Friday, February 17, 2006

The Terrorism Two-Step

Somewhere between 7th and 8th grade I decided I wanted to participate in my youth, not cower in the corner waiting for the popular kids to leave.

Being the son of a fundamentalist preacher/authoritarian father, I did not enter junior high with a lot of self confidence. I was one of the few remaining kids of my generation in the early 80s whose parents firmly believed in the corrective power of the belt. I was raised to be deferent, to my peers as well as my superiors, and in junior high that is a posture that is like honey to bully bears.

In my meekness I was berated into submission by my fellow junior high classmates, and I spent much of 7th grade as an outcast. There's nothing wrong with being an outcast if for the right reasons, but I chose to be an outcast because I had neither the confidence in myself or what I believed in to walk with assurance. By repetition, I had learned if I walked with assurance without the threat of physical power, that was the recipe by which I would be pounded into ground.

There's an interesting psychology in humans who are terrorized: Every person eventually has a breaking point. For me, it was the desire to play team sports. I figured I was going be bullied no matter what, so it didn't make a difference what I did. At least I should pursue some kind of happiness ... even if there would likely be days I would be afraid to go to school.

My sudden change of mind led to the inevitable. Two bullies in a school populated by them (1,200 7th, 8th, and 9th grade suburbanites) were on my 8th grade team. They taunted me mercilessly until, all logic lost in my anger, I turned as pushed one of them to the ground.

To use the vernacular of the day, it was "on." After practice. Behind one of portable classrooms.

To this day I have no idea where I found the courage to show up to that fight. I think I was probably more afraid of what would happen if I didn't show up. To my surprise, my opponent was no stronger than me. Turns out all his posturing was just that. We rolled on the ground for an eternity, and I landed several body blows that seemed to take the edge of his cockiness.

By reputation, I didn't win that fight. Blood flowed from my nose, but only because of the heat and the physical exertion, not because of any haymaker that landed on my face. Truth is, he never landed a punch, and if it were a fairly judged wrestling match, I would have been declared the winner.

My personal bully walked off with several of his friends proudly claiming victory. But we both knew there wouldn't be another fight, and all he had left was weak verbal jabs that had much less punch than they once did. I had no interest to fight him and he had learned I was not a weakling -- he couldn't afford a rematch in which he might lose face (and a few teeth). I was no longer afraid of him.

I abhor violence. I regret the kind of vile rage I experienced that day, and the kind of bitterness that simmered in my heart for years after that incident. Even as a young adult, thinking about the experience, I wanted to reach back in time and really throw punches with the self-confidence that comes from experience.

But I put that down. I know now why he did what he did. I know he was as threatened by my presence as I was his. He had no trust of the world and could only posture as a bully to ensure his safety. Yet, if I hadn't stood up for myself, the bullying would have endured throughout my school days. It would have been endless, and maybe worse. One of my friends was put in the hospital by high school bullies like these guys.

This is what I think of when I hear people question our military presence in the Middle East. Sure, we can question the mode of operation, and critics are right to condemn inhumane treatment of prisoners. But that is not an argument against military action.

Terrorism is nothing more than bullying on a grand scale. There is an element of Islam that intends to strike fear in the world. They cannot do a full-frontal attack because they are, in fact, weak by comparison, but they can posture by steering two jumbo jets full of fuel into the World Trade Center. They expected us to cower. They expected us to crumble. They expected us to be weak. And they expected to encourage others of like mind to do the same.

Military response, which we hope was directed at the right target with enough good intel, was the proper response. When these international bullies threaten the assurance of safety in our country, we cannot back down. No response is a guarantee of future terrorism. It's an invitation to people with an 8th-grade worldview to posture some more with cowardice acts of wanton violence.

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