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The Hidden Colors

September 11, 2014

It's the eleventh of September. And that means a lot of things, one of which is our collective remembrance of a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers thirteen years ago today. For me, who fortunately has not experienced loss from the incident, this brings up two thoughts, both of which I would like to discuss today.

One of the most widely discussed topic today will be terrorism. An act of terrorism is often loosely defined as an action to engender intense fear to a group of people to achieve political, religious, or ideological means. In other words, acts of terrorism are often not motivated so much by physical reasons, such as resources or economics, as they are triggered by an ideology. This speaks strongly to the power of ideas. People and terrorist groups die, but ideas are not lost. Even if their thoughts were never publicized and died with them, undoubtedly, as is history, someone else will rediscover the ideologies. So we can't ever attempt and succeed to destroy or eliminate those ideas from existing; even if all of those ideologies are wiped out by some magic, they will return under the veil of the illusion that dangerous ideas cannot be reborn. In fact, the Great Firewall of Chine attempts to do just exactly that -- wipe out any and all ideas that may lend itself to threatening the status quo, because the government knows the power of ideas. But that's not working, and it's not just because people find intelligent ways to get around it. It's because, unlike matter, ideas can be destroyed, and they can also be created ex nihilo. Just because the government blocks out those ideas from entering doesn't mean someone inside can't discover those ideologies. In other words, ideas, dangerous or largely benevolent, can't be controlled. So as I see it, the best policy against ideas that cause undesirable acts of violence is not to attempt to control the spread of ideas themselves, but rather to educate the agents of those ideas -- the people. Rather than fruitlessly attempt to bewitch the stream of water in the river to stop, mold the riverbanks to redirect them -- to recognize which ideas are beneficial when used in certain ways, and which are not. Perhaps Nelson Mandela put it best, when he said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world."

But speaking of powerful ideas, terrorism is one of those ideas that are innately powerful by its circumstance. It's emotionally charged and politically controversial because of the context in which it is used the vast majority of the time. And because of this unfortunate circumstance, the use of the word immediately paints any situation with the picture of a seemingly clear victim that can't possibly be more innocent and an apparently clear villain whose evil deeds can't ever be forgiven. It paints a very Disney-esque, fictional image of a reality that is much more complex than just a supervillain-innocent captive situation. As always, the truth resists such oversimplification, because both sides of the act of terrorism are human. Have you once considered the leader of the 9-11 attack, Osama bin Laden, as you imagine your friends? He probably wakes up in the morning and showers, just like everyone else around you (hopefully). He probably drinks coffee and coke on occasion. He most likely laughs, too. Because he's human. In fact, he's probably experienced hilarity, excitement, nervousness, sadness, happiness, and everything else in between. Because he's human. And I think in considering an idea like terrorism with a wide and difficult range of connotations and emotion, we are unfortunately too prone to simplify things down and dehumanize the elements of the situation, simply because the sheer complexity of it is too much. But I think it's especially during those times that it is more important than ever to, to the best of our abilities, imagine others complexly, as more than just a description on the opening lines of a superhero story -- as people.

Yes, the al-Qaeda and its leader inflicted on many people thirteen years ago today an undeniably heartless act of tragedy. But I don't think that should immediately lead us to define the history and its actors one-dimensionally, because the truth is more complicated than that, and the history of terrorism is still getting written and re-written by everyone. Don't let the society's monochromatic photograph of an event lead you to picture it the same way, because after you look through all the filters, you'll find the hidden colors in it. Create your own ideologies, and weigh them on your own against the situation under as many perspectives as you can manage. Because the truth denies upon itself gross oversimplification, but that doesn't mean we can't get a better peek at it when we try. So today, I'm doing just that, as my ideas of the world and people leads me to do so. And I hope this idea is powerful enough to make you do the same.