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The Way Forward: Trying To See The Human Face Behind Terror

To write the Manchester suicide bomber off as a coward or a loser flattens a human being whose dimensionality we must better understand, writes Julie Wittes Schlack. Pictured: People stand next to flowers after a vigil in Albert Square, Manchester, England, Tuesday May 23, 2017, the day after the suicide attack at an Ariana Grande concert that left 22 people dead. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
To write the Manchester suicide bomber off as a coward or a loser flattens a human being whose dimensionality we must better understand, writes Julie Wittes Schlack. Pictured: People stand next to flowers after a vigil in Albert Square, Manchester, England, Tuesday May 23, 2017, the day after the suicide attack at an Ariana Grande concert that left 22 people dead. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

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“The cowardice of the attacker.”

“Evil losers.”

“Barbaric animals.”

Amidst the horror and heartbreak following the terrorist attack in Manchester, these were the terms used by Theresa May, Donald Trump and Harun Khan, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, respectively to describe the perpetrator.

For me, the words of national leaders mattered far less than the actions of the people on the ground during and immediately after the attack. As always (and how horrible that our history of terrorist violence is so substantial that I can say “as always), their courage, their determination not to surrender to the kind of hatred and divisiveness manifest in these atrocities, is inspiring.

But when I think of the first responders in New York and in Boston, of the students at Garissa University in Kenya, of the Parisians and the Muslim cab drivers and doctors in Manchester who overcame fear to help others in myriad ways both during and after the attacks, “hero” is not the word that comes to mind. “Humane” — or perhaps merely “human” — is. And when I think of the desperate and deluded people who set out to kill as many others as possible in the course of ending their own wretched lives, it feels misguided to differentiate between “them” and “us” using constructs like cowardly vs. courageous, or losers vs. winners.

The dynamic at work here is much more complex than that. After all, what enables some people to overcome their innate aversion to harming others of the same species?

Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, writes a message at Manchester Town Hall, Tuesday May 23, 2017. (Ben Birchall/AP)
Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, writes a message at Manchester Town Hall, Tuesday May 23, 2017. (Ben Birchall/AP)

David Livingstone Smith, author of "Less Than Human," maintains that to commit atrocities — whether through genocide, slavery, or, I’d argue, terrorism, the perpetrators must describe and ultimately believe the victims to be equivalent to cockroaches, vermin. “When people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman creatures," said Smith a few years ago. Only then can the process "liberate aggression and exclude the target of aggression from the moral community."

But what propels people to dehumanize others? Is rage alone sufficient to drive someone to the point that they devalue their own lives and relegate the other to the class of subhuman (or in ISIS parlance, “infidel”)? Anger is certainly a big part of the story. After all, the escalating tit-for-tat cycle of terrorism and retaliation has resulted in not just the deaths of innocent concert-goers, college students and ordinary people in the West, but also in the deaths of innocent civilians and children’s hospital patients in Syria — “collateral damage” — in drone attacks and bombing raids. And so the rage of the already-marginalized people is stoked, then fanned by the bans on Syrian and Libyan and Yemeni refugees fleeing civil wars they had no part in fueling, and ultimately refueled by reactionary calls by some Islamaphobes for a “final solution.”

But clearly it’s more than fury that enables terrorists to abandon their own humanity in the course of dehumanizing others. They believe they are acting in service to a higher calling.

This is a dynamic that we must recognize, albeit in milder form, in all forms of religious zealotry. Just look at the Texas legislature, which has just passed HB 3859, allowing state-funded adoption and foster care agencies to turn away applicants on grounds of religion (Jewish, Muslim or atheist) or sexual orientation. They are also working on legislation that will let medical professionals to deny care to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people, withhold emergency contraception for rape survivors and permit pharmacists to deny birth control to women. These legislators may not be planting any literal bombs, but they are nonetheless hell-bent on destroying lives ... just not their own.

I can’t know, of course, but I imagine that these people are seeking a way to give their existence -- already anonymous and reduced -- some sort of meaning.

The suicide bombers are simply farther down the same road, their gaze narrowed by the blinders of religious doctrine, devaluing their own lives as much as those they are taking, but doing it for essentially the same reasons. I can’t know, of course, but I imagine that these people are seeking a way to give their existence — already anonymous and reduced -- some sort of meaning.

I say this not to justify or defend these horrible actions, but to try to see the human beings behind them. After two days of studying the faces of the 8-year-old child, the 17-year-old teen, the 43-year-old mother — all the faces of the ordinarily miraculous individuals killed in the Manchester bombing — I feel compelled to also peer into the face of the man who blew himself to bits.

To write him off as a coward or a loser flattens a human being whose dimensionality we must better understand. If we’re ever going to succeed in slowing his tide of successors, it will be not by dismissing him, but by understanding and helping to restore the aggressors’ sense of their own humanity as well as ours.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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