The current news coverage, social media buzzing, “water cooler” discussions and generally heated talk about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have had me reflecting about a number of things. The attacks on people in Paris were on such a scale, and received so much media attention, that this feels like one of the major event chapters in my life. These started with my family’s first television in 1955 and continued with the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, the so-called Great Recession of 07 or 08 and now Paris. It’s not that the attacks on people in Paris are the only recent example of suicidal acts of aggression and murder, but it feels like years’ worth of similar acts of destruction with accompanying political commentary and editorials have now resulted in a time terribly etched in our collective consciousness. It seems to me that our ability to have reasoned conversation with each other is disappearing, and that includes me at times. If that’s true, the terrorists are winning.
All too frequently in mainstream or on social media there are stories quoting our own countrymen making references to labels rather than to human beings. I’m pretty sure that Buckminster Fuller said that one of the indicators of mankind’s intelligence was our ability to generalize—to connect the dots, so to speak, and to at least occasionally not miss the forest for the trees. But time and time again in our history we seem to pervert that ability into something degrading and harming and generally referencing race and/or religion. Instead of our being able to rally together around a statement like, “We need to work together to ensure our defense against terrorism is the best we can make it,” many of us go to something like, “No more Syrians.”
It’s probably human nature to quickly make judgments about good and bad, but these conclusions must be informed by experience and fact. The closer we are to witnessing or actually experiencing something, the easier it is for us to identify with others in the same boat and to speak accurately, from experience. It takes a vet who saw active duty to fully identify with another. A family with a member who has been the victim of domestic violence or who has fallen into addiction with opiates can better understand human behavior in those situations than can those of us who have been lucky and have escaped such suffering. We Americans struggle to truly identify with people falling from small boats in the Mediterranean, especially as we cannot accurately grasp the geography or the history of the region or the interface of religion with geography with politics.
I’ve been with the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter for almost twenty years. During that time I have found myself face to face with a large number of incidents that could be described as challenges of conscience and ethics regarding who is/isn’t a victim and who wins or loses. The Shelter has been home to hundreds of imperfect moments when we have had to respond to guest behaviors in order to ensure safety in ways that, out of necessity, pick winners and losers in terms of who gets to stay and who has to leave. We cannot be all things to all who come to the door, and in that I see us being a tiny reflection of our nation. But we do not make decisions about winners and losers based on religion or skin color or spoken language. We do not decide, based on one incident with a guest of a certain ethnicity or religion, to automatically make the same future decision with others fitting that description. We try to remember that words do in fact matter. We try to remember not to refer to some people as schizophrenics but as human beings suffering from a brain disease. We try to avoid speaking of “the homeless,” and to remember that we are working with people who are experiencing homelessness due to a combination of factors that always include poverty and may include one or more chronic illnesses. They are all human beings, they were all children once, and most suffered major and repetitive trauma. To think of them as “the homeless” disrespects their humanity. I think use of the term may be a way of us protecting ourselves from having to imagine being in the same situation, maintaining a “them and us” distinction.
We are in fact one world, increasingly interconnected by the ability to travel quickly and by digital communications. Somehow we need to fight our justifiable fears and try to ensure that those fears do not undermine or destroy our living by those values described in our history and our governing documents. We need to remember that people, whether refugee or homeless, are in fact that—people—and not nameless members of some label, a naming that may have the effect of shrinking how much we care.