American citizens are justifiably concerned about the threat of terrorist violence in the United States.  From 2001 to 2013, over 3000 people have been killed in the United States by terrorists.  The recitation, and the memories, are gruesome, from the twin towers to San Bernardino.  Those monstrous crimes have pushed American voters to list terrorism among their greatest concerns, and it is clearly affecting their choice of candidate for the presidency.  Likely Republican voters have listed terrorism as America’s number one problem.


We are all deeply concerned, as we should be, because innocent people are being killed by terrorists.  In 2004 alone, 74 people were killed by terrorists in the U.S., and in 2013, 20 people were killed by terrorists.


So we should be deeply concerned about deaths in such numbers.  Here, then, are some other numbers.  In the same period, 2001 to 2013, over 400,000 people were killed by guns in the United States, and in 2013 alone, over 13,000 people were murdered in the United States.  Yet crime is not a major issue for the voters, and gun control is actually denounced by a large part of the population.  Why is that?


I am going to hazard a guess.  Think about the instances of terrorism.  The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The attack at the Boston Marathon.  The attack at Fort Hood.  The attack at a center to help the disabled in San Bernardino.  There is a common thread here.  All of these attacks happened at places where we would least expect to see violence of any kind.


So, if we shudder at the 3000 deaths that happened in these places, why do we pay so little attention to the more than 400,000 people who died from guns in the same period?  If we face this honestly, do we have to admit that, to put it bluntly, we don’t care?  Are we saying that those violent deaths don’t matter because they don’t really affect us?  Are we assuming that those deaths are in “bad areas”, and, since we don’t live there, it is not our problem?  13,000 people are murdered, and we hardly spare a sigh, and in the same period 20 people are killed by terrorists and we are ready to throw away our most precious civil rights in our effort to avoid further terrorism?


Terrorism is a real and undeniable threat.  So are crimes like murder, rape, and the various financial crimes that strip our citizens of billions of dollars a year.  There is, however, a far greater threat, a threat that could destroy the very fiber of this nation.  The real threat is our growing commitment to the ideology of self-interest.


America was founded on an idea of responsibility for others.  We hold the indubitable truth that every human being — every human being — is born equal and born with inalienable rights.  That is a clear announcement of, and a clear commitment to, the fundamental view that our value comes, not from pursuing our own selfish interests, but from honoring and protecting the rights of all around us.  It is why we honor those who have dedicated, and in many cases surrendered, their lives to protect and defend others.  We don’t honor anyone just for amassing great wealth or seizing great power.  Think of your list of true heroes.  Think of those to whom we give the medal of honor or the medal of freedom.  You will not find Donald Trump or Carl Icahn there.  You will, however, find Rosa Parks and Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Gandhi.  These are not great because of what they gained for themselves but precisely for what they have done and what they have given for others.


We do have problems in America.  We should worry about the economy and the crime rate and terrorism.  Before we can even begin to solve these problems, however, we need to look to ourselves.  If we do, we might just run into the inconvenient truth so neatly put by Al Capp:  we have met the enemy, and he is us.





A wise mentor of mine, instructing me on the art of teaching, once gave me a rule that has applications far beyond the classroom.  He said that I should remember that, if one student fails to get my point, it is the student’s fault, but if many students fail to get the point, it is my fault.


If some lone, crazed individual decides to wreak havoc on us, the blame for that lies with that individual.  If, however, a whole group of people espouse some wild view that is damaging to society, we need to ask another question:  what is it that leads these people to commit themselves to such bizarre and destructive movements?


In the case of those who commit themselves to the monstrously perverse worldview of ISIS, the answer is no doubt complex.  It must, however, be addressed if we are ever to rid ourselves of the horror of this societal cancer.


David Brooks, in his December 8 New York Times Editorial, “How Radicals Are Made,” appeals to the analysis made many decades ago by Eric Hoffer.  People, says Brooks sacrifice themselves in the name of a larger cause, like ISIS, out of frustration:  “Their personal ambitions are not fulfilled.  They have lost faith in their own abilities to realize their dreams.”  Their commitment to a destructive cause, says Brooks, can only happen “when a once sturdy structure is in a state of decay or disintegration.”


I am not sure that Hoffer’s observations, directed toward the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, are altogether applicable to the evils of ISIS.  More importantly, however, and with all due respect to Mr. Brooks, we need to ask a far more difficult question:  what is it about us that contributes to people like the man and woman in San Bernardino committing to the heinous slaughter of completely defenseless and innocent people?


At the very least, we have to ask ourselves if we as a society fit the description of “a once sturdy structure in a state of decay or disintegration.”  History teaches us that the decay of any civilization does not appear evident until it is about to collapse.  To detect the signs of decay, I suggest that we need to see if our national and local conduct has wandered from accord with our founding ideals.  For Americans, those ideals are that all humans are created equal and that each human is endowed by her or his creator with certain inalienable rights.  As I read that ideal, it means that our society is grounded on responsibility for others.  Recent events, and recent political discourse, makes clear that a large part of our society places self-interest above that responsibility.  Left unchecked, the worldview of self-interest must necessarily contribute to the decay of our society.


The second and far more difficult question is why so many young people born and raised in America would find it appealing to either leave this country for the misery and savagery of the monstrous world of ISIS, or would decide that their meaning, their “salvation” if you will, lay in destruction and mass murder.


Frankly, I have no clue as to how to answer that question.  I only know this:  we must ask it and we must seek an answer that will help us to reduce or eliminate the desire in these young people to seek such a disastrous course of action.  The fact that it happens, the fact of such people as the couple in San Bernardino, is certainly a calamity.  It is also an opportunity for self-examination, an opportunity to make sure that we are being faithful to the ideal that has made the United States a beacon for the world.