Reflections on Violence

My blog usually features pictures of buses, not long rants. But I hope you’ll take some time to read this post and follow some of the links (which themselves could take hours)

MIT's Green Building with a black ribbon

MIT’s Green Building with a black ribbon

“When children are terrorists, we are all terrorists.”

These are the words of a Yemeni man from al-Majalah in the documentary Dirty Wars (trailer below).

The words struck a chord, especially given the highly publicized string of violent acts that erupted in Boston two weeks ago. For me, his statement evokes three themes:

  1. Fear

    The US missile that struck al-Majalah in 2009 reportedly killed 41 people, more than half of them children. If the US government and public are so willing to gloss over this collateral and, by denying and concealing it, essentially label children terrorists, who in Yemen is safe? Perhaps this is the most straightforward interpretation of his statement: if even children can be targets, nobody is innocent enough to be safe. The family of the eight year-old boy killed at the Marathon finish line, and many others in Boston, now know this fear all too well.
    Because of the United States’ racially tinged “global war on terror,” people around the world face such fear daily:

    Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. (Living Under Drones)

    As Farea Al-Muslimi testified to a Senate Committee last week after a drone attack on his village in Yemen: “This fear permeates our country and it is shared by the youngest and oldest Yeminis. A middle age man from Rada’a, in central Yemen, said in an interview recently: “In the past, mothers used to tell their kids to go to bed or I will call your father. Now, they say, ‘Go to bed or I will call the planes.’”

  2. Anger

    The man grieves his community’s losses. While his tone was not threatening, anger is a natural part of the grieving process. His statement raises the concern that the US government’s continued killing of children and innocent civilians will create anger that ferments into hate, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of terrorism.

    Take it from a Stanford/NYU study: “The number of “high-level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%. Furthermore, evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks.” (Living Under Drones)

    Take it from Farea Al-Musilmi: “Instead of first experiencing America through a school or a hospital, most people in Wessab first experienced America through the terror of a drone strike. What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”

    Take it from the New York Times: “drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants.” It takes a lot to top Guantánamo, where the US has, for more than a decade, held dozens of men who even the military admits pose no threat, and where those joining the latest round of peaceful hunger strikes are being force-fed tortured.

    Take it from a relative of Mohammed Daoud, an Afghan police officer who had worked closely with US soldiers before being killed, along with three women, in a botched night raid by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces. The grieving relative was so angry at the murders that he planned to kill the JSOC commander who was coming to apologize; he was dissuaded only when his imam convinced him that his religious tradition demanded that he show hospitality to the visiting American Admiral.

    Hell, take it from Yoda: the fear-anger-hate-suffering Dark Side progression is a fundamental galactic truth.

    Part of my reaction to the acts in Boston was anger. But over the last two weeks, I have felt a much deeper outrage at the violence perpetrated by the US and the Obama Administration that receives far less publicity.

  3. Complicity

    The interpretation that has resonated most with me rests on a broader interpretation of “we.” “When children are terrorists, we are all terrorists.” When we allow children to be labeled as terrorists, or when we are complicit in systems of exclusion, war, and violence that allow young peoples’ minds to be twisted by violent extremism, we participate in the terror. Our silent acceptance of US terrorism qua counterterrorism done on our behalf only reinforces cycles of violence.

Fear and anger were some of the emotions I felt over the past two weeks. But it is complicity that I want to consider further now.

There has been a lot of soaring rhetoric in the name of Boston, MIT, and the United States over the last two weeks. I want to take some time to reflect on this rhetoric. I want to challenge some of it, especially from Vice President Biden, so that my silence is not construed as complicity.

Marathon Monday

Monday, April 15

On the afternoon of Marathon Monday, I was taking a tour of the World Trade Center site in New York. From the 90th floor of the nearly completed Freedom Tower, I looked down on the 9/11 Memorial.

9-11 Memorial

9-11 Memorial

I came down from the tower and heard the news about the explosions at the Boston Marathon Finish Line. It was chilling.

It was chilling to see the footage of the explosions on repeat on TV screens across New York.

It was chilling to sense how much our post-9/11 shadows caught up to us when the explosions hit Boston. Police expressed concern about “secondary devices” that would target first responders, a tactic that has become so familiar perhaps in part because the US uses it with drone strikes. Later, in the shootout in Watertown, police officers were shouting over the radio about IEDs, a term that has become all too familiar because of the response to US invasions in the Middle East. With the explosions in Boston, we turned around and saw that these shadows of our global escapades had caught up with us; they weren’t just in the far off lands of our post-9/11 wars.

It was chilling to see stereotypes and prejudices exposed. As my friend Brendan writes,

Nearly every mainstream news outlet and government agency involved was publicly wrong at least once–CNN, AP, FOX News, plus the FBI and Boston PD–to say nothing of Reddit, 4Chan, the “Twittersphere,” and the guy who tackled the Saudi national foolish enough to be Fleeing While Arab. Those mistakes thankfully did not cost anyone their life–someone like Sunil Tripathi or Hema Abu Laban–because I think we won’t long see the end of them, these giant published protean mirages, and they may kill one day.

I took a certain amount of comfort in the sight of first responders running against the crowds, instinctively rushing to where their help was needed. I took comfort in the heroic response of medical personnel. Displays of solidarity from around the world were inspiring, especially pictures of people in Afghanistan, Syria, and Palestine holding up signs expressing their condolences for Boston.

I also appreciated a renewed sense of empathy and calls to confront violence more broadly: “To murder several runners using bombs at a sporting event is terrorism. To murder 175 children using…drones is U.S. policy. We should accept neither. We should fight against both.”

Violence seems so senseless and disempowering when seen as isolated, cruel events. The calls for empathy challenged this numbing view of violence as something random and disconnected. The signs from around the world were reminders that violence is pervasive and systemic. We can act together and contest it if we resist the instinct to condemn it only selectively.

“On Killing Children”

Wednesday, April 17

At the beginning of April, before the explosions at the Marathon, a heated email exchange started in my department at MIT about the killing of children being perpetrated by US military and the CIA. An in-person conversation was scheduled for April 17, and it assumed additional weight with the events of Monday.

As this discussion was taking place, covert US action continued in Yemen:

As Farea Al-Muslimi describes, “Most of the world has never heard of Wessab. But just six days ago, my village was struck by a drone, in an attack that terrified thousands of simple, poor farmers. The drone strike and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine.”

His solidarity is inspiring, and it exemplifies the mandate that Roxy, a poetic friend of mine and fellow Watson Fellow, posted on the day of the Marathon: “Lines on a map cannot and should not create apathy towards others.”

When violence is close at hand, reaction is automatic and instinctive. But reacting only to the immediate violence left me feeling unsettled.

Knowing that people at MIT were pushing themselves to understand and condemn violence around the world in the wake of attacks at home offered me the first steps towards a sustainable response and sustaining healing.

Shooting at MIT

Thursday, April 18

I left class at 9:00 PM and rode my bike home, starting up Vassar Street and passing a parked MIT Police cruiser near the corner with Main Street. About an hour later, the officer in the cruiser was fatally shot.

We received an emergency alert (via phone call, text message, app notification, and email) from MIT, and I turned on my scanner radio expecting it to be yet another false alarm in a week that had seen many. I was shocked to hear it wasn’t.

“Shelter in Place”

Friday, April 19th

I stayed up through Friday morning listening to the scanner radio. While I’m not a fan of the police, and definitely have my concerns about police overreach, I generally admire their response to the situation in Boston. It was impressive to hear calm instructions being relayed to set up a perimeter, even as panicked officers were calling in about having bombs thrown at them. And the urgency in the officers’ voices calling for ambulances for their injured comrades had the same intensity for the injured suspect, something that I think reflects the noblest of American values.

Given what officials knew and didn’t know early Friday morning, I support their decision to shut down the MBTA and ask residents to stay inside.

We stayed off the streets in February’s blizzard to keep safe and ensure that the plows could get things back to normal as quickly as possible. We stayed off the streets this time to keep safe and ensure that the police could get things back to normal as quickly as possible.

Paralyzed, the pundits are saying. A city terrorized, brought to a halt. An overreaction.

Don’t believe it.

On Friday, the city of Boston was waiting. Crouching, like a tiger in tall grass. We were two million souls focused on a single target: a crazed and wounded boy, desperate and dangerous, hiding somewhere in Watertown, gone to ground. To flush him out, the city held still.

There’s a difference between paralysis and stillness. Stillness is deliberate. It was a tool – a tactical move. The police did not order us to stay in our houses – they requested it, and we complied, not because we were terrorized and not because we were sheep to the police state, but because we knew that in doing so, we left the police and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the only pieces out on the board. We wanted him captured. For us, staying indoors on Friday was no different from staying in during a winter storm so that the snowplows could clear the streets. We were giving the professionals room to work…

And you could hear it in the calm, patient voices of the police, crackling over the scanner Thursday night. More than seven different police agencies had to coordinate in the dark, densely residential streets of Watertown, and they did it without panic or fractiousness. When the LAPD was hunting Christopher Dorner, they put innocent people in the hospital. Our law enforcement officers – as much as we usually enjoy abusing them as racist buffoons – showed themselves in this crisis to be canny, patient, and disciplined. (From

A unique set of circumstances, with police being fairly certain that a dangerous suspect was in a small area but had the chance to escape the dragnet, led to their shelter in place request. While there is definitely room for debating the expanded police powers we’ve come to accept, I think it is needlessly shrill to call the shelter in place request a failed experiment in martial law or a victory for terrorists, as some articles have. These articles distract from the larger, more important issues.

The inconveniences of a day of cancelled trains and baseball games pale in comparison to the rights that are sacrificed in the weeks and months after an attack. It is easy to wag a libertarian finger at armored vehicles and wail about the manifest excesses of our modern police state. But the real vigilance is required to confront the mindless nationalism and the politicians’ security doublespeak that seep their way into acceptance months and weeks after an attack.

We were too complicit in color-coded threat levels, invasions of religious life, lies about WMDs, the Patriot Act, and security theater after 9/11. We let leaders claim language (“they” engage in terrorism and “we” engage in counterterrorism, even if the violent tactics are exactly the same) and stoke our fears. While I don’t agree with the first part of this article for the reasons described above, the last part hits the nail on the head:

Shoot dozens of people with an AK47 in a school or a cinema and it’s an unfortunate by product of the constitutional right to bear arms. Attack people with an improvised bomb and it’s an act of terrorism that demands the suspension of all normal values and rationality. The counterterrorist mindset kicks in, the “homeland security” apparatus takes charge and the next thing you know a major city looks for all the world as if it has been taken over in a military coup. Stick those three letters on the end of “terror” and you are dealing with an existential threat that justifies any extreme response. You have named fear and told everyone to feel it. (From the Irish Times)

Given these lessons from our mistakes in letting the government manipulate fear after 9/11, I was slightly wary of the spectacle planned for Officer Sean Collier’s Memorial and the stage it would set for more doublespeak.

“Collier Strong”

Wednesday, April 24th

From everything I heard at the Memorial Service for Officer Sean Collier, he was an exemplary man.

As Senator Warren described,

Sean’s life was infused with the spirit of service — that protection, that strength, could come only from giving himself fully. It was that same spirit we saw in the police, firefighters, EMS, and Guard coordinating the first response and turning peril into protection. It is that same spirit we saw in our world-class hospitals, in the doctors and nurses and support staff, who worked through the day then worked through the night then worked through the day again, and who made the difference between life and death…

Her words helped me understand more fully the Boston Strong meme that was adopted by the Twittersphere, politicians, and even a pilot of Air Force One acknowledging an air traffic control handoff from Boston Depahture. It seemed like an empty phrase to me until Senator Warren used it to describe Officer Collier’s life:

We are strong. We are Collier Strong. We are Boston Strong. But the true source of our strength and our resilience is our spirit – our recognition that we are united, we are connected, we are one. And when we serve each other, we give of ourselves, we grow in strength. The spirit of service shone brightly in Sean. We miss you Sean, but we will not forget you.

Collier Strong

Collier Strong

This echoed MIT Police Chief DiFava’s stories about Officer Collier:

I have an email from Sean, one I will keep for a long time, and in that email he asks me for permission to become involved in the local homeless shelter so he could, in his words, “maybe deal with issues before they become problems.” Most of us cross the street to avoid a homeless person. Sean was volunteering to enter their world! This was truly who he was.

He was an exemplar of participating in the world with proactive compassion, rather than reactive force.

Vice President Biden seemed to miss this example.

Many of his words came from the heart, but I reject the turn his speech took into bombast and doublespeak:

Whether it’s Al Qaeda Central… or two twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis here in Boston, why do they do what they do? …They do it to instill fear. To have us jettison, in the name of our safety and security, what we value most and what the world values most about us. Our open society. Our system of justice that guarantees freedom. The access of all Americans to opportunity, to free flow of information, to people across this country, to our transparency. That’s their target…“What makes me so proud of this great state, the city of Boston and Cambridge, and all those involved, the students on this campus, what makes me so proud to be an American is that we have not yielded to our fears. We have not compromised our values. We have not weakened our constitutional guarantees.

If Al Qaeda’s target is “our transparency” and our “constitutional guarantees,” President Obama and his administration have vastly expanded on President Bush’s efforts to do destroy these targets themselves. Whether sending a thug informant to harass members of a mosque in Irvine or assassinating a 16 year old American citizen for the vitriol of his father, the United States government has severely weakened our constitutional guarantees in the last few years (granted, some insane interpretation of the Second Amendment seems to be exempt here).

Does Biden expect us to buy his claim that “we have not weakened our constitutional guarantees” and silently overlook the killing of an American child because of the color of Abdulrahman’s skin or the way his name sounds?

How can he speak of “the access of all Americans…to the free flow of information,…to our transparency” when, one day before, the Obama administration wouldn’t even send a representative to a Senate hearing about drone strikes?

I won’t stay silent, mindless and complicit, while the Vice President tells these lies at a memorial on my campus.

Biden expected us to buy the fear-mongering Fox News trope that recruits to Al Qaeda’s ideology hate us because of our values and our liberal society. They don’t. They hate us because we act with such hate when we kill their children.

The way to stop this cycle of violence is to step back from mindless escalation. Allowing ourselves to be complicit in the killing of hundreds of innocent people, accepting their deaths as part of “counterrorism” that politicians pretend will keep us safe, shows that we have “yielded to our fears.”

What disappointed me most about Biden’s speech was when he said, “The moment we look inward…that’s the moment they win.”

Expressing this sentiment at Officer Collier’s Memorial was entirely inappropriate.

Reflection is an important part in healing from cycles of violence. Unless we “look inward” and address our own fears and complicity, we will resort to fighting bombs with bombs and allowing politicians to twist our fear into profit through more violence. Biden’s sentiment sets up an “us vs. them” mentality that will only perpetuate violence. To heal from violence, we need to build empathy and solidarity, not barriers and borders.

This lesson is the way I hope to honor Officer Collier’s memory. Chief DiFava spoke with admiration about Sean’s “volunteering to enter their world.” His life’s service was to connect with others, “to enter their world” in a spirit of compassion.

“Empathy should be borderless.”

Saturday, April 27

On Saturday afternoon, I saw Jeremy Scahill speak at the Boston Independent Film Festival. He is doing powerful work to help people contest the Obama Administration’s violent wars and empathize across borders.

He spoke of how people in Afghanistan now call marauding JSOC troops “The American Taliban.” This echoes Farea al-Muslimi’s testimony about how drone strikes are becoming such a valuable recruitment tool for Al Qaeda and similar groups. I hope that Biden is right that, as he said at MIT, “terrorism, as a weapon, is losing, not gaining adherents.” But something tells me he’s not right, and one of the main reasons why is the Obama Administration’s expanding global chain of dirty wars.

The United States has perpetrated dirty wars before, especially in Latin America. A panel over the weekend with Scahill and Noam Chomsky offered some insights into how we can learn from this history:

Chomsky observes, “The fear throughout our society is incredible.”

In the Cold War, fear of nuclear war was pervasive and cultivated to support dirty wars. Today, the threat to human life of “terrorism” is miniscule in comparison, but the fear seems to be greater, magnified by media and politicians.

If we truly want to overcome fear, and the violence that it spawns, we have to contest the lack of empathy displayed lately by the mainstream media and politicians.

We cannot sit back and quietly allow racist, unfounded accusations to propagate through the media.

We cannot allow the US government to kill innocent people with guided missiles, staying silently complicit because of the color of the victims’ skin, their language, or their creed.

We must empathize with victims of violence around the world, name them, and grieve them.

I have been sheltered from the immediate effects of violence for most of my life, and I recognize this as a blessing. Processing a time when violence did get closer to me a few years ago, I had a conversation about responding creatively that has stuck with me. I’ll end with a thought that arose from that conversation. If we truly wish to honor the memories of those lost to violence, and to heal in a meaningful way, we must take events like those of the last two weeks as “an invitation to become reflective, and consider one’s own complicity in violence, how one is in the web of actions that includes the seemingly exterior act of violence aimed at the subjective self.”

In reflecting on the violence of these past two weeks, I don’t want to make assumptions about the motivations of the bombing suspects. Nothing can justify their heinous acts. The question is what could possibly justify ours?

Related Posts:

September 11, Santiago, Sarin, and Syria

Marching down Boylston St. in Boston
“The Road is Strewn with Bodies”

Last Update of the Night

Minibus Taxi Strike


  1. Barbara N says:

    Thank you, Anson. This is so articulate, so compassionate and so empowering. You give voice to the many misgivings and unease with which I’ve viewed the reactions to Boston’s recent events. May we never forget that we are all one.

    Love, Auntie B

  2. Brendan W says:

    Thanks for drawing the distinction between the loud, brief violence of a lockdown and the insidious militarism of most political speech. So much of the work of a free and conscious citizenry is just reading, listening, and talking, and it’s great to read your part of that.

  3. Glenn N says:

    Anson, Thank you for your insightful reflection. Your kind of thought leadership is crucial to ending the cycle of violence in our country and in our world. Keep the dialogue going as it is through understanding and compassion that we will move forward along our path to a more peaceful world.

    Love, Uncle Glenn

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