Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 36 seconds

The Sympathetic Terrorist

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 36 seconds

(note: the title of this post has been playing in my head for quite a while now, and I don’t want to let it go; it relates to the post but may seem misleading to some. I want to keep it, though, so I hope you don’t mind).

I’m in a mall, and I see a security guard talking to a guy who is dressed nicely, but acting in a strange way. It’s like he’s jittery, his eyes are darting back and forth. He’s trying to avoid talking to the security guard. I’m standing nearby and I haven’t moved. The mall is pretty empty, but there are people scattered around. A while later (it could be minutes or hours, I don’t know), the guy with the suspicious behavior returns, just as I’m about to enter this large hall, and I overhear him telling the security guard, “You’d better move away from here because I’m about to detonate a bomb!”

I don’t think. My legs take me quickly into the large hall and I tell everyone there to move to the very end of the hall – to run and to duck. I do this calmly, though my heart is bursting in my ribcage. And then it’s over. We hear the sound of an explosion and the earth shakes, but we are all fine. Those of us inside this hall. There was no way out, so this was the safest thing we could have done. 

Sometime later, a man walks in. I don’t know how I know this, but I know that he’s the accomplice of the suicide bomber. He walks around and picks certain people from the crowd and asks them to line up. I try to avoid his gaze, hoping he won’t notice me, but I feel his hand on my head and I know I’ve been “chosen”. I go line up. We start walking outside into the sun. And I see that all the people in front of me are picking up young children and carrying their little lunchboxes. How could I have forgotten where my daughter was, in all of this? And then suddenly, the moment I hold my daughter in my arms, I realize what’s going on: this guy picked all the parents from the crowd and helped them go pick up their children. And then he let us all go free.

And then I wake up from my nightmare. I wake up shaken and it affects me for the rest of the day. It was really difficult to get back to sleep after this nightmare, though I can sort of understand why I’m having the nightmare. I wonder how many people get nightmares like this one, people who haven’t experienced terror firsthand, but who watch the news and learn of loved ones who barely survived (or even worse, who didn’t). I’m a regular dreamer. I dream several times a night, I remember most of my dreams, I sometimes have lucid dreams where inside the dream I realize I’m dreaming and I control my dream. This was not one of them. I do work through a lot of my stress through dreams, and sometimes work through problems, so this was definitely one of those dreams.

But I’ve been thinking of something about my dream. A common thread between the first guy and the second guy. The first guy tells the security guard to move away because he’s going to detonate a bomb. He’s warning the security guard, and I’m not sure if he’s doing it to save the security guard himself, or to give him an opportunity to warn others or do some emergency measures. And then the second guy (who wasn’t necessarily a terrorist, but in my dream I knew he was), who decided to let the parents go free and find their kids (not that it’s fair to the other people, but it would have been terrifying for the kids if they had to wait for their parents).

And I realize that the thing about my dream, is that I made the terrorist “human”. I made both of these men people with feelings, people with sympathy. People who cared about people even while they killed them.

And you know what? That is actually NOT how I think of terrorists when I am awake. Not in my consciousness. But my subconscious thinking has made me think a little bit more. Not so much that terrorists are humans (well of course they are) or that they can be humane/sympathetic… but rather, about what happened to these people in their lives to make them unsympathetic? How on earth do they think and how did they become this way? A way that I can’t even begin to understand or empathize with (empathizing with a cause does not mean you empathize with someone’s method of dealing with it).

And it brings to the surface a thought I have had for a long long time: that criminals, especially serial killers or murderers (in cold blood) and terrorists probably need psychotherapy more than they need imprisonment and torture. What person in their right mind can kill another human being who has not done them any harm, for no obvious reason that a rational human being would use to justify killing another? Unless they weren’t right in the head? Unless they actually have a mental illness that requires treatment? What happens to young people that makes them vulnerable to brainwashing such that they feel they are doing something good by killing innocent people? This cannot be a fully rational human being doing this. And I know some people will have mental illness because of genetic reasons and that it’s no one’s fault, really, but I also know that some of these conditions are triggered by life events and trauma… and what can we do to prevent or at least reduce the probability that someone will become that way.

And then I think about people who see (and even sometimes cause) death as part of their every day jobs. Police. Army. Doctors. Yes, even doctors. In theory, these people, when they cause death, either do it unintentionally, or they do it to save more lives, right? As in, a policeman will kill a terrorist to prevent that person from killing tens or hundreds of others. People in military situations are (supposedly) killing an enemy that would otherwise kill them and their people (and thus should have the proper training to make that decision wisely in a split-second – which apparently American police officers did not absorb very well). Doctors (when they’re mentally stable and not in a situation of euthanasia) don’t ever really intend to kill someone, but sometimes do so while trying to save them… or just witness death that is not of their own doing simply because of some factors outside their control. What happens to these people when they witness so much death on a regular basis? These people whom we NEED to be mentally stable because we entrust them with so much power over life. And death. We know that some soldiers get PTSD. I don’t hear of it happening to police officers as much but I assume it happens after seriously big cases with mass killings or such, and I assume they get treated. But what about doctors, and how they sometimes need to become numb, become less empathetic (especially surgeons), so they can perform their jobs competently? And what about the people who witness things like this who aren’t police or army or doctors, who takes care of their psychological wellbeing? The children of drug-abusing mothers who lives in poor neighborhoods and grow up witnessing crime and violence every day? The non-medical staff of hospitals who aren’t really trained to be around death but live through it all the time? And honestly, to a lesser extent, all of us at home who are far enough away from actual events, but feeling them as they happen around us.

For a long time, I was really careful not to show my child too much TV unless it was cooking shows or non-violent cartoons. As in I rarely switch on any channel that might even have violent ADS (when she was a baby, and I heard disturbing new on TV, if I was feeding her, my milk would stop suddenly and she would cry). But in the past few months with all the events going on, my husband and I find ourselves glued to the TV and we sometimes forget that our young child who is playing nearby listens and notices things. We need to stop. She doesn’t see violence, thankfully, because most news channels don’t show graphic detail, but she learns about it nevertheless. And she’s too young for us to explain all that is bad in the world, I think. It’s too early and too complex to explain. And it might be affecting her without us knowing. How do you explain terrorism to a child? How do you explain racism to a child? I should probably check if there are resources on this for 5 year olds. Maybe it’s time.

7 thoughts on “The Sympathetic Terrorist

  1. I feel you, Maha – as a parent and as a fellow human. My 8 y-o asks directly about what he hears and occasionally sees. Because of where he is in his development he has explanations available more quickly than I can offer options for understanding. It’s a weird dynamic because his claims are so self-assured but always followed by a “right, Mom?” as my cue to interject my thoughts. And I hear my 22 year old reach his own conclusions about how the world works and I am hard pressed to counter, seeing that he is in a process of seeking to solidify his positions rather than opening them up. The point is we are all affected to different degrees and none of us is left untouched. For this reason, speaking, writing, voicing, exploring become all the more important. These are investments in our collective humanizing which become sparse in times of crisis. So thank you for daring to share your dream and the title and your reflections, they matter and have meaning.

    1. Thanks Sherri particularly for responding to me from a parent’s perspective… This must be the hardest part about parenting… Helping our kids make meaning from all this ugliness and still come out of it wholesome and hopeful. Thank you for sharing how complicated this is pedagogically as we try to help them think through it rather than offer readymade answers

  2. What an intense and real dream! I was pretty sure it was your narrative, then it almost sounded like a real story, and whew! It was a dream.

    Maybe it’s not the “sympathetic terrorist” as much as a “human” one– their deed is so horrible, ugly, incomprehensible that the way to deal with them is to expunge every essence of human being out to see them as monsters. But they did not enter the world as monsters; they had parents or a parent, they played, they may have had short lived aspirations. It’s easier to write them off as monsters, but even these monsters are humans.

    It may not help, but I was reminded of a movie (I had to look it up) I remembered- it is called “Paradise Lost” It’s the story of two young Palestinian boys chosen to do what they have been training for, to be suicide bombers in Tel Aviv. It did a lot more to paint them as humans, and to see how they were slowly made into potential human bombs.

  3. your dream broke my heart. and left it sitting in my throat.

    i wonder about these questions too…how do you explain terrorism and racism? my kids are getting older…reaching thresholds where it is important they know that the world is not always fair or good, and that it is not always equal and that they themselves have a lot of privilege that others don’t always enjoy…so even “fair” and “good” are complex terms.

    and i guess that’s the thing your title references, really…the thing that’s hard to look at. what drives people to act? what drives societal systems and structures to implode with seemingly differentiated acts? i don’t know.

  4. Thanks for this powerful post about what must have been a terrifying dream. I can see why it is sticking with you, echoing issues and stories you wrestle with when you’re awake. It is helpful for me to read about how you puzzle through the parenting aspects of watching and processing violent news about our unstable world. I’ve got little ears hovering around the television while my wife and I watch and discuss the primaries here in the US. The conversations with my 6 and 10 year old daughters when they pepper me with questions are awkward, surreal and leave me with self doubt every time.
    You say you need to stop watching the news when the children can hear and that same sentiment nags at me. How do we turn it off, translate it, contextualize it?

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