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They’re Not Like Us

by Miriam Axel-Lute on October 25, 2012


I was sitting in the Atlanta airport last week waiting at a crowded gate for a flight home after a long week of traveling. A news segment came on about a 20-year-old Afghan woman who was allegedly beheaded for refusing her mother-in-law’s attempts to prostitute her.

“See,” said the woman next to me to her companion. “You just can’t talk to these people. They’re not like us.”

It was pretty clear that by “these people” she didn’t mean the four people arrested for the crime, but some version of Muslims/Afghans/Arabs.

I was, of course, sickened by the news as well. And it’s true that that particular form of sickening crime would be less likely in this day and age here than it is there. Culture and religion do inform the flavor of awful things that people do when they do them.

But think for a moment how offended you would be if Arabs, Europeans, or anyone else heard about James Byrd, Jr. being dragged behind a pickup truck until he was dismembered in Texas in 1998 and responded with “You just can’t talk to these people. They’re not like us.” Meaning all Americans. Or all Texans. Or all white people.

Or our rash of mass shootings, and the virulent resistant in the face of them to restrict access to automatic weapons.

Or our sentencing of peaceful protestors and nonviolent drug users to longer in jail than murderers.

Or our executing prisoners who are the developmental age of a child.

Or the Penn State football fans who wanted to put loyalty to the team over justice for a generation of kids molested. Or . . .

I could go on and on with all sorts of gross and awful things people have done just to kids, just in the last month, but browsing the “twisted” tag on Cafemom.com is so disturbing I really need to cut myself off. I think you get my point.

None of these things mean that Americans are all like that, that we can’t be talked to, or that we deserve to, say, have unmanned drones that might kill us flown over us in an attempt to find and kill some actual evildoers. (Why does that come to mind just now, the day after the third presidential debate? Oh, gee, I dunno . . .) This is true even though the specific nature some of these crimes are in fact related to our culture and our history, and are less likely to happen elsewhere.

At the beginning of the trip I was returning from via Atlanta, I visited the Field Museum in Chicago and went to an extensive exhibit on the history of peoples of the Americas. I was struck by the number of times the text of the exhibit tried to make visitors step back from writing off a culture as barbaric because of their revulsion over the practice of human sacrifice by pointing out how many foundational stories of our current dominant religions rely on and celebrate themes of sacrifice. It reminded me of how the author of 1491 tried to do the same by comparing the quantity of dead and casual attitude toward human life to the drop-of-a-hat public executions that formed entertainment for many European cultures of the same time period. It’s a heavy lift, but I know why they were doing it.

We need to examine ourselves and our visceral reactions and sort out our reaction to the crime from our reaction to the foreign-ness of it.

None of this makes any of these things OK, anywhere or any time that they happened. Not a single one of them. This is not a message of moral relativism. Nor am I saying we can’t or shouldn’t critique and call out the specific messages within religions or cultures that encourage certain forms of barbarism, whether that’s disowning gay children or attacking women for wanting to control their own bodies and minds.

But you cannot dismiss the humanity of an entire culture, country, or religion because their acts of barbarism when they arise are different than what arises closer to home. What that generally leads to is justification for more acts of barbarism—wars, drone strikes, border walls, genocide, hate crimes.

Let’s not be “those people,” but instead people who take consistent moral stands based on justice and facts, in context and in perspective, not on fear and lizard-brain distrust of those who don’t seem to be “us.”



Updated 10/26, 12:04 PM. “Executing prisoners with the IQ of a child” changed to “executing prisoners who are the developmental age of a child.”