Note: see the blog post for Monday, October 3, 2016, for an explanation of how and why this manuscript came about. You are welcome to copy this material, use it for any non-commercial purpose, and distribute it as widely as you want, so long as you give me author’s credit and indicate the copyright date. The chapters will be posted periodically, I hope once every week or two, but a couple of them might take a little bit longer. Thanks for reading this material; it’s my personal response to the political craziness that seems to have swept our great nation, but the vast majority of it was written ten years ago. JJJr
IF I WERE A TERRORIST
John Janovy, Jr. © 2016
1. Why I Wrote This Book
2. Evolution: The Most Effective Weapon
3. Women: The Most Feared of All Natural Disasters
4. Energy: The Achilles Heel
5. The Human Factor: The Individual vs. The Mob
6. Hero Worship: Stupidity in High Places
7. Fear: The Mother of Fundamentalism
9. American Vulnerability
10. The Ultimate Fate of the United States of America
11. Solutions and Options
I. Evolutionary Principles Summarized
II. How to study evolution
III. Sources and Resources
If I Were a Terrorist is my personal response to post 9/11/2001 world events. All American adults have opinions, thoughts, and feelings that are a result of 9/11, and of the political and military actions that ensued as a result of airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field. In this regard, I am no different from other adult Americans. Nor am I any different from those hundreds of thousands of writers who are generating words by the billions, hoping to get famous, make their fortunes, and quit their day jobs, except that I am retired and don’t really have what you’d call a “day job” beyond writing.
I am quite different from the vast majority of those others individuals, however, in that I have studied biology as a professional scientist for about 60 years and am very comfortable with evolution as an idea, a phenomenon, a theory, and a general explanation for life’s diversity over the past 3.5+ billion years on Earth. Thus this entire writing project is framed in an evolutionary scenario, although the trajectory of great nations is not strictly analogous to classical Darwinian natural selection. Instead, societies tend to demonstrate either unrepeatable thought experiments or so-called natural experiments, in which a prediction can made regarding the outcome of a set of events that are either made up or are out of some scientist’s control. Such predictions are then tested by unfolding events. If you want to participate in this kind of prediction-testing, write something about current events and the fate of our nation and put it in the family Bible for your grandchildren to read seventy years from now.
A good example of a natural experiment in progress is climate change: it cannot be repeated over and over again on a large sample of Earth-like planets occupied by Homo sapiens-like primates in the same fashion as one might test for pesticide effectiveness on plots of corn. Einstein’s theories of relativity are good examples of thought experiments yielding interesting conclusions applicable to modern physics. Are such experiments valid science? Of course they are. Are these kinds of natural and thought experiments useful to society? Of course they are, although their value depends on how societies use the lessons of history and there is plenty of evidence that when it comes to such lessons, most societies, including ours, are pretty disdainful of them. So in this book I’ve tried to combine the lessons of history with current headlines in an effort to reduce our disdainfulness. I am under no illusion that this effort will have any impact whatsoever on the voting patterns of my Oklahoma friends and relatives, or on the ultimate fate of my nation.
Finally, when I first wrote this book several years ago, my literary agent declined to handle it, a decision that of course I did not agree with at the time. It has become blatantly obvious that we still need a serious discussion about terrorism beyond what we get on conservative television and talk radio, and certainly beyond what we get on a typical American college campus where young people are far more terrified of not finding a job, or getting a bad grade, or of having their religious beliefs affronted, than they are of a nation hurtling toward oblivion. So If I Were a Terrorist is my contribution to this discussion. The book is a little dated in places, mainly because I have not always added current examples of our national behavior, but in such cases our national behavior has not changed much if at all, and indeed may well have gone beyond the examples used. Thanks for sticking with me in this project.
John Janovy, Jr.
1. Why I Wrote This Book
I am an ordinary American citizen . . . I believe in America . . . But I am scared. . . Thank you for your time.
(from Dear America, a contribution to patriotic web site)
Contrary to what many of you will think, I wrote this book because I love my country—the United States of America. I have an unshakeable belief that our nation represents a magnificent experiment in which the finest qualities of humanity—generosity, creativity, altruism, rationality, artistic and literary excellence, athletic performance—are manifested broadly and continuously. Whatever else we have accomplished since July 4, 1776, this unique and amazing mixture of traits will surely be seen by historians a thousand years from now as a bright flash in that brief and brutal period known in some paleontological circles as the “Time of Man.” For this reason when I think of my nation the words “Great American Experiment” come immediately to mind. I feel privileged and honored beyond description to have been born and educated in the United States in the 20th Century and to be living here still in the 21st Century.
A large number of my fellow Americans probably give prayers of thanks for having been born and allowed to live in this great nation, and a substantial fraction of these folks feel we are a Chosen People. But regardless of my appreciation for that roll of the genetic and historical dice that left me here at this period of history, I am not one of the latter. I am not one of those who believe we Americans are a chosen people because I do not believe in the kind of God that many of you believe in, that is, a God who wreaks vengeance on homosexuals and liberals and encourages ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence for biological evolution during several billion years of geological history. The white-haired old man in the sky is a picture painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; he is not a vengeful autocrat who declares Missouri Synod Lutheran women cannot vote on church matters. We are here, in the United States, in the early years of the Third Millennium, for one reason and one reason only: pure luck. Pure, unadulterated, historical, biological, luck.
I do accept the fact that physicists, however, with their work on subatomic particles, have brought us full circle to the essential question that must have been addressed by Neanderthals: Where did we come from? I don’t have an answer, but even if I did answer “God,” that response would not lead me immediately to declare a theocracy. Thus my friends would describe me as an agnostic at best, and a genial atheist or dedicated secular humanist at worst. I address the issue of spiritual beliefs right up front because in case you have not figured it out already from watching your local cable stations, religion is a major weapon—perhaps the major weapon, if you take fear into account—for dismantling any secular and relatively free society, including ours—and it is naïve to believe otherwise. Thus I dispose of God as a first cause of my pure, unadulterated, luck at having been born an American citizen in the middle of the 20th Century.
So I’m an off-the-scale patriot who, strangely enough, is not also a member of the Neoconservative movement, the Religious Right, the National Rifle Association, or the National Guard, although I did serve seven years in the Army Reserve and, during my short active duty took parachute training, surely a sign of militant inclinations. But regardless of my underlying spirituality, or lack thereof, the circumstances of my birth can only be considered a blessing. A more trusting soul than I would likely consider some Supreme Being to have had a direct hand in such a birth. So every day I say a prayer of thanks to a God that probably exists only in the minds of you believers. Yes, every single day I thank God—whoever, wherever, and whatever He, She, or It might be—for having been placed on Earth—by whatever mechanism ultimately involved—at this time in history (too early for Korea and too late for Vietnam), in this particular nation on the only planet in the universe known to support life, and furthermore, deep in the heartland of that nation.
An enormous responsibility accompanies the privilege of being born an American citizen in the mid-20th Century. That responsibility is to use one’s talents for the betterment of the humanity in an attempt to single-handedly elevate us to a higher plane of behavior, understanding, and rationality than we now occupy as a species. Obviously one person living out on the Central Prairies with no political power, average financial resources, and few if any connections to global “leaders” cannot change Earth into a more civilized planet all by himself or herself. But that one person can try to accomplish this task and encourage others, especially those born in privilege—like I was—to join in the efforts. We each have unique talents and need to find ways to apply those talents to our common problems. In that game of genetic dice I was tossed the ability to write a complete sentence, string ideas together, decipher the way a paragraph is built, and construct metaphors. Thus I write a book in order to change Earth into a civilized planet. You’re laughing, I can tell, at my arrogance, or stupid idealism. Either description is apt. But read on; you will not be laughing for long. Instead, you will be frightened.
In addition to my streak of amazing luck at having been born in the late 1930s in what is currently known as The United States of America, I was also very fortunate to have been educated at a fine university where I received a basic understanding of the most deadly force known in nature, namely, evolution. Then I spent the next fifty years studying this force responsible for the disappearance of enormous numbers of species. Only in very recent years, however, mainly since the Second World War, has it become obvious not only that we humans are evolving—yes, biologically—at a relatively rapid rate, but also that our societies are evolving, and in their cases at lightning speed. The processes of social, economic, and political evolution are not directly analogous to those of biological evolution, although in one way these two phenomena match fairly closely, and that is: change is permanent, and always made within constraints of boundary conditions.
Our societies are changing, sometimes toward destruction, because they are unable to sustain themselves in their cultural, economic, legal, and political environments, and in contrast to the typically slow pace of classical organic evolution, this political evolution is happening right before our very eyes. The Soviet Union, for example, lasted less than a century. Oysters, by comparison, have been with us for at least 70 million years. Thus we can easily see the social evolutionary processes at work when we study Soviet history, whereas one has to be a little more perceptive and skillful to understand the evolutionary trail of oysters.
There is a reasonably sophisticated, large, and growing literature on the evolution of societies. Although the changes that occur in human societies are not strictly analogous to the type of natural selection envisioned by Darwin and his intellectual descendents, the term “evolution” is nevertheless an appropriate one because it involves permanent change and invokes the interactions between some entity—in our case a nation—and the environment that supports, or at least enables, its existence. In much the same way as a population of plants or animals “experiments” with various options—in their case genetic variants—nations also “experiment” with options—but in this case I’m referring to political actions, policies, behaviors, selected by a group of people from a diverse array of possible actions and behaviors.
For example, whereas the thousands of individual flowers in a field might display a dozen or more different varieties for the environment to act upon, i.e., to “select” individuals from this pool for ultimate survival and disproportionate reproductive success, a nation made up of people typically does the selection before presenting itself to the environment. So in the case of social or cultural evolution, humans pre-empt the environment’s role in the evolutionary process. The result is that societies find themselves locked into a trajectory of change from which it is exceedingly difficult to escape. The United States of America is not immune to this principle. We are locked into a relationship between our selected behaviors and the environment that we look to for sustenance. This relatively binding relationship, a sort of socio-ecological contract that establishes the direction of our nation’s evolutionary change, is the basis for Beth Hain’s fear (see epigraph above).
If I were a terrorist, I would find some ways to grease the evolutionary wheels, so to speak, to accelerate the changes currently taking place in our nation, to create some constraints on the American system that prevent it from ever returning to that condition best described by the phrase “American Dream.” In other words, I’d find some way to make what Americans are doing to themselves happen faster, with more permanent and damaging effects, than is occurring at present although to be quite honest, we’re already working overtime, and quite successfully, to dissolve this great experiment in human freedom. In contrast to the difficulty of changing the world into a better place for everyone, it’s downright easy to do exactly the opposite—i.e., give a boost to what historians a thousand years from now might call The Great American Cultural Collapse. That’s another reason I wrote this book. If it becomes widely known how easy it is to make Americans destroy their Dream, all by themselves, then maybe, just maybe, someone who has real power will figure out how to slow the process. Quite honestly I don’t see that happening. So, like Beth Hain expressed in her article posted on the Patriot web site, I’m scared.
I am also writing this book because of a conversation I had not long ago with an African gentleman. He was a scientist at one of the nation’s premier universities and his wife, also of African descent, was a local physician. We were at a social gathering held in the home of a university scientist and his wife, a couple of staunch conservatives hosting a houseful of liberals, but surviving, as well as catering, the evening beautifully. Because only at the most mindless of social occasions does conversation not eventually turn to politics, before long we began to discuss the nation’s leadership and global current events.
“In my country,” said the African gentleman, “the politicians do not want you to talk about them. They do not want your attention focused on the misery in your own nation. Instead, they want you to spend your time thinking about the rest of the world so that they can be corrupt, and build their own wealth by stealing from the people, and carry out their own personal vendettas, often destroying their nation in the process, and the population will not be paying any attention.” His deep resonant and slightly accented voice added to the authority of his words. He paused. “That is what they want.” He smiled in a very patient, tolerant, way. “So we grow up knowing quite a bit about the rest of the world, not because we are so interested in global affairs, but by default.”
Based on my experience with educated foreigners, I would say he was correct about his own worldliness. I have been in social settings with scientists from at least twenty different nations—including some now considered terrorist states—over the past several decades. All of these scientists are more cosmopolitan than my American colleagues; most of them speak and read at least two languages comfortably and are rarely if ever constrained by having Fox News as their only sources of information. In fact, many of them get on the Internet and listen to newscasts in German, French, and Chinese. I can promise you they’re not listening to Bill O’Reilly.
“But in your country,” my African acquaintance continued, “the politicians want you to be concerned with what they are doing to make you happy and safe and rich, and with local problems that seem very dramatic.” By “local problems” he could easily have been talking about everything from the O. J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, and Casey Anthony trials to the disappearance of a teenage girl in Aruba, the murder of children by their mother, the Christmas murder of a child beauty queen, or a lawsuit over display of The Ten Commandments—that is, the substance, the heart and soul, of American public discourse, cable news, and, arguably, Americans’ vision of our legal and social systems.
“So you grow up ignorant of the rest of the world.” He took a sip of his vodka. “You are happy because your leaders tell that they are not going to raise your taxes,” he continued, “but your indebtedness grows daily.” He smiled. “And you are losing your economic competitiveness because you are afraid of science.” He shook his head, looked over at his wife, then turned back to me. “Why does this happen?” I couldn’t answer; I was still stuck on his “ignorant of the rest of the world.”
“Ignorant of the rest of the world.” Remember the phrase; those words represent a clear, present, and rapidly growing danger. It is not healthy, I thought at the time, for us to “grow up ignorant of the rest of the world.” When we grow up ignorant we cannot choose the time and place of our lessons. Instead, what we learn about the rest of the world is taught to us by people and circumstances that seem, at the time, to be in violation of our sense of order. For example, thirty years ago my local newspaper never printed a Middle Eastern name. Today, my local newspaper is filled with names and places that represent a college education brought to my doorstep by the forces of history. The tuition that you and I pay for this course in fundamentalist religion, explosives, and multi-syllabic, hyphenated, and consonant-filled words is counted in dead and wounded young men and women, in futures lost to those dead and grievously wounded, and in the astronomical costs of war—money, labor, building materials, petroleum, metals.
Thirty years ago, the term “terror” was used to describe the newest horror movie, but today I read this word daily on the front page, see it every few minutes on the scroll bars across the bottom of my television screen, and think about it seriously whenever I make an airline reservation. Someone out there somewhere hates me enough to kill me because of where and when I was born, what I read as a child, whatever I do not worship, and what I now do day-to-day as an adult. That hate is a strange sensation for someone born and reared in freedom and privilege, and I do not reciprocate in such feelings of hatred, largely because of those same circumstances of birth and education. Someone out there somewhere wants to destroy everything that seems perfectly normal to me and to all of the people I communicate with on a daily basis. My newspaper rightfully—in my opinion—calls this someone a “terrorist” although that same newspaper also tells me this someone calls himself, and all his like-minded associates, “martyrs.”
I believe the difference between these two labels goes a long way toward explaining why I’m sensing the end of our great American experiment in freedom. The tattered Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that I use regularly was published in 1981; the word “terrorist” is not in this dictionary. According to the way this term is used a thousand times a day by the media, however, a terrorist is a person who wants to generate uncontrollable fear in a population, usually through creative use of weapons to carry out death and destruction, typically perpetrated in settings not considered particularly dangerous—nightclubs, subway cars, and office buildings.
The underlying assumption is that such fear will paralyze the victimized society, ultimately rendering it incapable of functioning. When the old social order breaks down then presumably a new order will replace it, an order in which the world appears “correct” in the eyes of the terrorist. We might call this three-sentence description of global current events the Theory of Terrorism, and if I were really well read, I’d probably know that this particular theory has been articulated and promulgated for a long time. But let’s all agree on one thing: if we learned anything at all from our history teachers, it’s that utopian dreams—including those of the people we Americans are now calling “terrorists”—are complete baloney.
In addition to our noble traits—the generosity, creativity, altruism, rationality, artistic and literary excellence, athletic performance mentioned in the opening paragraph—we also have traits, probably under at least some genetic control, that are not so noble. We consume vast quantities of narcotics, we readily exhibit dehumanizing and discriminatory behavior toward those that are not quickly recognizable as members of our ethnicity, and we commit violence against our fellow humans very easily. Because of our religious beliefs, it is much easier for our political leaders to convince some of us to kill other humans than it is to convince our spiritual leaders to let us marry those same other humans. After September 11, 2001, it was very easy for an American president to send an army into combat halfway around the world in a cultural milieu so different from ours that it could easily have been the work of a science fiction writer.
The cross-cultural characteristics that make us Homo sapiens, and have enormous influence on our day-to-day life, are outlined beautifully in E. O. Wilson’s landmark book, On Human Nature. Religion is such an ingrained part of human behavior that Wilson admits it may have a genetic basis, an interpretation shared by other scientists (see Dean Hamer’s The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes). But in contrast to the fact of religion, the form of it is acquired by learning, and it is in the learning where we find the trail towards judgment and its potential not only for personal guidance and acts of charity, but also for discrimination, bigotry, and hatred.
When steeped in certain beliefs, it becomes relatively easy to take on power presumably reserved for God, namely, that of passing judgment on others, especially the “others” not like us. So we find that among our species’ well-documented behaviors is that of dehumanizing perceived enemies, typically as a prelude to violence. This practice is exceedingly common among political leaders faced with military conflict—the two Bush presidents are prime examples—and probably understandably so, given the fact that war requires mobilization of psychological resources as well as weapons, fuel, food, medical supplies, and body bags. Clearly today the word “terrorist” means someone who wants to kill innocent Americans, including women and children. And just as clearly, for better or worse, the label carries a death sentence.
Nowadays I do very little without thinking about this “terrorist” moniker. It is not easy for me to understand why an individual would commit suicide with explosives as a political act. For one who exercises his political power with small donations, votes, yard signs and bumper stickers, this act of self-immolation is obviously one of desperation generated by a particular mental state and enabled by a certain kind of technology. My information sources tell me that the terrorists are getting increasingly sophisticated in the use of such technology. These sources are not secret memos leaked by some government malcontent; instead, they are interviews reported in my local newspaper and on National Public Radio. In Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the current American military field testing laboratories, my nation’s response to this weaponry of increasing sophistication is heavier armor and pilotless, but lethal, drone aircraft often incapable of distinguishing between friend and foe.
Biological scientists call this kind of evolving offense-defense contest a Red Queen relationship, based on the quote from a chess piece in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in which the Red Queen says, to Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Nobody will ever win a Red Queen game, not even American soldiers. The real question is whether our so-called War on Terror is also a Red Queen game. Personally I believe it is, but perhaps the forces of history will prove me wrong. I hope that happens. But if the Red Queen scenario unfolds as the guiding process of Middle Eastern social and political evolution, there will be no winners, only combatants, for a very long time, perhaps forever, simply running in place.
I also wrote this book because “how-to” manuals are exceedingly effective ways to reveal underlying processes. If you know how to fix your car, for example, then such knowledge implies an understanding of the way your car functions, or at least that part of it which you are able to fix. The same statement could be made about your computer, your washing machine, and your golf swing. So regardless of the title of this short book, I’m not trying to hasten our demise. Quite the contrary. I’m trying to understand the relationship between what we are and have become as a nation and where we will end up in by the end of the century, or, by the time your college-age children are near retirement. In other words, I’m applying what I know about this process of evolution, and I’m applying that knowledge to the Great American Experiment. As a citizen born in privilege, I wish I were studying snails or sponges instead; only a professorly few care about snails and sponges and a study of their evolutionary history would not inspire a woman named Beth Hain to post on the web a statement such as I am an ordinary American citizen . . . I believe in America . . . But I am scared. . . Thank you for your time.
Yes, thank you for the time you are taking to read my words. These words come not from some wizard, or media pundit, but from a single individual who lives in the vast “fly-over” part of the United States that supplies much of your food. So I encourage you to express your feelings about the times we live in, too, although I also encourage you, very strongly, to base those feelings on your reading of history and science, especially biology. Your local library is an excellent source of valid and insightful information, much if not most of it easily understood by a person with a decent high school education. If you need some suggestions, here is a link to my reading list, the titles that have changed my view of Earth and its inhabitants over the past fifty years: www (dot) johnjanovy (dot) com (slash = /) reading (dot) html. I spelled out that web site because my blog gets irritated when I include URLs in a post. So like Beth Hain, I thank you for your time. Read on.