Youth can Make the Difference

Remarks delivered at Windows into Syria, May 14, 2016

This year, as far away people reap what our foreign policy has sown, Islamophobia is breaching the walls of Newton’s rich-white-liberal snowglobe. I start to hear things in the hallways. A girl I know says we have to keep the refugees out because they’re probably terrorists. She says it’s in their religion.

But if there’s a religion whose doctrines mandate war and terror, it is less Islam than US foreign policy. But for now we here—in Newton, in Massachusetts, in the US—are still at enough of a remove that we don’t yet have to reckon with the “refugee crisis.” We can think of it in terms of numbers, but in terms of people? Lives? I’m not sure. People live there. People live there, but do we realize that? We take the people fleeing the violence we visited on them, and brand them the potential enemy. We look at our Muslim neighbors and brand them dangerous. We look at the politicians forcing their perpetual doctrine down the throats of countries whose names we can’t pronounce while spoon-feeding us national insecurity. Shouldn’t it be those politicians who warrant the branding of enemy or dangerous?

Haven’t you heard those phrases, “People who forget history are condemned to repeat it?” How about “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity?” There’s some truth in those. Wars that never worked are not going to start now.  Spreading terror and calling it democracy does not make it democracy, but does undermine what democracy we might have here in the US. Bombing terror will only seed more because you can’t bomb terror, you can only bomb people, and we have.

In Massachusetts, in Newton, we like to style ourselves progressive. But there’s actively progressive and then there’s passively progressive–doing something or just kind of thinking something. We have the luxury to choose to keep sitting back, hoping the military solution will work this time (remember, definition of insanity), hoping that we never have to face up to the role of both our aggression and our indifference. Never mind that the refugees are fleeing the same people we’re thirsting for war with; that they are not the aggressors. Never mind that we’re grudgingly admitting what, a couple thousand people? into the US, despite our disproportionate responsibility. Even Europe is facing the tip of an iceberg compared to the numbers that countries like Lebanon and Jordan are shouldering. Never mind that it was our military misadventures that caused the crucible of instability and brutality and devastation that spawned this crisis in the first place.

But no, never mind all that. (Or actually, please do mind.) Because the official line is the same as it always is: be afraid, be very afraid. Even in places like Newton, we’re hardly immune to fearmongering.

Fear is useful to the architects of war. The fear that makes us malleable is a tool that will be used against us, to drum up support for policies that don’t make anyone safer. This is the fear that makes us accede to legislation that strips away our rights and laws, and wars that drain money and human lives. This is the fear that spirals into apathy when our reaction is to batten down the hatches and seal ourselves off from what we may call terrorism.

One of the best antidotes to mindless, racist fear is knowledge. Awareness of the facts on the ground and the possible courses of action. The knowledge that this atmosphere of fear and instability and warmongering is a strategy, advancing the interests of the corporate and military elite. It has been done before and it will be done again. But it’s not a foregone conclusion. The outcomes still depend on how people choose to think, and how we choose to act. So let’s call the refugees our future neighbors, colleagues, teachers, doctors, friends. And redefine enemy—as war, Islamophobia, empire, racism, hatred, fear.

Here’s one last appeal to the youth here: we have a certain power to remake the world. We have an especial vulnerability to feeling that there’s nothing we can do, but I see hopeful things alongside the flashes of bigotry. I was at a slam poetry competition recently and several of the poems people performed focused on Islamophobia and rejecting fear and hatred. There is a broader, more humane consciousness growing here, I want to believe. That’s what North and South Peace Action and Mass Peace Action are trying to tap into. We know how to think. We can stand up to the narratives we’re taught. We can make the difference.