Arriving at Inhumanity

Last week, I heard a story on BBC News Hour that I wish I hadn’t. It was about a mass killing in a small village in Guatemala. The incident happened decades ago, though I don’t recall having heard about it before.

The newscaster—in his matter-of-fact tone, with his authoritative British accent—spoke of acts so brutal that I cried as I heard them described, moaned as if I’d been wounded. I had to choke away the visceral emotion because I was driving, but the story shook me up for some time afterward. The magnitude of the violence done to men, women, and children was/is just so incomprehensible. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to the place where they could do such unspeakable things.

I’ll give you the (abridged, edited) Wikipedia version. Warning: if you don’t know this story, prepare to be disturbed … don’t read it if you are hyper-sensitive to the suffering of others.

On the 6th of December 1982, during the de facto presidency of General Efraín Ríos Montt, around 250 people – including women, the elderly, and children – were killed in Dos Erres by commandos working as government forces as a part of the government’s “scorched earth” policy.

In the early afternoon, the Kaibiles separated out the children, and began killing them. They bashed the smallest children’s heads against walls and trees, and killed the older ones with sledgehammer blows to the head. Their bodies were dumped in a well. Next, the commandos interrogated the men and women one by one, then shot or bashed them with the hammer, and dumped them in the well. They raped women and girls, and ripped the fetuses out of pregnant women. The massacre continued throughout 7 December. On the morning of 8 December, as the Kaibiles were preparing to leave, another 15 persons, among them children, arrived in the hamlet. With the well already full, they took the newcomers to a location half an hour away, then shot all but two of them. They kept two teenage girls for the next few days, raping them repeatedly and finally strangling them.

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Sorting through the remains in the well at Dos Erres.

 This is such a heart-wrenching story. It’s crushingly sad. I could hear the weeping and the screaming and the pleading of the villagers (especially the children) as they witnessed these horrors and begged not to be killed. Yet the hammer blows were delivered, the bodies mauled, the corpses tossed in the well. One after another, as if they were no more than garbage. The “how could any human being do this to other human beings” question kept gnawing at me as I tried to get those heinous images and (imagined) sounds out of my mind.

Fear, I suppose is the only answer that makes any sense (truthfully, the reality of this incident makes no rational sense, but it happened so I suppose we are forced to analyze it, try to understand it). One assumes this General Montt was a man to be feared. One assumes it was made clear to the soldiers that if they didn’t exterminate everyone they would be killed, maybe their families too. Did they have to use sledgehammers? (As a matter of degree, shooting seems like it would have been a more “humane” style of execution, though still abominable.) Perhaps even the raping was part of the “scorched earth” policy. Or did the soldiers just do that because they could? No one could stop them. No one was going to survive to give testimony.

Of course, as appalling as this incident is, it pales in comparison (in terms of magnitude) to the Rwandan genocide, or the atrocities committed by Europeans against Native Americans, or the systematic extermination of Jews during the holocaust, or the American enslavement of Africans.

How can people do such things to other people?

One of the steps that leads to genocide is the reduction of “the other” to less-than-human status. Give them a name that robs them of humanity: cockroach (against the Tutsi), savage or redskin (against Native Americans), Untermensch or “subhuman” (against Jews), n-word (against enslaved Africans). In Mein Kampf, Hitler called jews “parasites,” he said, “The Jew is a planetary bacillus.”

It’s easier to mistreat or kill a cockroach than a person.

On being “named,” author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.”[i]

Mass killings happen for different reasons in different social and historical contexts but, at the bottom of them all—aside from simple, good-old-fashioned bigotry—is a drive to gain or preserve dominance over land and resources. In other words, it’s about power.

Are you a Hutu who doesn’t want to share political power or scarce resources and economic opportunity with your Tutsi neighbors? All you have to do is slaughter them (800,000 slain in 100 days), so you won’t have to.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-26875506

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Don’t want to share the land with the native population when your ships arrive at their shores? After they’re nearly wiped-out by the diseases you brought with you, you can see to it that the rest are eliminated or neutered as a threat through murder and dislocation. Then you can relegate them to a tiny spot of their own land and think of it is a kindness. Over the course of 500 years, you will have reduced their population from 10 million to 300,000.

http://endgenocide.org/learn/past-genocides/native-americans/

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Think that Jewish people are pretty much the reason for every bad thing happening in your country and the world? Set up an assembly line of mass murder. You can kill 11 million in a few years’ time if you really try.

https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10008193

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Are you a European settler needing to get some back-breaking work done, but you don’t want to do it yourself? Go get yourself millions of black bodies from across the ocean. Beat them, rape and murder them into submission. Keep this going for 250 years, so you can build your so-called Democracy. The UN estimates 17 million of those black bodies died over that time period as a result of the slave trade.

http://www.un.org/events/slaveryremembrance/background.shtml

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We read these statistics and they boggle the mind. So many dead. So many murdered. In the end, it boils down to the seizing of power through dehumanization, subjugation, terrorizing, and murder of “the other.” Make them an object of fear, of disgust. Make them an obstacle to dominance. Pave your road to progress with their blood and bones.

With Dos Erres, Rwanda, the mass-elimination of Native Americans, the holocaust, and American slavery, we see varied combinations of violent bigotry according to skin tone: brown on brown, black on black, white on red, white on white, and white on black. This is human evil, the powerful oppressing the weak.

Examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” are far from limited to these. There are so many more. It’s hard to think about the harsh realities of all the violence in human history. Genghis Khan, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Idi Amin, the Khmer Rouge … all played their part. As did ordinary people who helped by carrying out orders or voluntarily aiding in the oppression and murder authorized by those in power.

Violence against, and oppression of, certain classifications of people is not limited to “long ago and far away.” Police brutality against African Americans is still happening. Institutionalized racism is still happening. Read the news. All across our country, and around the world, there are oppressed people groups. Nor is discrimination limited to the sphere of race. We discriminate against women, Muslims, albinos, the differently-gendered, homosexuals, those with disabilities … the list goes on and on.

How can we stop these injustices?

It seems like it ought to be so simple. The answers could be written on a message in a fortune cookie or on a postcard.

We’re all the same race: the human race. All of us have the same, intrinsic worth. All should be treated the same, given the same opportunity for education and economic success. Martin Luther King said it: judge people “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Jesus said it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s not hard to articulate the answers, but it is hard to implement them. It’s hard to give up privilege and power.

It comes down to the human heart. Mine. Yours.

Can we see our own prejudices? Can we see how we contribute to racism by denying it, ignoring it, minimizing it?

I’m speaking to myself. I’m speaking to my white* friends, family, neighbors, and countrymen.

I have to wake up. We have to wake up, recognize the indelible and cruel injury we have done to our brothers and sisters of a darker hue. See that we have not sought to understand or empathize with those with different sexual orientation. Admit it. Out loud. Ask forgiveness. Extend a hand. Be part of a movement that insists we are all the same, a movement that seizes the mechanisms of established power and ultimately, permanently, bends the arc of our future moral universe toward justice. A justice that truly applies to all.

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Educate yourself. Read Coates’ book Between the World and Me. Read Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop. Hear their voices. To the extent you can, enter into their suffering. Do some reading to help you understand LGBTQ issues. https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-best-lgbt-books-of-all-time/

These are starting places. This is the easy stuff. But if you let the reading change how you think and feel, even just a little, then you can say the journey forward has begun.

I’m still in these first steps. And I was moved to write this. This is my beginning.

Namaste.

 

*There is no white race. There are light-skinned people of many ethnic backgrounds. Whitness is a construct we have used to empower a majority based on an artificial unity relating to shared skin tone. This seems so obvious, yet it took Ta-Nehisi Coates to make me see it clearly.

[i] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me (Kindle Locations 1280-1282). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Should We Punish Hate?

(Please don’t judge my intent before you’ve read the whole essay. And know that I welcome “enlightened guidance,” correction, and exposure to knowledge I do not currently possess. Thanks.)

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Imagine you are beaten senseless and robbed by someone of your own race. The perpetrator is a junkie in need of a fix, and you’ve just cashed your two-week paycheck. The thief empties your wallet of cash, leaving you bloody and unconscious, sprawled in a dirty alleyway.

Now imagine the same beating by someone of a different race. This person does not steal from you, but spews hateful, racially-charged language during the beating.

In the first case, the crimes committed are assault and robbery. In the second case, we are looking at an assault that would likely also be categorized as a hate crime.

Once apprehended and convicted, should the bad guy in the second scenario receive a harsher sentence because he hates you? Is the assault-plus-hatred somehow a worse crime than the assault with the intent to rob? Here’s another ethics questions for you: Which crime would you rather be a victim of, the one where you’re robbed but not hated or the one where you’re hated but not robbed (the beating is the same either way)?

To the point: should we punish criminals for what they do or for what motivates them to do what they do?

You see, Johnny Skinhead can sit in his moldy, darkly-lit basement his entire lifetime, surrounded by neo-Nazi posters, slogans, and literature—his grayish little white-supremacist heart beating with savage hatred for all Jews, gays and non-white people—but if he never harms anyone, never vandalizes someone’s property, never commits a crime … we can’t arrest him. The FBI acknowledges that hate itself isn’t a crime, but should it be a reason to escalate punishment when it is associated with the commission of a prosecutable offense? Is that logical, is it reasonable?

Please, please, do not get me wrong here. I’m not pro-hate. Hate sucks. It’s ugly and it does unforgivable, despicable things to (and in) the hearts and lives of people all over the world, every single day. If I could abolish hate with a nice, shiny piece of legislation, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

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Hatred, however, is a slippery devil. It doesn’t care much for rules. More worrisome still, it doesn’t only belong to “those horrible people” we imagine when we think of those who commit hate crimes.

Nope. We all hate sometimes, don’t we? Even if only for a moment.

Surely, we’re tempted to hate “Jihadi John,” the masked ISIS operator who beheaded multiple non-combatants (many of his brutal executions were posted on the Internet). It wouldn’t be hard to hate 22 year-old Dylann Roof, who callously murdered nine African American churchgoers while pretending to join them in a Bible study. Wouldn’t we be justified in hating Omar Mateen for his ruthless massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida?

Let’s admit it. We have sometimes been guilty of hating the haters.

We have maybe even hated our exes, our bosses, our neighbors, cops, priests, or politicians.

Should we turn ourselves in at the local police station, confess our hatred and await sentence? Luckily, we’ve already established that hate alone is not a crime. But, wait. Isn’t it a little contradictory to say hate isn’t a crime but it is a reason to increase the severity of the penalty for the commission of a crime?

I think I get the idea of hate crime legislation. Handing out harsher penalties to those whose crimes are an “offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity” might help discourage people from committing such crimes.

Okay. Maybe. I’d like to see the stats. Regardless, as a matter of principle, are we not, in fact, punishing hate? You know, that thing the FBI told us wasn’t a crime.

Let’s consider something else. Jihadi John, Dylann Roof, and Omar Mateen didn’t emerge from the womb consumed with hatred and a desire to do harm to infidels, black people, or gay people. These criminals were infected with the hateful biases of their families and/or peers. In a way, each of them is a victim of a mindset passed on from generation to generation.

People who commit hate crimes were taught to hate. This fact in no way excuses their behavior or means they shouldn’t face justice. But it does mean, in my opinion, that the helpful (ethical, empathetic, compassionate) reaction here probably isn’t to up their sentences.

Punish them according to what they’ve done. The three I have mentioned? They are serial murderers. Punish them accordingly. Life in prison or the death penalty works in each of these cases.[1] Punish hating vandals for vandalism, hating assaulters for assault, and so on. Prosecute them to the full extent of the law … for what they’ve done.

In addition, necessitate their enrollment in some de-programming classes. Re-educate them. Expose them to loving, intelligent, kind, merciful people who are in the ethnic or religious groups they despise. Find the root of the hate. Expose the fallacies of the philosophies they’ve been fed their whole lives. Chip away at the hate with education and love. Mostly love.

There are paths out of extreme hate groups. Let’s help offenders find them.

Punish crime. Heal hate. End the cycle.

 

 

[1] Jihadi John is believed to have been killed in a targeted drone strike. Dylann Roof has been sentenced to death. Omar Mateen was killed in a shootout with police on the day of his murderous rampage.

Is This the End?

MURUROA ATOMIC BLAST 1970

I listened to Inaugural Day coverage on WBEZ while on-the-job Friday (I drive for a living, so lots of radio listening for me during the week).

I have to admit that the first thought I had, as they described all the dignitaries present, was, “This gathering is a terrorist’s friggin’ wet dream!”

President and Mrs. Obama, the about-to-be-sworn-in president-elect Trump and his wife, all the former presidents and their wives, vice presidents and wives, all those powerful political figures … at such an iconic, uniquely American and Democratic event. All those ordinary Americans. All those people. In one place. What an opportunity for terrorists to make a loud, terrible, visceral, and frightening statement on the world stage. What a target!

I prayed right then and there that there would be no bombs or shootings or trucks-run-amok. I prayed that no one (NO ONE) would get hurt, much less killed. What a tragedy it would have been if a terrorist, or any misguided lunatic, had perpetrated serious violence at the Inaugural.

Thank God none of those things happened.

And how sad that such a thought would have to occur. But this is the world we live in, isn’t it?

Of course, there had to have been security of an unparalleled magnitude. I imagine surveillance so massive, high-tech, and detailed that if anyone in the crowd so much as passed gas, some geek in a van wearing headphones knew who it was and what they had for breakfast.

Many were there to celebrate what they hope will be an administration that brings positive change for America. Many were there to protest what they fear is going to be an unholy parenthesis in American history.

Some of this duality is simply a reflection of how it has always been when we switch parties. The diehards of the opposition predict the ushering in of The Apocalypse. Horror stories of the near-future ruin of America abound, as one party leaves and the other moves in. If there is a way to disparage the incoming party and its leaders and intentions, the outgoing party will find it. This is not a new phenomenon.

I get that, in many ways, Trump trumps all previous hand-over contrasts. I get the fear and furor some have, because this man speaks so carelessly and callously, frequently with little regard to “facts.”

Still, it remains my fervent hope that the next four years will not usher in any kind of bleak dystopia. It remains my fervent hope that those who right now are so filled with fear and dread about a Trump presidency will end up being surprised. In a good way.

In the end, it may be his colossal ego (as if all wanna-be presidents haven’t had one of those) that saves us. I actually believe this knucklehead very badly wants you to love him. He wants you to adore him. Despite so many things he has said that seem to indicate the contrary, I truly believe that whether you are male or female; whether you are an L or G or B or T or Q or A or some other letter I may have left out; whether your skin is red or yellow, brown, black, white or (like his) orange … DJT wants you to think he’s the best thing since our beloved Internet was invented (by Al Gore, wasn’t it?). DESPITE some of the inane and scary crap he’s said, perhaps Trump’s out-of-control need to be loved by all will actually result in some “by and for the people” policies at the end of the day.

Probably not.

But it remains my fervent hope.

People … we WILL muddle through. And it WILL be okay.

Or it will be the apocalypse. (Remember when grade school children were being taught to “duck and cover” in preparation for a nuclear explosion? And you think this moment in history is under threat?)

Light a candle. Say a prayer. Love your neighbor. Hold yourself with compassion.

 

 

 

 

Walking the Labyrinth

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I walked the Earth-Wisdom Labyrinth on our church’s property today. I’ve been attending the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin for almost two years and I’ve been a member for less than a year. Because this season of my life is so full and challenging, regrettably, my attendance there is spotty. I am always glad to have attended on those Sundays I make it. Today was my first labyrinth walk.

A few details about the labyrinth (copied from church website):

  • It is made up of over 25 tons of stone.
  • It spans more than 93 feet in diameter.
  • It winds in for 1/3 mile and out for 1/3 mile.
  • It’s one of the largest labyrinths of its kind in the world.

What did I learn on my walk today?

  1. That my mind is an obnoxiously busy place and has trouble shutting down the “constant dialogue” machine. My thoughts kept wandering to the comic. What would it be like if we had to navigate the labyrinth on unicycles? Is that Columbian Gold Minister Leslie is burning in the center (the answer is “no”)? If I suddenly hopped over a few rows, would anybody say anything? How fast could church member Todd get to the center and back on his bike (he bikes a lot)?
  2. The labyrinth takes longer to walk than I figured.
  3. Spiderman (or it might have been a very young churchgoer wearing a Spiderman jacket, I can’t be sure) does not recognize the implied constraints of the labyrinth, and yet he is not invulnerable to the slipperiness of the ice-coating on the path. Still, his powers seemed to protect him from harm (thankfully). Spiderman is adorable.
  4. As we walked in silence, the sound of our collective footsteps—as they softly crunched on the pavement and less-softly crackled over the icy areas—created a comforting, constant rhythm. It reminded me I was not alone on the path. It made me wonder what the experiences of the other walkers were like. Did some of them have the same trouble quieting their thoughts? Did some recite mantras? Did some pray? It made me reflect on the fact that even as we walked the same path, The Way was different for each of us.
  5. I encountered a few stones whose juxtaposed edges fit together nearly as neatly as puzzle pieces. That made me wonder if their placement was deliberate. It made me contemplate how things you might not think would fit together can (like atheists, Christians, and Buddhists—oh my). lab-2
  6. It re-confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a long time now. UUCE feels like home to me.

What a cool way to start the new year!

I will walk the labyrinth again. Wonder what I might learn next time…?

 

Why I’m Struggling with Wearing “The Safety Pin”

My church is full of loving, liberal-minded, enlightened people whose ideals match mine to a large extent.

I’m looking at the safety pin my church gave me on Sunday … it is still attached to a card made of thick paper.

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The Safety Pin Movement is a response to the perception (which appears to have some merit in light of current events) that Donald Trump’s election may embolden certain people, i.e. people who have negative, even hostile, views toward “minority” populations, to act out that hostility.

The card basically says that if I wear it I’m pledging to take action if I witness verbal or physical attacks on others. It says I should be prepared to intervene “with my physical body” if necessary. The card lists these potential victims: “women, LGBTQA, transfolks, people of color, those wearing religious garb, people speaking languages other than English, those who are visibly different—anyone.”

My first response is to think, “What a wonderful, simple thing to do to show solidarity with, and a willingness to come to the aid of, others who may be thought to be disenfranchised or under threat by certain segments of society.” I think, “I can do that.”

Wear a pin? Yes. I can do that, obviously. Place myself (potentially) in harm’s way to protect others? Well…

That’s a far harder question, isn’t it?

I mean, I totally want to wear the pin. The principle behind it is a good one, the intention is awesome and laudable.

I ask myself: Would I, in fact, risk harm to myself to stand up for this principle of unity?

The answer: I don’t know.

I ask myself: Have I ever stood up for someone before?

I can say, yes to that.

A time or two. In very small ways. In grade school and in high school I can think of two times I stood up for kids who were being picked on at school for being “different.” The kids doing the picking on were just being mocking, they weren’t trying to beat up anyone. Nor were the perpetrators particularly “dangerous” fellows. And in both cases, we were on school grounds—so there was pretty much zero real physical threat to me.

What if it had been at night in an alleyway, far from the safety of adults in authority? What if there had been pushing, or worse? Would I have acted?

Doubtful. Maybe run for help. But intervened? Sadly, probably not. I wasn’t at all a tough kid. I’d never been in a serious scrap. Wasn’t athletic. Wasn’t particularly courageous.

I’m 56 and none of that, regrettably, is any different.

So, would I stand up, today, for someone if I thought there was pretty much no possibility of violence? Yeah, I would. Would I be happy to be a friend and support to someone in one of these categories who came to me distraught? Yep, I would. Would I call 911 from across the street? You bet.

But am I going to risk real physical harm to myself? Probably not. That’s just the unfortunate truth of that.

Does that make me a coward? Maybe.

But wearing it without feeling certain I could follow through with the pledge that the pin represents? Well, that presents its own moral dilemma, doesn’t it?

I feel like I just got jabbed with a pin that I haven’t even put on.

Maybe that jab wants to teach me something. (Like, now is the time to take that self-defense class you’ve always wanted to take?)

Am I doing the right thing by not wearing the pin?

 

 

Do You Hate Half of America?

To be clear: I did not vote for Trump. I wouldn’t have voted for him to be president of my neighbor’s dilapidated toolshed, much less president of the United States of America. (Apologies to people I love who voted for him. If it makes you feel any better, I wasn’t thrilled about the person I did vote for either. Blood has got to be thicker than politics, right?)

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A question: is Donald Trump’s heart full of hatred for people of color, women, and Muslims? I don’t know. Maybe it is. He’s certainly said astonishingly careless things that seem pretty damning. But I’m not willing to make those assertions as if they’re a certainty. Saying that I know what’s in his heart is carelessness on my part. Maybe Trump is a horrible, hate-filled man. Maybe he just speaks without thinking. Again—I don’t know.

The question that I would address to my outraged, grieving, fearful-for-the-future-of-our-country, liberal-leaning friends and neighbors is this: “Do you really believe that the nearly-60 million Americans who voted for Trump are hate-filled, bigoted, misogynists?”

I sure hope you don’t. If you do, that would be far sadder than the outcome of this election.

No. Those tens of millions of U.S. citizens whose vote has you shuddering in horrified disbelief? I fervently believe that the great majority of them are people who would help you shovel your car out of a snow bank; people who would help you pick up the groceries that fell out of your torn bag as you came out of the super market; they’re people who want safe streets, peace on Earth, and good will towards men. Many, many of them are people you’d like. People you already do like. They’re your neighbors and co-workers and, in some cases, your family. They deliver your mail, they figure your company’s payroll; they may well own your company, or they may bag your groceries.

Not all of them are decent folks. Of course not. Some of them are exactly all those unpleasant things I listed. Far right and far left folks get scarier and scarier the further out to the extreme edges you go. So, yes, ugly haters are represented in both halves of the voting populace.

But please do not make the grievous error of painting every Trump-voter with the same ultra-extreme brush. Many detested some of things Trump said, but had other reasons to be compelled to vote for him according to their own consciences and what they believe the country needs right now. Maybe even what they, on a very personal level, need right now and believe Trump may help provide. You can heartily disagree with them, but please don’t despise them.

Remember this, too: if you want to banish the 60 million who disagree with you to a faraway island, then you don’t want a democracy, you want a utopia, where everyone thinks just like you. You know, the right way. But guess what? You’re living in a democracy and, hate it or love it, that system elected Trump.

I get that Trump’s rhetoric is deeply disturbing. But we must hope that, like pretty much all of his predecessors, he reels it in when he actually governs. Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he will be a catastrophe. Maybe he’ll be the worst president we’ve ever had. Perhaps not. We’ll see.

So far, this country has weathered filthy, bloody, unjust wars under both Republican and Democratic administrations. We’ve caught presidents breaking into their opponent’s political headquarters. We’ve caught presidents lying under oath. We’ve had to explain to our children the embarrassing, seedy behavior of politicians of both parties at the highest levels. If you want to try to pretend this isn’t a dirty game full of dirty players on both sides, you’re in absurd denial. Humans run the world and humans are NOT saints. You may have noticed. People you want to think of as liberal heroes (JFK, Bill Clinton, MLK) were certainly not saints, nor did they show much respect for their spouses (and by extension, women in general) with their well-documented serial philandering.

None of the aforementioned “inconvenient truths” excuse the appalling things Trump has said (let alone what he is alleged to have done). My intent here is to offer perspective, not a defense.

So, you’re totally ticked off and freaked out by the 2016 election results? The best you can do is use our political system to keep on fighting for what you believe. Make your case. Gather your people. Get behind a great candidate who can articulate your 2020 vision (hey, that’s catchy, isn’t it?). Defeat Trump in four years with your awesome choice.

But don’t stop loving your neighbor who thinks differently than you. Don’t assume the worst of them. If you do, well, my bitter friend, then the terrorists have truly won.