The Luxury of Some Americans

A few times in my life I’ve had to kill a black widow spider.

Normally I have a live-and-let-live attitude with spiders. They’re interesting creatures. But the bite of a black widow can cause illness and, occasionally, even death.

Killing a black widow is nothing to celebrate. Kill it, clean it up, and make sure there aren’t any others lurking around.

The human race has many variations on black widow spiders. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a nasty nest. Some very specific people need to be killed, preferably without any chest-pounding or fanfare or jubilation.

More important, they need to be killed in a specific way. Not bombed along with innocent civilians. Certainly military tactics have progressed since the firebombing of Dresden – and bombing by drones doesn’t qualify as progress.

We spend a lot of taxes on defense spending. By now we should have professionals with the intelligence and talent to know whom to kill and how without engaging in war. Arming local amateurs on the ground is not the same thing. They are not likely to maintain allegiance to a foreign culture, especially one perceived as weak as ours.

“This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” said President Obama.

All kinds of people threaten America. Even Americans threaten America. Our criminal justice system is increasingly paralyzed by equivocation. Look at the words offered to explain away a killer’s guilt: mental illness, drug addiction, neuronal circuitry misfiring, post traumatic stress disease. Is anybody really guilty anymore?

Look at the time, money and effort spent to spare the lives of undisputed murderers on Death Row, and the publicity created by death penalty opponents who anguish over the pain of lethal injection.

And, of course, America’s entire criminal justice system is routinely indicted by an oft-repeated and misleading statistic about how America has more people in prison than any other country. The number cited includes people who are actually out of prison but under some kind of jurisdiction of the criminal justice system.

Our prison inmates have more rights than many citizens in Iraq, Syria, North Korea, et al. However, we can politicize any issue in America, and then beat up on ourselves when we fail to be perfect. And terrorists are supposed to be afraid of us?

America is not a prison state. It is the freest country on earth. It is also the world’s biggest candy store – look at all the goodies we have.

No wonder some Americans can’t resist getting into trouble and landing in prison. No wonder we invite trouble from terrorists. It’s time we learned how to fight back effectively, in our own country and abroad.

In Portland, Ore., we have a particularly hard time confronting people who want to harm us. Next month, Mohamed O. Mohamud is scheduled to be sentenced for trying to detonate a bomb at Pioneer Courthouse Square, where thousands of people had gathered for a Christmas tree lighting almost four years ago. During his trial, he drew many sympathetic observers to the Federal Courthouse, who believed the FBI had entrapped him.

“Portland being Portland, any chance the jury could at least be hung?” one commenter on The Oregonian’s website asked reporter Bryan Denson during the trial.

“If Mohamud were looking for a jury pool that would keep an open mind about the FBI’s efforts, it would be Portland,” Denson replied.

Portlanders can enjoy the luxury of being magnanimous towards terrorists because we don’t worry they might be living next door. Like most Americans, we have geographic privilege. Nobody is dropping bombs on us or executing rival religious sects in the public square and leaving the crucified bodies on display. Our loved ones don’t simply disappear by the thousands. When somebody disappears here, it’s news – complete with photos, a Facebook page and Twitter updates.

Just how secure Portlanders are can be seen in the reverse snobbism some of them flaunt when they dismiss the extreme safety of upper-class neighborhoods or the humdrum suburbs.

A boring neighborhood can be a luxury to people forced to live with chaos. I never thought about this until I worked with a newspaper artist who was from Algeria.

My coworker was born during the Algerian War when his country was fighting for its independence from France. Algeria eventually won. By the 1990’s when I worked with him at the San Bernardino Sun newspaper, Algeria was in the midst of another conflict – this time radical Islamists had declared war on intellectuals. My colleague’s family were all educated Muslims – his father was a doctor, his mother and sister had college degrees; one of them worked as a teacher.

One of Algeria’s greatest writers, Tahar Djaout, was shot dead while leaving his home. Professors who taught Darwinism were denounced and threatened with death along with journalists and women’s rights activists. Most Americans know little about this war. I knew about it only because of my coworker.

While my colleague prepared to become a naturalized citizen, he bought a home in a planned unit development in Diamond Bar, a suburb of Los Angeles that looked, to me anyway, like just another suburb.

To my colleague, though, it was a spectacularly beautiful place. When he showed me around, he commented on the symmetry of the rooftops, the trim and orderly shrubbery, the pastel colors, the peacefulness. It was the kind of neighborhood that some Americans love to dismiss as safe and middle-brow.

Despite what President Obama may hope, we are not people who are going to “hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.” We are a people who increasingly have trouble acknowledging that criminals deserve punishment.

In anticipation of Obama’s announcement, last week on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud,” featured a rotating, weekly panel of commentators who weigh in on recent news events. When host Dave Miller introduced writer Naseem Rakha, he mentioned that she had covered two state executions.

Rakha, who wrote a novel called “The Crying Tree,” which is a plea for forgiveness, redemption and an end to capital punishment – has practically made a career out of those two executions she covered. Yet when Miller asked her what she thought America should do in response to the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, her only suggestion was to not watch the videos.

Rakha’s suggestion was self-serving. Perhaps she doesn’t want people to see what an inhumane execution really looks like because it will make it harder for her to sell the American public on the idea that a needle in the arm is cruel and unusual.

When pressed on what the military should do about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, she compared the terrorists to the KKK.

“This is not a unique situation. People have come together to terrorize people throughout history,” she said.

As a mom in Silverton she said she did not know what the military should do.

I appreciate her candor in saying she doesn’t know what to do. But I think she does know what to do. It’s just too unpleasant to contemplate, and it challenges the belief system she has invested in.

If someone broke into her home and tried to harm her child, Rakha would know what to do. She would fight back, one way or another, overtly or covertly. Win or lose, she would fight back.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


Brainwashing a Terrorist

For a different perspective, and for some worthwhile links to foreign news coverage you rarely read anywhere else, see Larry Norton’s blog at

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