Tag Archives: terrorism

294. Let God Sort Them Out

Looks like Trump is at it again.

Half the country is protesting his latest executive order. The other half is sitting back and saying, “Keep it up! Don’t listen to those damned liberal punks!”

There is a larger issue in all this, no matter whether Trump’s latest move is brilliant or stupid. Arnaud Amalric said it best back in 1209:

Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.

You’ve never heard that quote? Of course, you have – translated into English:

Kill them all and let God sort them out.

I first saw the quote on a T-shirt during the Viet Nam era. It was quite popular with a certain part of the population, especially in a war where the “enemy” and “the ones we went to save” were so inextricably intermixed. I later heard it attributed to Oliver Cromwell, and it did sound just like him. I finally tracked the first appearance to Amalric in 1209, but really, it is a universal sentiment.

You might even say that this is the real purpose of war. You can’t just shoot the German down the street, but call him a name, put him in a category, define him as the enemy, and you can shoot an anonymous Kraut.

If you are on the line, rifle in hand, facing a matching line of the enemy, how do you know which of those men deserve to die and which ones do not. You don’t. You can’t. And even if you could, you couldn’t do anything about it. 

If you were on a jury, deciding the guilt or innocence of a man accused of murder, careful judgment would be your primary duty. But in war, it’s a case of, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” It doesn’t matter if you are a trained and committed Seal or a kid six weeks out of high school, barely trained, lost and confused, drafted, and praying to be anywhere else than in line of battle – the moment requires that you kill, and leave the question of justice in other hands.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t just work that way in war. It works that way in everyday life, as well. It certainly works that way in politics.

 When you see a real problem – a true evil – you want to root it out. It is a noble impulse. You want to stop evil before it can act. Of course, you do. We all do. But how?

Pass a law, make a rule, change a procedure. and apply it to the “bad guys”. But who are the bad guys? If they have committed a crime, there are plenty of laws already on the books to deal with them. But if you are trying to keep a crime from being committed . . .

To stop evil before it strikes, you have to act on the groups that harbor the bad guys. (And if you don’t hear the tongue-in-cheek in that sentence, you aren’t listening very hard.)

If you are afraid of Syrian terrorists, ban all Syrians. That’s the Trump version. If some innocent Syrians get hurt, it’s not our problem – he says. He doesn’t say, “Ban them all, let God sort them out.” But it comes to the same thing.

Liberals aren’t any better. They just apply Amalric’s rule to different problems. They say, “We must keep guns out of the hands of crazies.” Okay, who’s crazy? Who decides? Try to implement a preemptive law based on mental health as a criterion, and who would we ban? Psychotics? The delusional? Patients under treatment for depression? Adults from abusive childhoods, working through their issues? No problem, just disarm them all; let God sort them out. And keep them safe.

* * * * * *

Actually, it might just work, (he said, slipping his tongue back into his cheek.) Since every liberal knows that Donald Trump’s supporters are crazy, that would disarm half the population. Since ever Trump follower knows that you gotta be nuts to be a liberal, that would disarm the other half.

Problem solved. Just declare all of America crazy, and let God sort us out.

The rest of the world would not disagree.

* * * * * *

P.S., when Amalric made his famous statement, he was leading Catholic troops against Cathars, whose interpretation of Christianity differed from the Pope’s. Amalric wrote the Pope describing the subsequent battle, “Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt.”

Unfortunately, that takes the humor out of their situation, and ours.

265. The Last Day of Peace

Tomorrow is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the last day of a peace which American’s had clung to even while war surged across Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The next day came war, and after the war was over America found herself to be a super-power engaged in a cold war with the USSR. Nothing would ever be the same.

I had intended to write a post giving a picture of that last day of peace, but when I began my research, I found that it had already been done, and done well. Here are two examples:

Roosevelt to Japanese emperor: “Prevent further death and destruction”

The day before infamy: December 6, 1941.

There have been other last days of peace. No one needs to be reminded of the day preceding 9/11. We probably ought to remember March 19, 2003, the day before we invaded Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that never existed. We might also consider Viet Nam, but there is no “day before” to a war we stumbled into one foolish step at a time.

The most poignant last day of peace in American history is November 6, 1860. That was the election day which gave us Abraham Lincoln. By December, South Carolina had seceded. By January, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana had followed suit. By May the rest of the South had also broken off, and the Civil War was already underway.

As I write this protesters are in the streets carrying signs that say “Trump is not my President”. They haven’t seceded yet, although there are many who would like to. Yesterday I saw a petition for California to withdraw from the Union.

I opposed Trump. I could write thousands of words telling you why, but that time has passed.

Some of what Trump said during the campaign made sense, if you stripped away the racism, the insensitivity, and the bombast. It was no accident that people voted for him. We were all faced with choosing the lesser of two evils.

The time has come to regroup and become what the Brits call “the loyal opposition”.


And opposed. Oh, yes, very much opposed to the part of his message which was racist, exclusionary, and backward looking. That was the bulk of his message, but it wasn’t all. Not quite.

151. Not So New Enemies

Part two of a comparison of Christianity and Islam.

Bush Two called those who strap on bombs to kill their enemies, cowards. That was the most monumentally stupid statement to ever come out of the mouth of a man not noted for his wisdom. People who die for their beliefs are not cowards. If we are to defeat them, we have to understand them. Mislabeling them is not useful. And if we call them fanatics, we had better understand what fanaticism is.

We made a start yesterday by looking at Christian fanatics. Now it’s time to make the comparison to Islam.


Muhammad did not claim to be God or his son. He claimed to be God’s messenger, a prophet, making him closer to Moses or Isaiah than to Jesus. Muslims believe that Jesus was also a prophet, but not the Son of God. Christianity grew out of Judaism, fulfilling it and therefore removing its validity, at least according to Christians. Islam grew out of both and recognizes both as sister religions which have been rendered obsolete by the Koran. Christians and Jews get preferential tax treatment in Islamic law as People of the Book.

That doesn’t keep wars from happening.

Christians claim to be a religion of peace, but history does not bear that out. Actual wars of religion occurred throughout the Reformation period, and wars of politics and commerce often had a strong religious component. Think of the conquest of Mexico, with priests marching beside the conquistadores and building their missions in the shadow of the presidio.

Islam was born in conflict and has never hidden its belief that the Koran should be spread by military conquest.

Before the Reformation, Christianity had about a thousand years of supremacy, full of internal strife, but well able to keep that strife in check. When Jan Hus rebelled against the Church, they burned him at the stake; problem solved.

Islam, on the other hand, split into two parts almost from the beginning. Upon Muhammad’s death, two lines of succession emerged. Those who favored Abu Bakr became Sunni; those who favored Ali ibn Abi Talib became the Shia. Both sects follow the five pillars of Islam and both believe in the absolute authority of the Koran. They differ on their interpretations of the Koran, and those disagreements have been passed on by sectarian schools. Each sect would say that the other might think they follow the Koran, but they are following false doctrine, and have abandoned Allah. All of this sounds a lot like my Baptist father arguing with my Catholic uncle.

Each of the two sects of Islam remained unified. This was very different from the Catholic and Protestant split. The Catholic church remained unified, but Protestants exploded into hundreds of different denominations, mostly at verbal war with one another, and occasionally at real war.

Throughout the history of Islam, church and government have interacted closely. Islam was spread by conquest, which isn’t necessarily as bloody as it seems. Wherever Islam conquered, the old underdogs often rode the elevator of change to high position in the new order. Sometimes they were very helpful in easing the road to conquest.

By a century after Muhammad’s death, much of the Holy Land was in Muslim hands, which did not please the Catholic church. When Tariq ibn Ziyad led his armies across the Straits of Gibraltar and conquered Spain in 711, the Catholic church fought back, but it took seven hundred years to expel the conquerors. In 1492, the Catholic rulers of Spain finally drove out the last Muslims, expelled the Jews, sent Columbus exploring, and began the Spanish Inquisition. Lovely year.

Also during that period, the Catholic church decided to take back the Holy Land, and set the Crusades in motion. Everybody knows that. What is not so well known is that for most of the second millennium, Eastern Europe was a battleground where vast areas were conquered by Muslim leaders, then reconquered by Christian leaders a few decades later, then Muslim, then Christian, for a very long and depressing time.

So we come to today, in a section of the world where two warring sects of Islam are filled with fourteen hundred years of hatred for each other; where religious, ethnic, and dynastic differences abound; and where those who would prefer prosperity at any reasonable cost, clash with those who are entirely dedicated to following the word of Allah, as their particular leaders understand that word. Many would love to kill westerners, but satisfy themselves instead by killing members of the opposite sect who are so near at hand, and such an easy target.

Above all, Islam is a religion which never exploded into a hundred sects. When there are only two sects, victory and the destruction of the other seems possible for both.

In Britain during the War of the Three Kingdoms (see tomorrow’s post) even pious men kept switching sides because they were enmeshed in conflicting loyalties to King or Parliament, to home region, to religion, to friends, and to their own particular bottom line. All of these loyalties were absolute, but as the situations changed, one loyalty would override another and a man would find himself fighting along side the ones he was fighting against only months earlier.

That should sound familiar. Change the names and the dates, and it could be the Middle East today.

84. Homegrown Terror, 1989, (3)

In 1989, I was writing a novel about being a school teacher and mirroring my story against real events when a school shooting took place in a nearby city. I wrote reality into the novel. This post is the third in an excerpt from Symphony in a Minor Key.


Neil drove to the mall after school and went to a department store where he had seen racks of televisions on display. He had no TV himself and he did not want to watch this with Carmen. He could either watch it alone, or in the anonymity of a public place, but not with someone he loved. He arrived at the store just in time to see the whole bloody scene on the news. All normal business had stopped in the store as clerks and customers stood riveted by the horror of it.

A second channel picked it up and Neil watched again. His fascination was like a private shame. He hated the newsman for the way he shoved his microphone into a child’s face to ask her how she had felt, but he could not turn away.

The next morning the Modesto Bee devoted five full pages to the tragedy. Neil, who did not subscribe, went out early to buy a copy and read it all. Five dead. Thirty wounded. That would be half of the kids he taught. And all the rest, the other three hundred students, would never feel safe again. Like a rape, it would tear them out of their childhoods and plunge them into a mad, adult world long before their time.

What would he say to his own students today?


As it turned out, he didn’t have to say very much. Less than half of them were aware of what had happened, and few of them were very interested. They were talking about it when they came in from the buses; those who had seen the news were telling those who had not. But it had come to them through the plastic reality of the television. It was no more real than a drug bust, famine in Ethiopia, or oil spills. Or Miami Vice. It was just another part of the endless effluvium of human suffering that washed about them every day; with marvelous sanity, most of them remained unmoved.

A few of them were affected. Tanya Michelson looked as if she had been crying when she came in and stayed unnaturally quiet all day. Lisa Cobb jumped at every sound. Oscar Teixeira had been thinking hard about what it all meant. He went straight to the fact that the children who had died had all been Asian. With a clarity of thought all out of proportion to his age, he made the connection to the celebration of Martin Luther King Day just before the shooting. Of course he did not speak of irony – not at eleven years old – but he did recognize the juxtaposition.


I taught for twenty-seven years – about 4000 students by my best estimate. Most of them are a blur now, but when they were with me, they were a joy that filled my room and my life. Black (there were a few), Anglo or Mexican, or the very few of other ethnicities, all were precious.

I grew up in a time and place when everyone looked alike, sounded alike, and went to the same church. As I said on Monday, the black people who marched in Selma showed me another way of thinking.

This memory of the assassination of Asian children has inserted itself into a series of posts largely on black history, just as it inserted itself, most unwelcomely, into the novel I was writing in 1989.

It’s all part of the same story.

On Monday I’ll tell you in more detail how a white guy came to be writing on race.

83. Homegrown Terror, 1989, (2)

If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, this will make no sense. Slide on down to post 82. We’ll wait.

The non-Anglo students at my school were Mexican or Mexican-American. I never knew which were native to the U.S., which were legal immigrants, and which were illegals. No one told me, no one told me to ask, and I didn’t need to know. I did try to teach equality and tolerance whenever the opportunity arose, like my alter ego Neil McCrae.


Neil had not had a good day. He had obtained a video of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to show to his students in connection with the holiday. His morning class had responded with very little enthusiasm when he tried to get them to discuss what it meant. There were no black children at Kiernan, and Neil had not been able to convince them that the civil rights Dr. King had fought for were for all of them. To these children the events of the fifties and sixties were another world, as foreign as ancient Athens. They were indifferent to it all.

His afternoon class was even worse. He had almost reached the point of giving up in disgust and trying some other tactic, when Bill Campbell came to the door of his classroom and motioned for Neil to join him outside. The look on Bill’s face alerted Neil that something serious had happened.

“I just got a phone call from Elaine Sanders. There has been a shooting at one of the elementary schools in Stockton. Apparently, there were a bunch of dead and wounded. Elaine wanted us to be on the alert.”

Bill’s words were just words. The reality of them did not hit Neil at once. He said, “On the alert for what?”

“I don’t know. Strangers on campus; anything like that.”

Since the American Navy had accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner the previous summer there had been talk of terrorist reprisals, and American schools were one of the targets being threatened. If that was the case, and the school which had already been struck was so close . . .

Neil found himself searching the playground with his eyes, and at the time it did not seem melodramatic. He said, “What do you want me to do?”

“Don’t say anything to your students, but be on the alert. Join Tom and me out front when the buses come to pick them up. It’s late enough in the afternoon that we probably won’t have any parents coming in to pick up their children because they heard it. If some parent comes in, get their child out of the classroom without a fuss. If we can manage it, I want to get these kids home with their parents before they hear about it.”

Bill went on to pass the word and Neil returned to his classroom. Bill’s words “a bunch of dead and wounded” rang in his head as he sat down and looked at his kids. Little Randi Nguyen with her boundless energy; Rabindranath who was calm and bright and utterly without a sense of humor; Lisa Cobb with her erratic behavior and terrible puns; even Jesse Herrera. Dead or wounded . . .; he had to shake his head to drive the vision away.

The bell for the last break of the day caught him by surprise and he jumped. Somebody laughed, then hid his laughter. The students all rushed for the door. Neil was on his feet in an instant and out the door to pace the playground in paranoid fear. All of the other teachers were out, exchanging worried glances and saying nothing.

When the buses came, a phalanx of teachers was there to protect their students from an enemy who never appeared.

This excerpt concludes tomorrow.

82. Homegrown Terror, 1989, (1)

“Life is not a well told tale.  Things come out of nowhere, and in their wake, everything is changed.”

On the day after Martin Luther King day in 1989, terror struck Stockton, California. I was teaching in a small middle school about forty miles away and writing a novel about being a middle school teacher. As I said in post 35, I had decided to have events in my novel mirror events in the real world, not knowing what a trap I had laid for myself. The next three posts are an except from that novel. For factual research, I had only to open the day’s newspaper.


Life is not a well told tale.  Things come out of nowhere, and in their wake, everything is changed. There is frequently no warning, and even afterward, those events may make no sense.

In Stockton, thirty miles north of Kiernan School, at about eleven thirty in the morning, a distracted young loner named Patrick Purdy parked his car outside Cleveland Elementary School. As he left his car, he used a fourth-of-July sparkler to light a pipe bomb in the front seat, and entered the school yard through an unlocked gate in the fence. He crossed a grassy field, rounded a classroom building and waited there watching the playground where the students were at recess. He was wearing a 9mm automatic pistol and carrying an assault rifle.

Purdy had attended that school for four years when he was a child. At that time it had been a white, middle class neighborhood. Now the community was filled with southeast Asian refugees. Most of the children in the playground were Asian.  Purdy had told acquaintances how much he hated Asians.

Two things happened almost at once. The bomb Purdy had left in his car exploded, and the bell ending the recess period rang.  The children turned from their play and ran back toward their classrooms. Purdy raised his AK-47 and calmly, matter-of-factly, fired a burst of thirty rounds into the mass of students. They fell, screaming and bleeding, or silent and already dead.

He replaced the ammunition clip and fired again.  A teacher herding her children toward safety was shot down, and more students fell. Teachers inside the building at Purdy’s back huddled on the floor with their students, but he did not turn in their direction. He walked to his right, crossing in front of them, still firing into a school yard now littered with huddled heaps of the dead and wounded.

He rounded the far corner of the building just as the first sirens began to sound in the distance. Laying aside his assault rifle, he pulled out his pistol, put the barrel of it to his chin, and fired once.

He was dead when the first officers arrived at the scene.  Five students lay dead. Twenty-nine students and a teacher lay wounded.


Terror was not invented on that day, nor did it end with Stockton. However, no other event ever struck so close to home for me. I went back to school the following day in a school little different from Cleveland Elementary. Our ethnics were Mexican, but so what? Mexican, southeast Asian, or Black – or, in other decades, Polish, Japanese, Irish, or Italian, so what?

I didn’t want to write about Purdy and his handiwork, but I did. It did not exploit the children of Stockton, but honored them by not hiding the truth.

More follows in the next two posts.

58. God, if he were God

170px-1099jerusalemMankind has problems, vast, complex and intractable. We pray for help from a wide variety of Gods. But God, if he were God, might well find that all of our problems stem from one excess, which we could correct ourselves, if we only recognized it.

The imagery, of course, comes from  growing up with thrice weekly sermons of hellfire and Armageddon ringing in my ears.

God, if he were God

God, if he were God,
Would call up troops of angels,
Asbestos wings and swords of fire.

And setting out to cleanse the Earth, would stamp
His heavy booted foot upon Jerusalem.
Where men of every race and creed
Cry out his name, while each the other rends.

There God, if he were God,
Would pause and see.

This crowded planet,
Multiplying sorrows,
Where every baby born,
Every ailment cured,
Every life revived,
Compounds the horror
Of numbers grown
Beyond endurance.

One alone is empty.
Two may reside in love,
Three, a family make,
And a hundred make a town.

But the numbers that beset this earth,
Create a taste of Hell.