My kids asked “But WHY terrorism?” We found compassion & hope for peace

Nov 17, 2015

I woke up to the news about Paris Saturday morning (14/11), my husband out of the country, and my heart felt sunk. Next to my feelings for the victims, survivors and their loved ones, I had one primary thing going on in my mind, “What will I say to the kids?” As they’re 9 and 11, it wasn’t a question of IF I say anything, but HOW I bring it to them. It first struck me as a natural “teaching moment” about why terrorism exists. And yet I decided to not share my or others’ beliefs and opinions which are primarily born out of fear (e.g. “they hate our freedom!” “it’s war!” “we should close our borders!”). Instead I explored human nature with them, and in the end, we hit upon hope for peace.

Listening first
I shared the facts of what happened, with little detail and none of my own thoughts. I was curious about their personal reactions and was completely struck by their lack of immediate opinion; instead they asked rather desperately, “BUT WHY?” This gave me a lot of pause. I realized that I didn’t have any ready answers. Then I considered how very valid and important this question is. I found it so beautiful that these young humans don’t rush to judgment but truly wish to understand. I let them know I appreciated their open interest and that I’d like to try to learn more myself, look more deeply at human nature and the longings that might be driving terrorist acts. I thank them for encouraging me to find possible answers we can actually understand and bring us connection around a very divisive issue.

Why ask why?
What does drives people to this kind of violent suicide mission? Something must be REALLY important to them to go to such desperate lengths. How tragic that they can’t find peaceful ways of expressing and obtaining what they most want. How sad that as a result of their violent strategies, the world has closed its ears. Many (most?) have decided it can’t be understood and we have no choice but to meet violence with violence.

I don’t want to believe this. I especially don’t want my children to believe this for the rest of their lives. One of the messages I’d like for them to learn in this painful moment was well expressed by Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC):

Marshall Rosenberg on violence

I like this viewpoint because it brings responsibility back to the individual to a large degree. It removes the framework of right vs. wrong thinking and helps us reflect on how this is happening on a small scale in our personal daily lives (blame, judgement, comparison, e.g.)  In a Saturday article, The New York Times bought into this way of thinking: “France embodies everything religious zealots everywhere hate.” And yet for me, it still doesn’t provide a satisfying answer to what really drives them to commit violent acts against other humans? If there’s hate, the false belief that others should be punished, then why?


So why does ISIS do what it does?
Ezra Klein’s 5 minute video helped me understand how convoluted the entire “Syrian crisis” is, yet doesn’t at all get to the root of ISIS’s “why.” Other articles discuss current strategies of the various national parties involved and point to ISIS’s blind religious faith in centuries-old prophecies that serve as their primary motivation (What ISIS Really WantsThe Atlantic; Why Isis FightsThe Guardian; In Search of a StrategyThe New Yorker).

For me, these explanations also just don’t go nearly deep enough – I want to know WHY on the human level of longings. I don’t study Middle Eastern politics or religious affairs of the world. I am keen to understand what drives human behavior. I’ve learned from NVC that basic needs drive us all and we have them in common with one another. The only way I’ve best been able to make sense of what is happening, even begin to understand what could possibly be at the root of terrorism has to do with the extreme inequitable distribution of wealth on the planet. Just watch this 4-minute video:

Though I didn’t think it was possible, this information helps me move toward understanding AND compassion. How might I feel if I lived outside the wealthy region of the world, among the “have-nots” . . . jealous, powerless, resentful, angry? If I put myself in their shoes, it isn’t hard at all for me to see basic needs for balance and equality, dignity, a sense of belonging, and even knowing I have a right to exist.
Peace (A.Einstein)
Hope for Peace
When I explored this (in the simplest of terms) with my children, they got it, too. It’s basic to all humans, no matter who we are, where we live, or even how old we are. We talked about how being driven by these human needs in no way JUSTIFIES violence. Yet their question, “But WHY?” was at least answered in a way they could grasp. We talked about other possible ways ISIS could come up for themselves, referring to painful and slow, yet successful models led by Ghandi and MLKing. We felt very sad together that ISIS is choosing a completely different route than nonviolent revolution, yet ended the conversation on a hopeful note. There ARE peaceful ways forward. Ultimately, peace is something every human being on the planet wants. I tend to agree with Einstein that it can only be achieved through deeper understanding, plus willingness to reflect upon ourselves, and be willing to bring about change for a world in which all basic human needs can be met.


Cara Crisler
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1 Comment. Leave new

mark dessauer
March 23, 2016 10:47 am

I remember reading this before Cara and now seeing it again. Wonderful and powerful. I will use this with my boys. I also came to realize that you have truly shifting from doing community work to doing human work – really hitting the center of our existence. Thank you and wow.



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