Editor’s Note: This article is used with permission from Frances Fuller. It first appeared on Frances’s blog.
I happened to be in Burlington, N.C., when a man asked me, “Are those people (the Arabs) just wired differently than we are, so that they like to fight?”
Of course, you can guess what I said. They are not. Violence is not an Arab trait. It is a human trait.
The history of the world illustrates this, the Middle East conflict being a mere example. We humans have always tried to solve our problems by killing others. Another horror in our own country reminds us of this. It happened several days ago in Charleston, South Carolina. In a church.
(In some other countries people may be asking, “Are those Americans just wired differently than we are, so that they kill people for the color of their skin? And in a holy place?”) We don’t understand it ourselves and are wondering: What kind of monster could do this?
According to the news: a 21-year-old, white male, a “quiet” boy. One who had expressed ridiculous fears: “black people are taking over the world.” One who knew enough history to regret that the Confederacy lost the Civil War and so intended to re-ignite the conflict. A racist who used his birthday money to buy a gun and carried it into a church. That’s not all, of course, but enough to make my point.
We would like to believe that everything about this event was surprising, an anomaly that no one could have predicted, that the young man had mental problems and just snapped. But let’s not fool ourselves.
Once one of my grown sons astutely observed that he and his siblings could do nothing without their parents knowing the antecedents. It is true. Their adult behavior started in childhood. Not only could we see everything coming, but we contributed, intentionally and not. Dylann Roof, too, dropped clues along the way, and he did not get where he is all alone. None of us ever has. Whether we are high achievers or drop outs, good neighbors or criminals, we had help to become who we are.
Because of this certainty, I often have troubling thoughts about young people who have committed crimes. Not long ago, for instance, a few miles from where I live, a teenager from an affluent family, broke into the home of an elderly couple and murdered them in their beds. He was deemed a monster and incarcerated for life, with no opportunity for parole. I kept looking at his picture in the paper and thinking. He is a kid. For all of his life he has been someone’s responsibility. How did a family, a California community, a school, a culture manage to shape him into a murderer? I know he did not get there alone, but only he went to prison.
I think a lot, too, about some of the people we call terrorists, because I have met some of them, in Jordan and Syria and Lebanon. Charming and kind young men, when they feel that charm and kindness are appropriate. Men with a sense of history, looking for a cause. Men who feel oppressed, bear grudges and harbor fears that easily become hatred. Often educated and jobless, they need a reason to hope. They did not get where they are alone but are products of a situation, society, peer pressure, the values of their culture. When they get guns in their hands, they feel better—powerful and in control. In their shoes, a lot of us would join their militia. But we are not in their shoes, so we support other young men, dear to our hearts, to go far from home and fight them. To know somehow the participants of war on both sides is to expose the heart to an unspeakable grief, similar in a way to being a shamed white Christian, watching black brothers and sisters weep in South Carolina.
So where has this thread of painful monologue taken me?
Only to the obvious, that Dylann Roof has antecedents also. He is a human being, a young human being, a product of the world he grew up in. A short time ago he was a child, listening, absorbing, imitating his elders. He did not become what he is without help, deliberate or accidental. It took history, family, friends, culture, country, all of us.
Now, the society that nurtured him and permitted him a tool of destruction will condemn him and incarcerate him for life, if not kill him.
But what will we learn? Can we face the truth that we are racist? Can we master in ourselves the evil human impulse to kill? Do we have the courage to teach our children Jesus’ way, that it is better to absorb violence than to commit it? Are we willing to work together, all of us in our diversity, to create peace in our own country? Are we smart enough to prevent terrorism all over the world instead of preparing for perpetual war? Are we grieved enough to take drastic actions and get our world off this dangerous road?
Frances Fuller spent thirty years in the violent Middle East and for twenty-four of those years was the director of a Christian publishing program with offices in Lebanon. While leading the development of spiritual books in the Arabic language, she survived long years of civil war and invasions.
Frances holds degrees in Journalism, Creative Writing and Religious Education, and she studied Arabic at Georgetown University. She and her husband, James Wayne Fuller, live now in the foothills of the Sierras in California. They have five children, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren.