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Understanding the underwear bomber

As a human, I wish fervently for a world filled with empathy and mutual respect amongst the many nations, religions, races and preferences that fill this globe. As a writer, I understand that a story filled with nothing but such enlightened people probably isn’t going to be much of story. Instead, I must create, understand, and bring to life those who would do others harm.

hippiepeace5The worst villain I have created may be the crime lord in my new novel c3, a ruthless man who harbors a taste for unwilling virgins. Or it may be my Nigerian fanatic in x0, who works to blow up an airplane leaving Lagos right before Christmas 2009. Of all the characters I have ever written, I struggled the hardest to understand both of these men, and to describe how they justified their actions to themselves.

How realistic is such horrible behavior? Clearly most of the folks in line with you at the grocery store are not capable of these kinds of atrocities, and we are all thankful for that. But even my worst characters are based on information I have come across in real life. Some of x0 was born out of my interest in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known as the “Underwear Bomber”. A 23 year old Nigerian, he hid plastic explosives in his undies and attempted to detonate them while on board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009.

I think his story tugged at me because a week later I began work as a consultant with an oil company exploring in offshore Nigeria. I immediately got to know several young Nigerian men who were about his age. As I became friends with my new co-workers, I puzzled over the story of of this youngest child of sixteen, son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and his second wife. I learned that such huge families, encompassing multiple wives, were not uncommon in Nigeria and I could now personally attest to the fact that they produced people as loving and talented as families structured the way I was used to.

So what makes anyone decide to kill a bunch of complete strangers who have done him no harm? As I began to write x0, I knew that the villain in my book would be older, far more manipulative, and not tied to Muslim terrorist organizations or their goals. Nonetheless, I felt that I had to better understand this underwear bomber in order to create the character that would drive the plot of x0.

I read. A fellow student said that Abdulmutallab started every day by going to the mosque for dawn prayers, and then spent hours in his room reading the Quran. Unusual, especially for a young person, but hardly evil and even what some would call praiseworthy. “He told me his greatest wish was for sharia and Islam to be the rule of law across the world,” said one of his classmates.Okay, now I was getting somewhere. It’s one thing to immerse oneself in a religion, quite another to decide that every other human on earth should believe and do the same. Clearly those of many different faiths share this zeal to convert or even coerce, but in my heart, once you think that you know what everyone else should believe, you’ve entered rocky moral ground.

taboojive1Luckily the bomb went off with no injuries except to Abdulmutallab who was apprehended as he left the plane. When he was sentenced to life without parole in 2012, he declared that Muslims were “proud to kill in the name of God, and that is what God told us to do in the Quran.” I don’t know a single Muslim who agrees with that, although my knowledge base is limited to co-workers who share my hope for a peaceful world.

The underwear bomber did not hope for peace. He preferred destruction to a world that wasn’t the way he thought it should be. Once I understood that fact, I understood him. Understanding is not agreeing. I abhor what he did, I abhor death caused by anyone of any faith who thinks that the people of the world are better off bleeding than being free to make their own choices. Those who would kill to convert are about control. They are not about God, or love or peace.

(Please like the HippiePeaceFreaks and TabooJive pages on Facebook for these two clever images. Please see my y1 blog for a post about why I made pharmaceutical companies my villain, and see my z2 blog for an upcoming post about my tale of researching racist groups in America.)

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2014 in Nigeria, writing

 

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What did I say wrong?

The process of writing a book about telepathy gave me plenty of opportunity to think about how we as humans provide comfort and support to each other. Or not. In my book I treat empathy as a sort of “baby telepathy” in which the truly empathic can feel the pain of another, as they live one step away from reading another’s thoughts.

heartIn real life, we all know people who are kind of like this.Yet even these concerned, caring types don’t always say the right thing. In fact, sometimes they come out with awful responses, in spite of their obvious empathy, and they often expect to be excused because their heart was in the right place. It seems like it’s not always enough to have a caring open heart. Why? I think that even the most empathic people feel the need to express their own fear, anger, and sorrow or just to make observations or share what they know. Being empathetic doesn’t make you any less human.

ringsI was delighted to come across an article in the Los Angeles Times called “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing” by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. It describes an approach for how to share your own observations and feelings in a crisis. It’s called “comfort in, dump out”. Basically you getting out a piece of paper and literally drawing rings around the name of a person having any kind of a crisis. Closer rings then get filled in with the names of those closest to the person: immediate family and best friends. Then, coworkers, friends and acquaintances, and distant family members all go in increasingly distant rings by name or in groups. Finally you put your self in the appropriate ring, whatever it may be. Now, the way to avoid unintended ghastly behavior is to say nothing but comforting things to those inward from you. Period. Nothing more. Just comfort. On the other hand, you can rant and rave, or share your fear or knowledge on the subject involved all you want with those in rings further away than you.

This is brilliant. I really like these people.

I came across this article by way of one of my favorite blogs, called Otrazhenie. Please check out the blog article here. There is a lot of interesting embellishment, and the site is well worth a visit!

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2013 in empathy

 

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