Have You Checked the Children?

While I lived in Saudi Arabia, drivers of our compound’s shopping bus were given a new rule: drive only on major roads. Yes, Riyadh traffic is terrible. Yes, the main roads at midday are snarled and slow, and the trip back home from many typical destinations could run close to an hour. And yes, you could save a lot of time by cutting through a neighborhood here and there.

Riyadh traffic

Riyadh traffic, just, you know, normal

This rule wasn’t instituted as a gesture of respect for neighborhood residents, or to keep buses from going over unnecessary speed bumps. No, it happened because schoolboys, at dismissal time in neighborhood schools, were stoning the bus as it passed.

Kids get in trouble everywhere. But throwing stones—not at any and all passing vehicles but at commuter buses with darkened or curtained windows, which are known to carry foreign women—is a VERY specific kind of trouble to get into. It isn’t random.

It sure is natural to think, “What, exactly, are they teaching inside that school?”

When kids get in trouble, it’s usually because they’re pretty focused on themselves and the present moment. They get in fights over stuff they want. They steal candy. They bully to elevate themselves. They do things that are innately exciting or fun, even if they’ve been told not to, because they haven’t thought the slightest about what will happen after the fun part. They don’t have existential enemies. It takes adults to teach them to hate and fear people with whom they’ve had no personal interaction.

Bullying cartoon

So what, exactly, are they teaching inside those schools?

Hatred and aggression toward people you don’t know takes some training. When someone shoots up a mosque or a European nightclub, we ask, “Where was he radicalized?” It’s irrational to harm people who are not harming or threatening you, personally, intimately, imminently. It’s radical. We need to explain this aberration by identifying the source. Surely somebody else, with a larger motive, is responsible. The violence is too focused on something that doesn’t have a rational root to have sprouted up spontaneously within a person.

When it comes to those from other cultures, we find it quite easy to identify the source of radicalization. Schools, madrassas, violence-espousing religious leaders, online recruitment communities.

And yet when the same offences are committed by a man (yes, a man, too often to pretend otherwise) who grew up in our own culture, we don’t ask that question. “Where was he radicalized?” What kind of a question is that? In his own head, obviously. Of course the culture can’t be responsible. I mean, I come from that culture and I’m fine. He’s deranged. He’s not well. He’s a crazy, nut-job aberration in a vast population of people who are fine.

I'm fine. It's fine. Everything is fine.

Guess what? They did that in Saudi Arabia, too. If someone from another country—or worse, a non-Sunni stripe of Islam—acted out in violence, Saudi media labeled him a terrorist. If the perpetrator was a Sunni Saudi, he was mentally unwell.

Halloween quiz: A babysitter starts getting frightening calls asking if she’s checked the children. She calls police, who trace the call and tell her the calls are coming from inside the house. Name that movie.

when a stranger calls 2

(When a Stranger Calls, 1979. Also 2006 for bonus points. I’m not watching either one.)

My fellow Americans, the children are in trouble, and the killer is inside the house. We are waaaay past the point of forgivable excuses for denying the sources of our own violence. While we insist on deploying perimeter security, the killer is inside the house. While we train guard dogs, the killer is inside the house. While we install camera doorbells and congratulate ourselves on avoiding Girl Scout cookie temptation, the killer is inside the house.

This past Saturday a man opened fire in a crowded Pittsburgh synagogue, killing eleven, wounding four police officers and two others, and leaving an unknown number with trauma and psychic damage that may never heal. This happened the day after another man was arrested for sending bombs through the mail over the past week to political and media figures.

Where were they radicalized? We have to ask ourselves the same question we ask everybody else. Focused violence against people who are not your personal adversaries is not natural. It doesn’t just bloom out of nothing. Children don’t throw rocks at busloads of women who weren’t taught to hate those buses, those women, those foreigners that they don’t even know. And men don’t shoot congregations of worshipers, or send bombs to political figures, who weren’t taught that those targets were bigger, more personal enemies than they appear to be.

Yes, taught. Adults are taught as easily as children. People everywhere, through every era, have the same weaknesses, and one of them is the ease with which we let somebody tell us what to think and do. We are desperate for connection, and when a voice of authority from within our tribe tells us what to think and do, we find a way to think and do it. (Think that only applies to other people? Read about the Milgram experiment.)

Words are telegraphed signals of what binds the tribe. And there is no binding force easier to access or more powerful in cementing those bonds than shared enemies. Sure, most tribal members will agree who the enemies are and let it go at that. They might feel uncomfortable about it, but the psychic comfort of belonging to the tribe will outweigh the discomfort nagging at their souls. Others will bully, troll, and abuse. And some will kill.

When tribal leaders signal to Sunni Muslims that Shia are worse than infidels, most people do nothing, some bully and discriminate and abuse, and some are primed to act out in violence. When tribal leaders signal to American conservatives that journalists are enemies of the state, that white Americans are under attack by non-whites or non-Christians, most people passively agree and go no further than making occasional jokes about Mexicans among friends to signal their own allegiance. Some people bully and troll and make enraged tweets or Facebook posts. And some kill.

American killers are being radicalized by American discourse. Just because you aren’t feeling especially radical doesn’t mean the discourse isn’t the problem. The call is coming from inside the house.

If your religious group claims sole possession of rightness while everybody else is wrong and in the service of Satan…the call is coming from inside the house. If your political tribe is telling you that you’re under attack, that everyone who differs from you is an enemy, if it normalizes name-calling…the call is coming from inside the house. If anybody tells you to reject outside information, to trust no one but them to tell you the true state of things you can’t observe for yourself, an abuser is manipulating you. The call is coming from inside the house.

And when a boy king picks up a signal from an older boy king that they share an enemy, and that he has tacit approval for eliminating that enemy in a third country, and then outrage fades when a new horror replaces it, and an international wink-wink remains in place—the same call is coming from inside a rabbit’s warren of houses.

America, stop imagining that the phone only rings next door. The call is coming from inside the house. And it’s not an enemy intruder upstairs who’s dialing. It’s family.

(Note: The “I’m Fine” image is a sticker available at Redbubble.com)

8 thoughts on “Have You Checked the Children?

    • margocatts says:

      I’ve been thinking and thinking on this. It deserves a crowdsourced response. And even then, there’s no one fix-it answer. (I’d love to see a conversation get started here, but blog comments don’t get seen by many people.) So, FWIW, here goes: As humans we’re wired to accept only what we want to hear and reject anything that doesn’t conform to our existing beliefs. Those responding enthusiastically to messages that say we’re separate from one another as individuals, races, nationalities, and religions are feeling affirmed in beliefs they already have. Those beliefs can’t be rooted out by evidence that contradicts them–in fact, being challenged usually causes retrenchment and further hardening. People need to arrive at new conclusions organically, so perhaps the only approach is to ask nonjudgmental questions that invite people to examine themselves, that tease open a small space to wonder why they feel as they do. I guess that’s where I was coming from with the post–pointing out the questions we comfortably raise about others but never think of asking ourselves. Asking leads to thinking, and thought is the missing link between propaganda and a willing recipient.


      • Emily O'Hara Bergeson says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think you’re right and offer a good strategy for getting things started.

        For some reason the article really struck a nerve as I’ve become more politically active and even started my own blog (www.momtalkspolitics.com). I have had a chance to talk with people from all over the political spectrum. Most of the time people will regurgitate rhetoric they are most comfortable with, that they haven’t really thought through. After building a safe space, there are more opportunities to draw out how a person REALLY feels. Politics automatically elicits the defense response and even innocent questions are met with suspicion. People feel the logical trap being set and they avoid it at all costs. Safe spaces, however, seem to do better at helping people just see those within the conversation as fellows rather than strangers.

        Your reference to the Milgram experiment is an interesting one. When you talk about being “taught” something, I feel that along the generational spectrum we have raise children to be obedient at different levels, some which make them more vulnerable to be exploited in the hands of others. Note that the Milgram experiment was conducted in the early ’60s. I wonder what the results would be today? I feel in the last few decades education and parenting styles have widened to embrace differences and encourage critical thinking. Because I don’t think the answer is to we stop teaching children (and adults) to be obedient. I don’t think we should stop teaching “right” and “wrong”, even though these might be taught incorrectly or based on only one world view.

        To create a contrast in one area of public interaction, in countries around the world many drivers see traffic laws as ‘suggestions’. Americans don’t question them. It feels strange when a friend chooses not to wear a seat belt. Laws protect us from the unexpected accidents. Interestingly, having driven now in several countries around the world, Americans are among the most oblivious drivers because they find absolute safety in the law.

        I wonder. Shouldn’t they be allowed to explore and question, even if that means saying something politically incorrect? Isn’t that part of organically arriving to certain conclusions? It can be uncomfortable to hear and allow people to talk that way, fearing that the conversation itself could lead to worse. But should we make people feel ashamed for thinking differently, because their thoughts have made us feel uncomfortable? Should we be impatient when their mental journey is taking too long? We need to ask ourselves how eager WE might be to slap on labels – “racist” “sexist” “intolerant” “ignorant” “blindly obedient”.

        I think empathy can go a long way. We all think we have the right answers, have thought through everything, and have arrived at the most logical conclusions. Yet even those who disagree with us have something vital to offer, statements we should consider, and problems that need addressing.

        After this post I reached out to a family member I labeled as “intolerant” and started a nice conversation (not about politics). It did a lot for ME to see him as a regular human being rather than a hard, cruel political adversary. You’re right. He’s family, not my enemy. I need to treat him more like family.


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