ISIS: Unthinkable Vs. Unblinkable

Before I traveled to Iraq in 2008, the social service agency coordinating details had one shrewd and grisly document that was required of me and my next-of-kin. My son had to sign a notarized document that temporarily gave the agency sole custody of my “body, remains, and/or parts thereof.” To be honest, it was the mention of “parts” that bothered me most.

This was a necessary detail because the agency was famously clear about hostages. The elements that comprise a human body have an estimated cash value of $3.71, depending on current commodity rates. Presumably, parts thereof would be worth less. The human spirit cannot be captured, and therefore cannot be ransomed.

This may seem heartless, but it was in fact shrewd. Christian Peacemaker Team members have been able to navigate in very dangerous areas precisely because capturing their bodies will not earn bounty or publicity.

I was told that the only trouble they’ve had in decades of this sort of work was with the families of those detained. That was the purpose of the notarized acknowledgement by family members.

Fortunately, the paperwork turned out to be the most harrowing moment for my family. It forced all of us to consider the “unthinkable.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the unthinkable lately. We all have. Televised beheadings of journalists have shocked the American public, pushing our nation closer to combat — yet again — in Iraq.

When this newspaper’s September 12, 2001 edition landed on doorsteps, staring up at subscribers was a single word headline: “Unthinkable.”

That plot required 19 men, four airplanes, box cutters, and months of planning. Now we know the unthinkable can be accomplished with far less. A man with a rifle, a sniper scope, a pick-up truck and a teenage accomplice terrorized Virginia for over a week. Two brothers with a homemade bomb and a backpack drove Boston residents into house arrest during the ensuing dragnet.

And now our drumbeats of war are getting louder, thanks to some terrorists with iPhones, a knife, and a Twitter account. Beheadings are nothing new, but posting the images used to involve actual wooden posts. The gruesome outcome now can be viewed by anyone with an Internet connection. The barrier to entry for worldwide notoriety has become unthinkably low.

As this newspaper’s editors intuited 13 years ago, “unthinkable” is the coin of this terrorist realm. We’ve learned that modernity is the enemy of these extremists. Modernity is built upon rationality. How better to diminish the thinking man’s stature than to sever the brain from the body? If they can force us to face the unthinkable, we’ve already entered enemy territory.

We characterize their motivations as religious in nature, and they wouldn’t disagree. But they might likewise characterize our response as an equally slavish devotion to Enlightenment-era rationality. Knowledge will save us. “We hold these truths to be self-evident….”

Killings get our attention (at least for a while), but “senseless killings” are more deeply frightening. If we can’t understand why the misfortune happened, we can’t know what to do to protect ourselves. Terror fills that dark void.

But here’s the thing. Not everything is knowable. Grief and hatred are never wholly rational. Same with love and hope. We’ve been pretending together for three centuries that rationality eventually will carry the day, that there’s no turning back history, that newer always will be better, brighter, stronger, and triumphant.

We also believed home values could only go up, more TV channels would improve our lives, and all our children would be above average. Reality is so intrusive.

Whether it’s modernity being literally defaced or a football player punching his fiancee in an elevator, the dilemma lurks inside us. We can’t bear to look, but we also can’t avert our gaze. It’s the unthinkable versus the unblinkable.

And so, we claim we’ll do whatever is necessary to make it stop. Except we don’t. We won’t stop watching football. We won’t pay higher taxes. We won’t sacrifice our lifestyle and/or parts thereof. We’re hoping others will do “whatever is necessary” and call us when they’re done.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs