“There are no terrorists; there are only people who do terror acts.”
This video, interestingly enough, is titled Why I Love Terrorists.
What a revolutionary idea. What a revolutionary formula. Let’s see if it works with other labels, shall we?
There are no racists; there are only people who do racists acts.
There are no homosexuals; there are only people who do homosexual acts.
There are no bigots; there are only people who do bigoted acts.
There are no Islamophobes; there are only people who do Islamophobic acts.
There are no greedy capitalists; there are only people who do greedy capitalist acts.
There are no white supremacists; there are only people who do white supremacist acts.
There are no Nazis; there are only people who do Nazi acts.
There are no rapists; there are only people who do non-consensual sexual acts.
There are no pedophiles; there are only people who do pedophilic acts.
At the most basic level, I think we can clearly see that redefining words like this doesn’t offer much help in the discussion. What’s the difference between saying something is orange and saying something is the color you get when you mix red and yellow? It’s semantics, and nothing else.
Look, I get it. We’re trying to make sense of a very difficult world in which we live, with very difficult realities we face. But we don’t find solutions by merely calling something by a different name. We find solutions by being honest about what’s going wrong.
And I think that’s what this gentleman wants to do—be honest about what has gone wrong and fed the fuel of terrorism. He defines love as “understanding.” It’s a feel-good, look-how-transcendent-I-am type of definition, but I doubt you’ll find “understanding” as any part of a dictionary definition. His heart seems, I think, to be in the right place. He obviously desires more for our world than hatred (there are no haters, though—only people who do hateful acts) and heartless killing (but there are no heartless killers; there are only those who do heartless killings acts).
And there’s an extent to which I would agree with this fellow. We are not defined exclusively by our choices or the situations into which we are born. But to say that we are not defined at all by our choices is to be intellectually dishonest. One bad choice may be a mistake; a repeated bad choice becomes a habit, and an unchecked habit becomes an identity. One bad choice may, on the other hand, be enough to earn the label. If I rob one bank, am I simply a misunderstood poor person? Maybe, but legally, it only takes one bank robbery. It only takes one murder. It only takes one rape. It only takes one theft. It only takes one act of terror.
America is a remarkable place. We may not always act like it, but here—we believe in Redemption. We believe in second chances. We believe that if you pay the price for your illegal behavior, you are entitled to try again. We hope that for men and women serving time. And I think, deep down, we hope that for terrorists, also.
But it comes with change.
Understanding someone is not the same as loving them.
In high school, I understood trigonometry, and I assure you—I had no love for it. The opposite is also true: You can love someone or something you don’t understand. I love potatoes, and I love to grow them, but even after reading many pieces about them and learning the best way to encourage their growth and health, I can honestly tell you I don’t understand how potatoes grow.
There is a huge part of my spirit that agrees with the compassion I hear in this man’s voice. As a sponsor of two boys in one of the poorest nations on the planet, I know the difference money, love, medical attention, and education can make in a person’s life. These are boys who are susceptible to radicalization, and whose worlds have—in fact—been riddled with terrorist activity and perpetration. So trust me, I get it.
But here’s what we don’t hear in the video.
Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and Muslims living in the same cities and circumstances as many of those people we’re not going to call "terrorists” are not, in fact, engaging in acts of terror. So no—it’s not appropriate to say that if you and I were born and raised in that climate that we would think, feel, and behave in the same manner. It’s an absurd hypothetical and condemnation of humankind, large scale, to say that we are the products only of our circumstances.
There are many trees, in the same areas of the world, who are growing strong and straight and healthy. They are not growing gnarled and confounded by hatred and terrorism. So let’s stop right here—let’s stop with the pretense that we are all condemned to the behavior we see in a minute group. And you know I’m right about this. You know it very well—that if I was writing a piece that slammed all Muslims, condemning them all as Terrorist Haters, you know without a doubt that someone would set me straight about Terrorists being a minority of the Muslim population. And they would be right to do so. But that, in itself, reveals the truth of the matter: Many people are suffering; many uneducated people are living in impoverished conditions without access to money, education, opportunity or freedom—and they have not found their inevitable fate in terrorism.
So yes—we ought always to be charitable. We ought always to show compassion and mercy and dignity to other human beings, even when we disagree. But we shouldn’t perpetuate a fallacious notion that every man, woman, and child would be a terrorist if we were born in country X versus country Y.
Still, I really do choose to believe (and I think it’s quite apparent) that this man’s heart is in the right place. He desires life, health, peace, and a common good. That is to be applauded. I’m just not sure it is a feasible or rational path forward, given his redefining and un-defining, as it were, of a couple of key words (i.e.: Love, Terrorist).
The real danger, though, is that the removal of labels, and the refusal to label something as it is, renders us powerless to affect change. I know we are a society where labels both mean nothing and everything (depending on the scenario: If you’re a terrorist, apparently the label doesn’t matter so much; If you’re gender-fluid, though, I’d better not mistakenly call you a “he” if you’re having a “she” day). If there are no terrorists, then there are no non-terrorists (a scary suggestion that the speaker does tiptoe upon), there are no races, there are no religions, there are no nationalities. There is nothing.
When we lose individual responsibility, we lose individual identity. And when we lose individual identity, we lose individual responsibility—and the basis upon which we hold anyone accountable for their actions.
And that, folks, is a terrifying place in history to find ourselves.
But, just to be clear about the inconsistency of this man’s words… how can you love terrorists if there are no terrorists?
Here’s the real hope: Your destiny is not determined. Terrorism is a choice. That means there is always hope.