Sorrow & joy in an age of terrorism

Evil is restless. Terrorists are amped up on a double dose of wide-eyed purpose and wild-eyed adrenaline. When you’re willing to kill in the name of an ideal and then go out with a bang, is there any rush more intense? It’s no wonder passion-driven youths seek it out.

And in the aftermath of terror, it’s no surprise to see ourselves and our leaders reacting fiercely and violently out of anger — anger being the presenting emotion when we feel out of control. And so France flies its bombers and unloads them on the already bombed-out Syrian landscape in a defiant but ultimately useless show of forceful retaliation, doing exactly what the terrorists hoped they would. Do the French really think their hastily planned airstrikes will do more damage to ISIS than months of air assault by the United States and Russia? It’s all just bluster which the agents of terror laugh at.

Terrorists aren’t stopped by fighter planes or boots on the ground. In fact, when they survive those, they only feel that much more invulnerable and believe their cause that much more righteous.

This may seem unrelated at first, but my kids and I have been having a conversation about what would be more effective: One massive, city-destroying robot or a swarm of infiltrating nanobots. We’ve unanimously agreed that though a massive robot may seem more impressive in its size and strength, it’s the smaller infiltrating bots that get the job done. In the H.G. Wells classic War of the Worlds, it wasn’t the firepower of the Martians that won the day, but some unseen and unnamed Earth-based virus.

Military might is impotent in the face of terrorism. In fact, it merely fans the fanatic’s flame.

The small. The unseen. The nameless. These are the ones who take down the great and mighty from within. It’s always been this way.

The biblical story of Gideon is a case in point. After Gideon had raised a large army to go head-to-head with the Midianite invaders, God had him dismiss most of them, leaving a band that was smaller, weaker, and stupider than the original host. And these few didn’t even have to engage the Midianites. They merely introduced fear into their camp, through a trick with horns and lamps in the night, and let the enemies destroy themselves from within.

The only effective answer to terrorism is to not be terrorized.

This is where the Irish rock band U2 comes in for me.

Like most Americans, I was shellshocked by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For weeks after, I feared every airplane I saw in the sky. Would this one fly into a building as well?

But U2 toured the U.S. soon after and did something amazing. They led us in sorrow and in joy. They taught us how to grieve and how to dance again. They brought their unique blend of Irish Christian melancholy and passion to bear on our fear and pain. Their Super Bowl XXXVI performance on Feb. 2, 2002 was deeply cathartic in its head-on engagement with our grief and its refusal to be diminished by it. I still weep each time I see it when it gets to the midpoint.

The music. The list of names. The prayer. The lap around the stage. The flag sewn into Bono’s jacket. It could have been gimmicky, but it wasn’t.

Everything is there that needs to be there. Nothing left out. All in earnest. All exuberant. There was no posturing, as we Americans tend to do, pretending that nothing has happened. At the same time, there was no cowing before terrorism and no hating.

As the Pixar movie Inside Out showed us, sorrow and joy need not be in conflict with one another. In fact, these two extremes of human emotion make for good companions.

As U2 has taught us, the answer to terror is to enter our sorrow and rise up with joy, both as expressions of love. For as the Scriptures say, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” [1 John 4:18].

[For a related article on U2 and responding to terrorism, click here.]