“We have to kill them before they kill us.”
My neighbor Dave (not his real name) has helped me out a number of times. He helped us move a heavy tool chest from a truck into our garage. He’s lent us power tools. Dave, a rough looking older guy with a mustache and tattoos on his arms, also helped feed our cats when we’d travel and forget to schedule a pet sitter.
Dave has a motorcycle, which he never rides any more. He still takes it out to keep the engine in good state, which means he occasionally idles it for about 10 minutes at a time. This thing is loud. Before I knew it was him, I’d get angry every time I heard it.
After our daughter was born, like most new parents, we relished the time she spent asleep because it meant we could sleep too. One morning, after a night of little sleep, he started idling his bike right after we got her down. She woke up screaming.
I didn’t know it was him at the time. I just knew someone in the neighborhood had a bike, and it was coming from the general direction of his place. I went outside in the back yard, tired, angry, and frustrated, and shouted “FUCK YOUR MOTORCYCLE!”
The bike stopped. He came to the fence and said “What?”
I hate confrontation. I don’t like being mad at people. But I had to tell him it was me, and I explained I’d just put my daughter to sleep and I was so tired. He said, “Hey it’s fine. I get it.”
Since then, he only revved the bike at noon, when he knew Allie was awake. This biker with tattoos, a strong guy who used to do construction work and now takes care of his aging parents — still has the soft spot that most men do.
That made our conversation last night all the more difficult.
Talk about the economy turned to Trump and Russia and then the main reason he voted Republican for the first time ever: Hillary said she wanted to bring 250,000 of “them” over here.
He thinks there’s a religious war coming. He thinks that Muslims want to take over the world, and that the American left is either in on it or just doesn’t care.
“They don’t tell on each other. They don’t care.” he said, making eye contact with me. I hate making eye contact. It feels uncomfortable and awkward, but most people seem to find it essential for trust in a conversation. I could tell Dave trusted me. I think this is why he felt ok to say some stuff that most people would say was hateful and wrong.
I didn’t know how to react, but I knew I had to do something. What follows is my best attempt to relate what happened. I can’t defend any of it because i’m not convinced I as right to respond this way. It was a hard conversation to have.
I said “Most of the victims of this terrorism are also Muslim. A lot of them are worried, too.”
He said that the reason “they kill each other” is because they wanted to fight over who’d rule the world when they won.
I thought of my friend Amine, a guy who used to work for me at a startup I did years ago, a guy I respected who taught me more about his religion. I remembered being in a bar and some guy started spouting racist shit at Amine. I got up in that guy’s face because it felt like the right thing to do there. That didn’t feel like the right thing to do here.
I told Dave I thought the American Left was too quick to deny any kind of relationship between Islam and terrorism. There is one, I told him. But you’ve gotta see it like this: There are Baptists, Catholics, and Protestants and other groups. They’re all Christians, and they don’t all get along. Sometimes they hate each other.
Islam is the same way, I told him. It’s really only a few groups inside of Islam that are violent. The Sufis never kill anyone; they’re like the hippie mystic weirdos of Islam. They’re awesome. Then you have the Shiites, and most of them are not at all into terrorism either. A tiny group of them are violent, but they’re not the real bad guys.
Most of them are scared of being killed by people who say “you aren’t real Muslims”, and they’re also scared of being blamed for terrorism, too. I said.
Dave looked down slightly, and said “I can see that.”
I thought of my friend Omar, a guy I went to high school with. We’d get into long philosophical discussions on rides home from band practice. He’s also very hard working. At one point, all the guys in our freshman high school class knew you could get into sex.com using the username ‘jon’ and the password ‘sex’ because Omar had used the old ‘trial and error’ approach.
Then you have the Sunni Muslims, I said, and most of them aren’t violent either — but there’s a group inside Sunni Islam that’s super violent. Wahhabism is a sect of Islam behind a lot of terrorism.
I told him a lot of this stuff comes down to geopolitics. Different countries back terrorist groups to try to accomplish political objectives.
I told him some of the terrorism stuff is about money. They pay some guy $10,000 to cut off someone else’s head on video, and then use that video to solicit donations for more terrorism. Those donations then go into the pockets of wealthy people with no morals, who are using terrorism to make themselves richer. They don’t give a damn about violence, but they know it sells.
I told him that there were reformation movements in both Judaism and Christianity, that this hadn’t happened yet in Islam, but that it probably would soon. I hoped it would.
He told me there are ‘no go zones’ in California, terrorist training camps. He said it’s on the news. We have to kill them before they kill us.
I told him that I think a lot of the news tries to scare people. I said yes, it think there is a terrorism problem in Islam, and the people on the left want to say it doesn’t exist, and they’re wrong — but a lot of the people on the right are making it sound much worse than it is.
I told him we’re living in a dying old system that’s been running since the end of world war two, and it’s on its last legs. I told him I do think a war is coming, and I don’t know how it’s going to play out. I told him that whatever happens, we have to stick with and protect our neighbors.
I pointed to the house of another guy on our street, Robert. I said “you know Robert, right?”
Robert is American born Chinese, with biceps the size of cantaloupes, and a pledge of allegiance sticker on the back of his massive black pickup. He’s also been a great neighbor; loaned me a tiller and offered help whenever we needed it.
To me, guys like Robert and Dave both embody a core aspect of American masculinity: strength and protecting the ones you love. It doesn’t matter if you’re born here or what color your skin is, that isn’t what America is about. What makes us great is that anyone who strives to better life for them and their family, who takes care of those they love — I think that person is American, regardless of where they are. America is, to me, a set of ideals and values that happens to be associated with a place.
I told Dave “Whatever goes down, what we ultimately have is each other. Our neighbors. We’ve got to look out for the people around us. Lots of people are scared. Nobody really knows what’s going on.”
I thought about the concept of faith in Islam. I thought about this one a lot because it ties into the idea of predestination, free will and choices, concepts which I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to make sense of.
Amine told me that according to his faith, years ago God showed everyone a movie of their entire lives, and that they all chose “Yes, I’ll go into this world” knowing exactly what would happen to them.
Around that time I was really struggling. I think most people navigate their world with their gut, occasionally thinking in terms of concepts. That didn’t work for me; physics made too much damn sense, and my gut had lead me wrong too many times for me to trust it. I wanted to understand my life and day to day actions in terms of physics, and the idea of choice kept coming up over and over.
When Amine told me that story, the idea that we’d all seen a movie of our lives, I did what I always do with new mythologies I encounter. I mentally sort it, categorize it, and compare it to other mythologies I’ve run into.
I see in my minds eye, a massive tree, the set of all possible ways the world could go. It’s a tree, and each branch represents a choice you face. What if God didn’t show us a movie before this started, but something like a massive choose your own adventure book? What if we, each of us, read all the pages of the book, and saw that both good and bad things would happen to us, regardless of how we chose?
How do you justify the idea of a God with the existence of Evil? This seemed like a possible way.
What if we didn’t just see our lives, the entirety of our lives as they would be, but instead all lives as they could be? What if we knew ahead of time “This is the probability I’ll die to a random bullet or disease or a car crash, and this is the expected number of hugs and kisses I’ll get?”
What if the evil I saw in the world was statistically distributed in a way that each of us had accepted before jumping into the game — we didn’t accept our lives specifically as they were, but the space of all possible lives we might live out? I can see myself accepting such a world if knew that everyone else had accepted it too, and that there was always a choice I could take to make my life better, to move towards a better world.
I would accept this world if the American dream — work hard and life gets better — were backed up by physics, with F=MA being a small part of a proof of God, complete net work towards supporting your network, and on the whole, it works.
The many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics had previously been the only piece of mythology I could get my hands on that made sense of choice, and this idea of fate in Islam matched it because it came packaged as a story being told. The piece Islam added was the idea that everyone accepted the world before it started.
I knew I was OK with the bad things that happened to me, but I was mad at the world because of the way it hurt other people. I knew it wasn’t fair.
What if this story, specifically, wasn’t fair, but the probability space rooted in the big bang and branching out to the modern day actually was fair in some way that we all agreed ‘yes this is fair’ before the game began and then we pushed antimatter and matter around until we formed atoms and then planets and stars and exploded in supernovae, to come apart and back together, over and over, to add more complexity and intensity, so that we could rediscover our Godhood and oneness with each other?
My life got a lot better once I started telling myself I was entirely responsible for all of my suffering. I don’t think this was coincidental. Denying free will made it super hard for me to accept that I was responsible for my choices. Embracing my responsibility for my suffering made it possible for me to end my suffering.
As I write these words, I’m wearing a Kara, an article of the Sikh faith. I often rely on the image of Jesus, asking myself how he’d react to a situation. I have taken the Bodhisattva vow, and if I have one overarching goal, it is to liberate all beings from suffering.
My wife is Chinese. I have in laws and relatives who are Filipina, Indian and Black, even though my parents are both white. I was lucky enough to spend time in Kyiv and fall in love with Ukraine. My brother spent time in Brazil, so we have a painting of a favela on our walls. I have tattoos of a computational complexity problem on my wrists, and my licenses plate contains a computational complexity class.
I’m a weird guy, and yet I feel obvious to me. I felt, years ago, a path for me, that felt correct. It feels right. Even though it’s hard and confusing I walk this path because I followed it out of the naive spirituality of my childhood, into something more complex, compatible with materialism, and still full of the powerful unknowns that tell me I have more work to do in my life. Despite all of this, I can’t help but feel that this is who I am, and i’m happier now because I’m closer to who i’m supposed to be.
Is this the life I saw before me? Does it feel obvious because instead of trying to pre-parse the entire configuration space to make sure it was acceptable, I simply found the longest strand I could, and committed to memory? Is that why everything is crazy now? Or am I the crazy one?
I don’t know.
I do know we make choices, I believe this very strongly, regardless of whether the world is deterministic, or whether it has a causal structure and a configuration space with branches.
And that night I made the choice to try to connect with Dave. I made the choice not to tell him I thought what he was saying was offensive and wrong, but to hear the words coming out of him as the sound of fear, and to try and be a light. I don’t I know if it worked or if it was the right thing to do, and I almost cried after getting back in the house. I thought of the people who’d be mad at me for not being angry with him, and I wondered if they were right.
The world is in a dark place right now, and I think we need to be lights for each other. We can’t drive out darkness with darkness. It’s hard enough for me to change myself, and the only times I’ve had success at that have been when I’ve pointed myself towards a good direction, not away from a bad one.
I’m pretty sure this is how we have to work with each other as well.