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November 1, 2004

Protecting Us to Death


A cautionary tale for security-conscious voters

by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

Please share this with your friends and loved ones: To safeguard their futures, and the future of our great nation, we must all understand the moral of this story.

When I was 9, a boy my age named Billy Tanner moved into the house across the street. He and his six brothers and sisters were taught, with the aid of belts and paddles, to obey their father instantly, without question or argument. Billy always looked anxious and lied a lot but was clearly lonely, so we invited him over when we played jump rope or make-believe.

Trouble was, Mr. Tanner grew to be so feared and hated in the neighborhood that people started avoiding Billy like the plague – you never knew when his father would take offense at something one of us did or said, and come hollering down the road with threats and accusations.

Mr. Tanner was a man with a short fuse and a long memory. He believed in defeating every enemy and righting every wrong, real or imagined. He once squared off, in the middle of the street, in a most undignified confrontation with the nice vacuum salesman who lived two doors down. I remember how the grownups watched from behind the slats of their Venetian blinds, too scared to intervene or even walk outside. The kids watched in amazement, hoping for some real excitement. In the end, it was just embarrassing.

When Strong Is Wrong

Worst of all, though he ruled his kids (and their mother) with an iron fist, Mr. Tanner was at his most violent and dangerous when Billy was taunted and teased, as he often was, poor child, because he lied compulsively in his habitual effort to avoid punishment. It always seemed odd to us that Mr. Tanner would defend so vigorously the child he bullied on a daily basis.

What we didn't understand was that Mr. Tanner was defending his own honor, not Billy's. When he'd come roaring down the street to yell at some child or parent to "protect" Billy from an insult, offense, or supposed threat, he certainly wasn't making Billy's life any safer or better. Billy would cringe and stand as far back as he could (or go home and hide until it was over), knowing that he'd have even fewer friends the next day.

It was a vicious cycle. If Billy showed any sadness or anger after being rejected by someone, his father would spring into action. If Mr. Tanner was anything, he was a strong, decisive leader. He didn't waffle or, to use today's term, "flip-flop," whenever he perceived a threat to his son's honor. He was a man of few words, a straight shooter who didn't need to waste time gathering all the facts or hearing the other kid's side of the story. And, as Mrs. Tanner and the rest of us knew all too well, he wasn't afraid to use force.

Thanks to his father's vigorous pursuit of all enemies and the families that harbored them, by the time Billy was a teenager he had no allies and no friends. But he did have a burgeoning mean streak and a growing list of enemies.

Beware the Boomerang Effect

It's tempting to think that, if you just hit every enemy and his neighbors hard enough, pretty soon you'll be safe and free and happy. But the way this kind of "defense" really works is more like that arcade game where every time you try to hammer the wooden "critters" with a wooden mallet, more of them pop up. The harder you hit them, the faster others pop up, and the more frustrated you get. Finally, the buzzer sounds and you walk away wishing you hadn't spent all those quarters on a game that was rigged from the start.

But what happens when your president defends you by attacking every Tom, Dick, and Harry who happens to be in the vicinity of every enemy or suspected enemy is even worse. Like a boomerang, the violence your leader wields to restore your (and his) pride, right past wrongs, or defend against insults and threats begins – suddenly or gradually – veering back toward you. Pretty soon you're running for cover from new violence by new enemies, brought about by the very national "defense" that's supposed to be protecting you.

When Mr. Bush said that God told him to strike al-Qaeda, was it really God telling him to bomb the people – terrorists, the Taliban, "insurgents," and civilian girls and boys, men and women alike – of Afghanistan and Iraq, or was it his burning desire to achieve historic status as the God-appointed war president? Take a look at the evidence: We the people of America are left holding the bag, with Osama bin Laden still sending videotaped messages four years later, pulling our strings and threatening our lives.

"The leaders' own personal reactions to diplomatic successes and failures may play an important role in their decision to initiate war. A diplomatic triumph or defeat raises or lowers their self-esteem. Their personal elation or distress shapes the national mood and spreads throughout the country. The personal desire of the political elite for power and prestige often biases their determination of the best interest of their group or state. Their subjective analysis of the costs, benefits, and risks or war may override their concerns for their followers lives."

Dr. Aaron Beck, Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence (1999)

This election day, Americans will finally have the chance to vote for a change. What we need now isn't a "strong, decisive leader" who plays dress-up on aircraft carriers and childishly promises to "rid the world of evil." What Americans desperately need now is a grownup president who's able to stop, listen, and think before he acts. We need a president who understands the Boomerang Effect.

Already we find ourselves abandoned by many former friends and allies. Already we've accumulated more enemies than anyone ever dreamed possible, in too many spots around the globe to keep track of, much less defeat "decisively." Already we feel alone, scared and increasingly dependent on a president who's defending us to death.

This Tuesday, we can vote for four more years of knee-jerk reactions and foolish arrogance, or we can vote to get off this violence-retaliation-violence merry-go-round. We can reevaluate our core values, choosing wisdom over impulsivity and substance over appearance. We can choose diplomacy, humility, and cooperation with others, pledging to put a stop to the Bush administration's boomerang policy of violent "self-defense" that has infected Christianity, made us more vulnerable than ever, and led us to forget who we really are.

We can do better. For the sake of our children and our grandchildren, we must.


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her website.

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