idea of jihad to the point where I was seriously considering going to Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded,” he says. “I was fascinated with this idea of not just fighting but dying as a martyr for all these rewards that I was reading about, the rewards for martyrdom.”
Dr. Tawfik Hamid, author of the excellent book Inside Jihad, describes how though he was raised by a liberal mother and an atheist father, the Islamist material he was exposed to in school molded him into a wannabe terrorist. At the same time, he was taught that “al-fikr kufr,” or, “one becomes an infidel by thinking critically.” Koran 21:23 was cited to insist that any questioning of Islam is sinful. In short, he was forbidden, on pain of eternal damnation, to question the story he was being told. Hamid had had Christian friends, friends he liked and respected. In Arabic language class, he was taught hadiths that caused him to look at Christians with disdain. He became convinced that it was his duty to kill Christians. In fact some of his fellow students assaulted a Christian teacher and broke his arm. “I grew a beard, lost my sense of humor, and became aloof and judgmental … It’s difficult to kill an innocent person if you don’t hate that person. Hatred toward the infidels … fits in the mainstream of Islamic teaching … Jihadism suppresses the conscience of its adherent by pressuring them to accept, promote and praise acts that are entirely at odds with normal senses of decency and justice, simply because such acts are recorded in the religious books.”
Rejection of such beliefs would result in “eternal damnation.” His jihadi training, he wrote, was designed to suppress “the conscience of its adherents by pressuring them to accept, promote and praise acts that are entirely at odds with normal senses of decency and justice, simply because such acts are recorded in the religious books. We used to praise Prophet Muhammad for marrying a girl of seven when he was 52 years old. We openly advocated stoning women to death and killing apostates … we even supported enslaving female war prisoners and having sex with them … if we advocated [these ideas] paradise awaited us; if we even questioned these beliefs, we faced eternal damnation.”
The mosque shooter in New Zealand also focused on a sense of victimization and the righting of wrongs that could be righted in no other way. His guns were inscribed with words about non-Muslim victims of Muslims. One word was “Rotherham.” Rotherham is one site of the notorious grooming gang scandal. Muslim men groomed desperate, underage non-Muslim girls. They drugged, raped, beat, prostituted, and in some cases killed these girls. Yes, this is a horrible wrong. Murdering innocents praying in a mosque 12,000 miles away did nothing to right that wrong. Sammy Woodhouse, a Rotherham victim, made this clear. “My thoughts go out to all the victims killed today in New Zealand. Such an evil act. As a Rotherham survivor, I would like to add a message from me and my family. This was not done in our name.” Clearly, Sammy Woodhouse, who has told me via email that she is not a Christian, is nevertheless listening to a very different story than that believed by the New Zealand shooter.
The exploitation of narratives of suffering to support the commission of atrocities occurs constantly. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exploited the New Zealand mosque shooting to threaten to send anti-Muslim tourists home “in caskets.” He linked this threat to Australian and New Zealand WW I casualties in the Gallipoli campaign. He also repeatedly screened the shooter’s mosque shooting video. Images of defenseless Muslims begin gunned down will arouse in Erdogan’s audience a thirst for vengeance.
Erdogan insisted that not just the one shooter was responsible, but potentially any non-Muslim. Erdogan also threatened to even the score. New Zealand does not have the death penalty. “If New Zealand fails to hold the attacker accountable, one way or another we will hold him to account … They are testing us from 16,500 km away, from New Zealand, with the messages they are giving from there. This isn’t an individual act, this is organized.” Erdogan did all this in the context of an election campaign in Turkey. Erdogan will not, as the saying goes, allow a crisis to go to waste.
Differences between Erdogan’s culture and our own can be readily seen. Any American politician who repeatedly screened videos of the 9-11 or other terrorist attacks and accompanied those screenings with threats to send Muslims home “in caskets” would be roundly condemned by his own milieu.
Two new congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have attracted criticism for anti-Semitic and off color comments. Omar accused Jews of “hypnotizing the world” and Tlaib referred to the US president as a “mother- – – – – -.” Both have deflected criticism by playing the victim card. Both claim to be victims of “Islamophobia.” Tlaib, a vigorous, strident women, resorted to tears. At a meeting that was meant to be dedicated to Jewish lawmakers making clear why anti-Semitism is a problem, Tlaib “started to cry as she spoke of her grandmother’s suffering in the West Bank at the hands of Israelis,” reports the Washington Post. Any serious discussion of the damage anti-Semitism causes was derailed by tears.
Too often people who consider themselves “practical” and “hardheaded” dismiss such an old-fashioned activity as storytelling. They ridicule and demean English majors. “Study engineering! Get a real job!” they insist. Atheists, too, are very good at mocking others’ stories. They insist that the Judeo-Christian God may as well be a Flying Spaghetti Monster, and that all religious stories are equally absurd. These scoffers could not be more wrong. We build our lives around the stories we believe.
Boys in ancient Sparta were told stories that molded behaviors like theft, suicide, and murder. Today American universities struggle with how to handle the fact that students from Confucian-influenced East Asia outperform all other groups on standardized tests. Social commentators cite Confucian values as prodding this demographic to shine. East Asian students’ success is deeply rooted. For centuries it was inculcated by a collection of folktales, The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety. Around the world, throughout history, what “engineers” human behavior is not just the gears and levers of metabolism and hormones, but also words and plots.
For a long time the West cherished its stories. Children were taught about Horatio Alger and George Washington and the cherry tree. They learned to work hard, delay gratification, and respect the law. In a time of increasing secularization and rejection of the past, the stories we tell ourselves are in flux. Events like the 1948 McCollum v Board of Education case and trends like the unchurching of society have weakened the hold of Judeo-Christian narratives on Americans’ minds. During this time of change, we must pay attention to the new stories we choose to tell.