K – Mommy, what’s a terrorist?
I was zoning out on my way to work to the sound of my hybrid car’s windshield wipers and the smell of my coffee with dark chocolate almond milk. My six year-old daughter had heard a story on the radio. An 18 year-old High School student in a nearby town was suspended from school yesterday for calling a fellow student – a 16 year-old girl wearing a hijab – a terrorist. This was two days after a local mosque was defaced with a peace symbol shaped like the Eiffel Tower. And a day after our Governor announced that Syrian refugees are not welcome in our state. It was time to talk about terrorism with my six year-old.
Me – *deep breath* A terrorist is a person who kills or harms other people to make everyone feel afraid.
K – Why did he call her that? Did she kill someone?
Me – No, he was afraid, because she looks different from him, so he tried to hurt her with his words. He was wrong.
K – That’s not nice. We shouldn’t call people names.
She’s right. We shouldn’t call people names. And we shouldn’t let our fear of the unknown or people who are different from us cause us to hurt others with our words, actions, policies or public declarations. We should seek to understand, not fear. We should have compassion for others who are suffering or hurting – even people with whom it seems we have nothing in common or who have values or religious beliefs that are different or contrary to our personal values and beliefs. Even when we largely consider those beliefs to be harmful. And for the record, in many cases I do.
We shouldn’t judge or condemn all people of a racial group, nationality or religion, based on the actions of a few harmful people or the governments that they are trying to escape. Can you imagine if people judged the entirely of American culture or values on the beliefs and actions of the Westboro Baptist Church or Timothy McVeigh? We shouldn’t let the actions of a handful of European terrorists convince us to demonize or marginalize entire peoples or let the fear of an unknown future force us to abandon both reason and compassion.
If we hate the actions of the oppressive and harmful systems, religions, and governments that exist in the world, we should help the people they are oppressing and harming. We should fight hate, terrorism and anti-American sentiment by accepting immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers from those places and surrounding them with compassion and assistance. We should recognize that our communities could become much stronger, wiser and kinder when we welcome and interact with (and give our children the opportunities to interact with) different people, races and cultures. We should also start talking care of our own vulnerable residents and understand that these things aren’t mutually exclusive and that saying so is racist and xenophobic.
When people in my community would rather see a Syrian child (or millions of children, women and men) suffer and die, while trying to escape the horrible conditions there for a better life, than risk a bad unknown thing happening in the future to someone they might know, who should be called a terrorist? When people in my community support hate crimes and hate speech, because the target is a person or group that they fear. Who is worse? Should perpetrators of hate crimes get a pass because their hate is fueled by fear?
I am privileged. I get that. I get to have these discussions with my children from the comfort of our car and relatively pleasant life. I am a white cisgender American. I have a job. I have a home. I live an hour from my parents. I have the freedom to write this blog post and not fear for my safety or my family’s safety.
I have also had the privilege to live oversees among Muslim people in West Africa and experience their love and compassion during and following the 9/11 attacks. People who lived in a dictatorship and had no personal experience with the liberties and freedoms I largely take for granted. People who lived in poverty – the extent of which I had neither experienced nor imagined prior to living there – brought me meals that day and the days following, as if a loved one had died and they were mourning with me. They didn’t hate me because I wasn’t a Muslim. Or because I was an American. They didn’t hate me for the harmful actions of my government or military, even when my country did horrible things. Even when my country supported their oppressive government. That is the definition of community I want my children to learn and experience.
Me – You’re right, he was wrong to say that to her. What other questions do you have?