It’s just after 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, and just as you fall asleep, you’re startled awake by an ear-shattering explosion that literally shakes you out of your bed—any bed in lower Manhattan.

If you’re like me, your first thought is earthquake, since I grew up in California where this kind of tumult usually signals just that. But then you hear and feel smaller follow-up explosions and you look out the window and see great flames rising up from the west side, and of course you think terrorism. When this scenario that I just described actually happened on July 30th, 1916, people were appropriately and understandably terrified, and they too thought it was an act of terror… but it wasn’t. In a way it was a pre-act of war.

black-tom-pier

See, German agents were blowing up an American munitions depot—in what became known as the Black Tom explosion—as part of a “scheme to prevent the flow of American armaments to the Allies.” This was a year before we even entered World War I, but it took years to figure out who was to blame and what their motives were. Until then, most people were freaked out, afraid and suspicious of THE terrorist culprit of those times: the anarchists.

Three years later, “on the night of June 2nd, 1919, in nearly simultaneous attacks, bombs rocked New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Patterson (New Jersey), Washington D.C. and Philadelphia”—the evil doings of radical anarchists. A little more than a year later, September 16th, 1920, a wagon full of dynamite and window sash weights for shrapnel pulled up in front of the Wall Street offices of J.P. Morgan & Co., the most powerful banking firm in the world, and moments later an enormous explosion demolished swaths of lower Manhattan, killing 39 people and injuring hundreds more—again the work of radical anarchists. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Horrible is horrible. Injustice is injustice. Terrorism is terrorism. There are no legitimate excuses, justifications or rationalizations. But these atrocities exist—and so must we.

Anarchism is a rich political philosophy that advocates self-governed societies based on voluntary institutions. But radical extremist anarchists killed an American President (McKinley), a Russian head of state, a French President, an Austrian head of state (sparking WWI), and a Spanish Prime Minister.

Their bomb attacks rocked the world’s richest cities: explosions devastated Wall Street, the London Underground, a theater in Barcelona, cafés throughout Paris and public parades in Moscow, with “only one aim, one science: destruction.” Sound familiar?

franz-ferdinand-news

During those same four years—1916 -1920—that I describe above, there were also 275 lynchings of African Americans. Imagine that?

In other words, horrible shit happens. Lots of shit has already happened. As a species, we survived. More shit will happen.Does any of this make you feel any better about the intense run of violence and terrorism the world has recently experienced? For me, it begins to contextualize things and provide a little perspective—perspective I need to even want to continue getting up in the morning.

Horrible is horrible. Injustice is injustice. Terrorism is terrorism. There are no legitimate excuses, justifications or rationalizations. But these atrocities exist—and so must we.

I’ve been wanting to write about living with such scary bad news for a while. But each time I start getting into it, just as I find an appropriate tone, another horrible, heart-breaking event occurs and what was an “appropriate” tone no longer feels right. Still we must go on. But how?

There are striking parallels between the “anarchist” terrorism that occurred from the late 1800s well into the first quarter of the 20th Century and the extremist Islamic terrorism taking place today.

Last January The U.S. News and World Report published an article called “How to Cope with the Fear of Terrorism.” It suggested eight strategies to help people deal with the fear of terrorism, which in fact is its exact goal: to make people afraid. They are: Recognize your emotions; Put it in perspective; Take a media break; Turn to our default (healthy) coping mechanism; Take control; Make connections; Know what’s out of your control; and Get help.

Some or all of these suggestions might be viable for what I’m talking about—but today, right now, we’re dealing with not only the fear of future repeated events but also the reality of actual, non-theoretical tragedies that have just occurred. Is there a difference in our response?

nice-tribute-france

Whether we are aware of our emotions or not, it’s all in the air: fear, confusion, concern. If police repeatedly and disproportionately killed a string of Jewish people, I (as a Jew) would obviously have a great degree of attention, anxiety and despair. Non-whites and particularly black people are more affected by recent domestic events. But many white people are also deeply affected, just as we all are affected by the string of lone-wolf terrorist events that have been occurring in the service of, to various degrees, radical religious ideologies.

There are striking parallels between the “anarchist” terrorism that occurred from the late 1800s well into the first quarter of the 20th Century and the extremist Islamic terrorism taking place today. But without even getting into the specifics of their ideologies, the effect on the populous is quite similar, if not identical. In times of fear and chaos, large groups of people crave order. Demagogues rise. People gravitate toward “strong men” (or women) that claim they have The Answers and Solutions for rapid change, safety and order. And sometimes those who bring order—Hitler, Stalin to name a couple—accompany it with even more terrible acts.

In stressful times there is a tendency to resign oneself to generalities: All humans are inexorably, psychologically doomed… as opposed to realizing that only an infinitesimal sliver of people are fucked-up enough to commit any of the acts we are reacting to.

But back to the question at hand: How do we continue living with an open heart while being bombarded with tragic news?

As I said, context and perspective are huge for me. The fact that this isn’t exactly new, that horrible, senseless events occurred before, makes me feel that this moment is not specifically futile. Cynically then, we can simply say that what is transpiring now is a logical extension of the innate dark side of human beings. I say “cynically” because in stressful times there is a distinct tendency to sigh deeply and resign oneself to generalities: All humans are inexorably, psychologically doomed… as opposed to realizing that only an infinitesimal sliver of people are fucked-up enough to commit any of the acts we are reacting to.

No, it is not all of humanity all of the time. Steven Pinker, in his seminal book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, makes a strong, data-loaded argument that violence in the world, on all levels, has declined both in the long run and in the immediate short run throughout history.

steven-pinker

In the past when tragedies and terrorism occurred, people simply did not have the same access to information that could illuminate and/or explain what had happened. But they also may have been spared some grief, sometimes, by simply not knowing that a terrible thing had occurred at all. With today’s connectivity, we are barraged with moment-to-moment info that can help us, theoretically, parse and analyze—but we can also find it hard to escape.

And in the light of a truck mowing down humanity at its best while joyfully celebrating with fireworks, or an innocent man being plugged with bullets while sitting in his car, or policemen being sniped like prey—even trends of long-term improvement carry little currency in our hearts and minds.

Without being too Pollyannaish, we must recognize that as technology evolves, so does the risk of greater potential catastrophe. But we also have to fight the tendency to be proportionately fearful. Logic only goes so far. If applied too scientifically, the cynics win, humanity is doomed and you might as well start packing—whatever that might mean to you.

I’m not suggesting that the problems, injustices and the sources of fear and terror are all in our minds and will automatically go away. I am suggesting, especially to myself, that I can only do so much about it all.

Instead, we need to stay vigilant, connected to our own core humanity. I was going to hold up William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice “If you prick us, will we not bleed…” speech, but unfortunately that speech goes on to justify and rationalize the commonality of our worst base instincts and reactions. However, Willy’s bigger theme is overcoming those base instincts. And that is what we must do.

Television news and social networks don’t particularly help, but they do sometimes assuage our feelings. CNN knows all about the near-hypnotic power of focusing on tragedy. I have watched myself watch CNN for hours, learning very little new about the horrible event at hand but somehow feeling connected to what happened—like that by commiserating, I’m actively doing something. Bathing in it all. Maybe that’s appropriate some of the time, but these days, with one tragedy after another, I’m shriveling up from too much waterlogging.

security

I’m not suggesting we avoid all feelings of discomfort. I’m not suggesting that the problems, injustices and the sources of fear and terror are all in our minds and will automatically go away. I am suggesting, especially to myself, that I can only do so much about it all. That my immediate personal emotional health also needs to be tended to, even if that means that I detach myself from the news for awhile. Maybe for some, it means compartmentalizing.

There are at any given time literally hundreds of lethal conflicts (often qualifying as wars) occurring all over the world. It’s actually always been this way, but our interconnectedness via the Internet and social media makes us aware of each and everyone one of them in an immediate and unprecedented manner. It’s as though every conflict and act of domestic and/or international bloodshed is right here with us, on our handheld devices, in our pockets, in our bedrooms, in our minds—a constant stream of tragedy like never before in history.

Sometimes being connected is like picking a scab; you just can’t help it. In a way, it makes sense that funny animal videos, especially featuring cute kitties, are the most popular videos on YouTube. Some people call this “eye bleach”—things you can watch to erase the bad imagery. Look down on that if you will, but for me there is no shame in consciously offsetting the negativity, as long as you don’t subsequently sink into paralysis or denial.

Learn more about author Loren-Paul Caplin here and follow him on Twitter here.

Deep thoughts? Share them below...