16 November 2015

Responding to terror - a meditator's view

Paris attacks: The headlines trumpeted “France vows 'merciless' response to unprecedented atrocity”. The French president, looking somewhat dazed, reflected what many felt: "France will stand firm. We are going to fight and our fight will be merciless."

Merciless. What then constitutes a measured response? What can we do with our emotions and our actions? How would a compassionate meditator respond to terrorism?

US President Barack Obama led a chorus of world leaders condemning the attacks. “France is an extraordinary terrorism partner and an attack on the French people is an attack on all humanity. We will do whatever it takes to bring these terrorists to justice".

Is justice compassion? Challenging questions this week, but first

                          Thought for the day

                                  Where vision vanishes 
                                   The people perish

                                      The Book of Proverbs

Seems people respond to terrorism in quite a few different ways.

Base instinct
Lashing out. “Let’s nuke the buggers!” Some sort of retribution. Revenge. The notion that reciprocal violence is more than justified. More than warranted. Heavy-duty retribution.

Maybe if we kill enough of them, it will stop. If not, at least we will feel avenged.

Really? Yes really. Throughout history this has been the common approach. The base instinct unleashed.

Problem is that centuries of history would indicate this approach has limited long-term benefits. You could make the case for the odd war halting mass aggression, but the general trend? Violence begets more violence. Pity really when violence seems to appeal to so many.

Terrorists thrive on fear. It is the stated purpose. Disrupt with fear. Use fear as a weapon.

Successful? Often. One can easily imagine life will change rapidly in France. And many other places as well, as the fear of terrorist acts is fuelled by terrorist acts. Some become paralysed, some despair. Some drift into apathy while others descend into depression.

Others use fear to drive the aggression. The base instincts thrive on fear. A culture changes. Terrorists have their day.

Intellectual override
“It is genuinely sad so many were killed in Paris. But think about it. Each week in Australia, around 1,000 people die of cancer. In the last month across Australia, around 100 people died in car accidents. In Africa, cannot even begin to think how many people are dying right now of starvation or violence.

“Chance of being caught up in a terrorist attack? Very slim. Relative risk? Very small. No need to worry. Put it out of mind”.

Could be true.

Could work.


Transform our way of thinking
Let us hope. It is highly probable that our own chance of becoming caught up in a terrorist attack is very small. So what to do? What happens in our own mind and how can we transform those common and fairly natural base instincts and destructive emotions into something more constructive.

Start with understanding
All human beings are basically the same.

Most human beings are concerned for their survival, the survival of their family and friends; and they all want happiness, whatever that means for each one of us. This we all share in common.

With terrorists, it is easy to think of them as something very different. Something very different from us. So it can be a real challenge to make the effort to recognise that they too are human beings. Just like us.

It can be a start.

Put yourself in the others shoes (or shoe as the case may be)
How does a fellow human being come to the conclusion that the best thing they can do with their precious human life is to strap explosives to their precious human body, walk into a crowd of fellow precious human beings and blow self and other into pieces?


Maybe. Could well be. But people seem to do it regularly. In a calm, premeditated way. How so?

If we make the effort to put ourselves in the others shoes, to contemplate the sort of life, the sort of life experiences that leads to the conclusion that becoming a human bomb or that shooting others at random makes sense; if we take time to really contemplate how that happens, maybe we move closer towards some deeper understanding…. Then we may have the beginnings of a real solution.

Practise compassion 
“Passive” compassion
We can pray. Many do. Many feel its benefits.

Many make the effort to resist the base instinct responses of fear and aggression. They think of peace. Talk of peace. Dream of peace. Maybe pray. Maybe just hope.

Calling all this “passive” compassion is not to denigrate these aspirations, just to speak of these being personal internal responses. Maybe a little passive. But maybe quite potent as well.

“Active” compassion
Become involved in efforts to build understanding, community, peace.

What does this mean in your own community. What about in your own family? What about in our own hearts?

 We can never impose peace on the world. A peaceful world will only ever exist when each individual human being has found peace in their own heart. When we have a world full of peaceful people, we will have a peaceful world.

So world peace starts within the hearts of each and every one of us. We can all make a difference.

So what can we do to become more peaceful within ourselves?

Contemplate the violence in our own lives and do what we can to be free of it. Is there any way we can live our own life more peacefully? Something we can do that is a concerted, peaceful act?

Not speaking hatefully would be helpful. Not breeding more fear. Do what we can to be understanding. Be vigilant not to generalise or stereotype particular sectors of our community. Really feel compassion for the bulk of Muslims who are just like us, very decent human beings, and go out of our way to help them deal with the implications and ramifications of terrorist issues and what must be an extremely difficult situation for them, just as it is for many human beings at present. Smile at others. Smile at others.

Consider what community activities we can become involved in that foster peace and build good relationships locally.

Consider supporting groups that make a business of peace. Donate. Give time. Offer support.

Speak with politicians. If ever there was a time for a measured response to an issue that affects most of us, this is now. Please, lets move past attempting to solve violence with more violence. This is a time for peace.

What then of justice?
Is compassion and an aspiration for peace incompatible with justice. Not at all. But true justice does not carry hate or revenge or retribution. Justice is warranted and needed as part of what deals with terrorism; but measured justice, not fury disguised as something else.

Finally, in response to terrorism, maybe we can acknowledge how fortunate most of us reading this really are. We live in free countries. We have personal freedoms. We have a choice of responses. Makes how we respond even more important. And significant.


  1. Thank you for this post Ian - a timely reminder that we must do what we can - however small it may seem - to nurture peace, compassion, empathy.

  2. Thank you Ian Gawler for that insightful message to all of us. I wish that all humanity especially our world leaders had the same insight as you. Thank you for being a true messenger for all humanity and for putting terrorism into perspective.

  3. I'm not sure there is an answer unfortunately. You are right in that most of today's Muslims exercise a personal choice to interpret their holy book's call to arms according to their own moral preconceptions however the Quran contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with nonbelievers for the sake of Islamic rule. Some are quite graphic, with commands to chop off heads and fingers and kill infidels wherever they may be hiding. This religious brainwashing goes back centuries.

    This war we are in is insidious and can't be "won" and it is important to note that the problem is not bad people, but bad ideology.

    John Lennon had the right idea with his song Imagine. one verse particularly relevant is

    "Imagine there's no countries
    It isn't hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace... "

    David P.

  4. Thankyou for your wonderful, thoughful & compassionate perspective Ian. Its plain & simple that our thoughts need to be one of hope & where can, of peace. Being a light for our families & our own communities. If we all did that maybe we could see change. ��

  5. Thankyou for your wonderful, thoughful & compassionate perspective Ian. Its plain & simple that our thoughts need to be one of hope & where can, of peace. Being a light for our families & our own communities. If we all did that maybe we could see change. ��

  6. I spent eight years (1994 to 2001) n Bougainville and squatter settlement of Port Moresby training men and women who wanted to return to restorative justice heir former way of dealing with criminal act of murder and torture. They used to tell me, "We must forgive these people who have done us such terrible harm because we have to get on with our own lives.

    The situation is different but surely vengeance is not the only solution

  7. Thanks for your measured article but the basic goodness in people an be overwhelmed by religious dogma. I agree with Anonymous. The English version Q'ran I read years ago had clear directions to kill Christians and Jews. Today I was sent a video by a respected contact, of the uproar in European streets with the massive wave of refugees. It is hard to watch and realise how Europe is being overtaken. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44vzMNG2fZc

  8. I have put down some thoughts in reply to your latest mail.

    I do agree with your point that 'merciless revenge' is no solution to this problem of terrorism, or indeed to any problem. One has somehow to tackle those who 'brainwash' these young people to do such terrible actions - with promises of rewards in heaven.

    The Quran is not what is being mooted by rabid religious leaders, The Quran like other Holy books promotes goodness and values. Scholars need to trace the original words of the Quran to ensure that interpretations are correct.

    Madrassas need to be overseen by wise and learned people who are revered by the community. Also, educational departments in various countries should provide facilities for Madrassas, so that they are halls of learning with books on other religions; with lecturers coming in to broaden the perspective of students and other such initiatives. And teachers appointed to train young minds should be compassionate and liberal in their outlook. Madrassas will then be real institutions of learning where young people will not be tempted to be jehadis.

    But this will take time and the general public and people who have lost loved ones will cry for justice. Those that kill ,blow themselves up, so that score is settled in a terrible way.

    People will calm down, when they see that initiatives are being taken by governments to minimise the danger of jehadis , so that they feel secure. The action necessary will have to be decided by each government, preferably by involving the local Muslim population.