Seemingly every day there’s a new name added to the list. Borders tighten, checkpoints tighten, chests tighten.
These are agonizing stories, these acts of terror. From a distance, and considering their frequency, they appear like bizarre acts of species self-abuse, some sort of abnegation, of deep rage masking even deeper feelings of profound sadness borne of collective futility. They are the ironic antithesis of all of the many other stories we collectively say we want to celebrate. Here in the 21st-century, with innovation seemingly at every turn, optimistic possibilities about newly earned human rights, technological wonders, and dramatic new freedoms for millions, the real competition seems to be against our collective compulsion to immolate ourselves. With the specter of terrorism now hiding in the shadow of every government building and parked car, people are distrustful, edgy, and always aware that calamity is but a single news alert away. Even as the world struggles to figure out its own economic potentials, terrorism causes rising economies to loose their footing just as those economies are beginning to ascend. As we celebrate new freedoms at the beginning of a week, we curtail freedoms and call the process “necessary security measures” just days later.
Who's to blame?
We are, it seems. We: humans.
The same creatures that invented chocolate eclairs and antibiotics and four-on-the-floor musical inspirations for countless nighttime raves also decided that it makes sense to murder strangers simply because groups of people cannot seem to trust each other, or take care of each other without complex agreements. To a lesser degree we even see this in our ordinary civic life here in America. On the political stage, polarized forces not only cultivate broad distrust among factionalized groups, but even small scale civic groups struggle to get along, to say nothing about rising above marginal mediocrity.
At this point it would be natural to wonder why I'm writing about this in a space that generally focuses on topics of creativity. The reason why is because the great cultural victim of terrorism and it's many propulsive components is the chill it imposes on creativity. Any way you look at it, distrust inhibits invention of all sorts. The agonizing losses are bad enough, speaking about actual bomb blasts. Simultaneously, the political warfare that divides and distempers us all does the same thing in slow, noisy motion. But perhaps what’s even more tragic is the tendency for this cycle to consume time and energy for creating something more perfect, more desirable, more hopeful. Distrust and fear consumes itself, leaving precious little resource for something more profound. Imagine a lifetime spent angling for a couple of percent of electrical votes every election cycle. Imagine a lifetime spent hiding from authorities while you spend your angry days scheming how to kill people. Clearly they’re not the same, but lives spent trying to defeat other lives does not inspire dreams of greatness.
No doubt some will argue that cultural crisis breeds its own creative response, that artists have always created meaningful works in the face of turmoil and tragedy. I cannot deny this; it's undeniably true. But I also cannot pretend this tension does anything good for the larger goals of civilization. I have to believe there are less fraught ways for the global human culture to move into the future. More to the point, I find it ironic that civilization always seems to promote a pretense about its great panoply. We see photo collections of wonderful color and diversity, of endlessly disparate ideas and philosophical perspectives and songs and paintings and languages and traditions and tastes and costumes. We even send this chorus of diversity out into the cosmos on our spacecraft – – anybody remember Voyager? But when it comes down to it, our great diversity seems to be something about which we like to advertise as a good thing but do not deeply believe. Deep down, what we really are is tribal, and tribalism breeds fear. Fear threatens inventiveness. Art is a response to fear insofar as it presses out in protest against the inevitable night. Tribalism presses inward, telling people to conform. Our school boards and city councils and national political parties spend more time stirring animus against other groups than they do actually trying to build something. The more radicalized in the world make bombs and detonate them.
The results are always the same: shattered glass and broken drywall and wrecked cars in the streets. Ambulances and police sirens. Flashing lights and people screaming. Decades of school assignments and playground games of tag and college kisses with sweethearts and long nights studying for chemistry exams and job interviews and annual reviews and buying supper for old friends and dreams about camping trips to the Tetons….gone.
In Brussels, heart of the surrealist movement more than a century ago, we are faced with a more persistent surreality yet again. In a world of endless possibilities, great expressions of life, and bright promises of eternal optimism, we are our own worst enemy. As a species we are hypocrites. Terrorism has many victims, but the greatest victim of all, perhaps, is the death of confidence that the remaining days of our collective lives are going to be worth the effort to try to amount to something. Terror and counter-terror consume countless days, months, years of life. Humanity scrapes by but doesn’t thrive. Certainly the realists will say that it’s ridiculous to simply expect people to give up deep concerns, to suddenly trust, to expect people to suddenly get along. The realists will also rightly note that there are plenty of material, vital forces in the world provoking people to real, genuine anger, with little trust that ordinary conversation will ever change things. Hundreds of millions of people scrabbling in the dusty, hungry streets of impoverished places are unlikely to set their justifiable anger aside.
But perhaps we are looking at things inside-out. Terror and distrust are at the root of inequalities; they are not the result. Self-interested tribalism is the greatest threat to humanity's future. We lose our collective grip on noble dreams because we grasp instead at ordinary survival, and we are then faced with a choice. In the face of terror we are either the engine of perpetuation or we are the engine of change.
Guess what? Engines of change require moments of invention. They create things that didn’t exist the moment before they were invented. They can create alternatives to endless mistrust, distrust, and fear, which means they can be the engines of practically transcendent invention. Like the greatest artworks ever created, they take some daring, some confidence, some insight. They take fortitude.
The opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creation.