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The Power of Fear

October 22, 2010

Late yesterday afternoon I attended a thought-provoking event at the New America Foundation in Washington titled: “A Discussion about Two Different Afghanistans”.  Moderated by Susan Glasser, Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Policy magazine, the gathering featured Anna Badkhen and her newly-released book Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories and Karen DeYoung, the award-winning Washington Post diplomatic correspondent who has covered wars and conflict for many years.  Anna Badkhen focused her remarks on the human side of what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan, putting a face on diverse Afghans who have known only war during their entire lifetimes.  Karen DeYoung offered a perspective that focused primarily on Washington and international politics.

I had a copy of Badkhen’s book and much to think about during my commute home to Pennsylvania.  But after boarding my Amtrak train at Union Station, I first made my usual move to set up my laptop computer and get online to check the evening news from a number of different sources.  Turning first to the BBC website, I found a late-breaking, featured story about Juan Williams, a journalist whose spoken and written reporting and commentary I have appreciated for many years.  Juan has in recent years been working for both NPR and Fox News.

The BBC story opened with this tag line: “National Public Radio fires news analyst Juan Williams for saying on Fox News that he gets nervous when he sees Muslims on an aircraft.”  Surprised and distressed by this report, I navigated to several other websites in an attempt to learn more.  On the site of the Washington Post (a former employer of Juan’s), I found a just-posted editorial titled “NPR’s hasty decision to fire pundit Juan Williams”.  The Post editorial asks: “What was Mr. Williams’s sin?” And it answers by stating: “He admitted, with apparent chagrin that he has engaged in a kind of racial profiling in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks.”  The editorial goes on to say: “In making this confession, Mr. William undoubtedly spoke for many Americans who are wrestling with similar feelings.  His words could be offensive to some, if construed as an endorsement of negative stereotyping.  But the full broadcast makes clear that Mr. Williams intended the opposite.”   

As I read the Post editorial, I felt that it spoke my mind.  It concludes:

In short, Mr. Williams was attempting to do exactly what a responsible commentator should do: speak honestly without being inflammatory.  His reward was to lose his job, just as Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod lost hers over purportedly racist remarks that turned out to be anything but.  NPR management appears to have learned nothing from that rush to judgment.  “Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality,” Mr. Williams told Mr. O’Reilly [on the Fox News show The O’Reilly Factor]. NPR, alas, has proved his point.”  (The full editorial is available online at  You must register first – at no charge – to access it.)

When I reached home last night, I tried to let go of the evening’s news reports.  As planned, I joined my wife and 14-year old son (the ultimate sports fan) to watch the TV coverage of “our” Philadelphia Phillies playing the San Francisco Giants.  It was a must-win game for the Phillies; a loss would mean our dreams of another World Series appearance were over for the season.  It was close to midnight when we finally turned off the TV.  In many ways, it wasn’t a pretty game.  Yet through grit and determination the Phillies won and the quest to reach the World Series will resume in Philadelphia over the weekend.

Here, I pause to make a confession: I have great difficulty justifying the large compensation packages paid to many baseball players and other professional athletes.  Yet, I also find there is something very compelling about a sports team that brings diverse people from many walks of life together. 

Which I suppose is related (in a way) to what has gotten me up so early this morning to think and to write about Juan Williams, September 11th, diversity and the power of fear.

Today is an FCNL holiday.  We are celebrating William Penn’s birthday and United Nations Day (the latter actually falls on Sunday).  So by all common-sense measures I should have slept in a bit.  But I couldn’t.  Please bear with me as I attempt to explain why.

It’s because I want to convey something important to our sports-crazy 14-year-old son, as well as to our 18 and 20-year old daughters.  It’s something that goes way beyond the unification of diverse folks around a sports team.

As Americans and as citizens of the world, we sorely need to find more unity.  We need to face our fears and move beyond them.  Why do I say this?  What do I mean?

Many, though certainly not all, of our fears as Americans continue to crystallize around the horrific events of September 11.  And those fears have, I believe, been fueled in subsequent years by the path(s) we have chosen to take.

I frequently find myself transported back in time to the weeks after September 11, 2001.  My family and I had moved to Jakarta, Indonesia at the end of July 2001.  An important part of the work that I was doing in Indonesia and elswhere in southeast Asia with Catholic Relief Services was focused on peace-building.

Just after the 9/11 attacks, I received an email message written by Jean Paul Lederach, a Mennonite and a distinguished academic whose work centers on mediation and conflict resolution.  Stuck in an airport en route home from Colombia to the U.S. as a result of post-9/11 airport closures, John Paul pulled out his laptop and composed a message that implored us not to respond to violence with more violence.  I don’t have his exact words at my fingertips this morning.  But the gist is that John Paul asked us not to react to what happened on 9/11 out of anger and fear, the result of which would lead to meeting force with force.  He cautioned that, in taking an eye-for-an-eye, military-style approach, we would lower ourselves to the level of the perpetrators of 9/11 and play into their hands.

John Paul’s message still rings true with me today.  I can’t help but believe that the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks have concluded that they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  They have succeeded in instilling fear and provoking anger.  It is this fear and anger that has caused us as Americans to lash out, discriminate against, harm and kill other people – people who may look and dress differently, people who may (or may not) practice a religion that is unfamiliar to us (at best) or grossly misunderstood by us (at worst).  It’s a fear and an anger that has caused us to occupy the homelands of others in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to give people who were not extremists a reason to come together to fight and resist the occupiers.  It’s a fear and an anger that has cost the world dearly in terms of misdirected financial resources and human lives lost.

We will only be able to shift the paradigm when we acknowledge and face our fears, our pain and our anger.  Only then will we be able find unity and move in a more constructive direction.  For me, that direction is the path of nonviolence.   It’s the path that has been chosen by John Paul Lederach, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others who are my mentors and my heroes.

Rev. King certainly knew and contended with fear, pain and anger.  In his book Stride Toward Freedom in a chapter titled “Where do We Go from Here?” Dr. King wrote:  “Through nonviolence we avoid the temptation of taking on the psychology of victors.  … We must act in such a way that our victories will be triumphs for goodwill in all [people].  … Nonviolence is essentially a positive concept.  Its corollary must always be growth.  On the one hand nonviolence requires noncooperation with evil; on the other hand it requires cooperation with the constructive forces of good.  Without this constructive aspect, noncooperation ends where it begins.”

Dr. King wrote these words in the midst of the U.S. civil rights movement.  He wrote them in a time when he was increasingly becoming aware of the interconnected nature of U.S.-based civil rights work and global issues of justice and peace.  As his understanding of the relationship between domestic and global justice issues deepened, Rev. King felt led to become a vocal critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The message I want my children to hear is that Dr. King’s words and wisdom are still very relevant today.  I also want them to know that I believe Juan Williams understands well the important connections between the civil rights movement and the epic struggles we face today – among which are the struggle to acknowledge and face our fears and prejudices, as well as the struggle to resist the temptation of racial and religious profiling.  After all, one of Juan’s triumphs as a journalist and writer was the late 1980s publication of Eyes on the Prize, his book about Dr. King and the civil rights movement that accompanied the award-winning PBS documentary series of the same name.

Above all, I hope that we all – young and old together — will keep our eyes on the ultimate prize of a more just and peaceful world.  King deepened his understanding of effective justice and peace work through his exploration of the teachings and life work of another hero of mine – Mahatma Gandhi.  This morning, I am struck once again by the wisdom of Gandhi when he reminded us that we must continually strive to be the change we want to see in the world.  Gandhi’s advice is important for each of us to keep in mind — whether we are in Afghanistan, the United States or anywhere else in the world.

  1. Ellen N. Duell permalink
    October 26, 2010 10:47 am

    When a teenager, during WW II, in Madison, Wisconsin, my parents were pacifists. I was convinced, too, in my heart, that pacifism, what we call “nonviolence” today, was right and most effective in the world. But I was never “on the winning side” when that subject was argued. It was hard for me–needing social affirmation and belonging–to be a minority of one in my patriotic high school, where everybody was buying “war stamps” and taking in every can for the metals drives.

    Not only non-violence, but constructive work for peace–peace action–is indeed what we need to concentrate on! Nowadays as a Quaker, I am a “Friend for Peace”, a lifelong stand with my husband, who died in 2008. I treasure his “conscientious objector” registration card.

  2. Tony Manasseh permalink
    October 26, 2010 11:57 pm

    What would Gandhi have done had he seen 9/11? How would have Dr. M.L. King reacted to the violent blow of 9/11? I think both would have been very sad that the human race had reached such a degree of hatred and revenge. Both would have strongly condemned the perpetrators and both would have urged governments to review their policies that led to that event. It is very likely that at least one of them would have probed deeper to find out what made such groups do such a thing. It is also understandable that people hurt by such a horrible massacre, people who lost a loved one, have the right to express their opinion. Only chains of events created by governments can be responsible for policies that lead to such criminality. War and injustice is definately not the answer but can we neglect the fact that a few want to hurt the well being of others? Can we not react to stop them from doing more? Otherwise, what will stop them from doing more? The question is how we do it. Is there anything that can curb them till we rectify policies? Juan Williams is not guilty as long as policies are still war bound.

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