By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist
Last week, fear killed Jean Charles de Menezes.
He may or may not have been dressed suspiciously, as London police say he was. May or may not have jumped a subway turnstile, may or may not have ignored commands to stop.
What is beyond question is that de Menezes, a Brazilian, was a man with swarthy skin at a time when men with swarthy skin were being hunted for a series of bus and subway bombings that left dozens of people dead and millions of nerves frayed. British police, operating under shoot-to-kill orders, did just that.
I feel awful for de Menezes and his family but frankly, I also feel awful for the police officer who has to live the rest of his life knowing he stood over a prone man, a 27-year-old electrician with no connection to the bombings, and shot him eight times.
And I wonder: Had Britain been less frightened, might de Menezes be less dead? Point being, fear makes you do terrible things. And say them, too.
Which brings me back to Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. He’s the fellow who was asked on an Orlando radio show how the United States should respond if Muslim terrorists ever detonate a nuclear device in an American city. Tancredo said we should make it known that we would bomb Mecca, the holiest site of Islam. I took him to task, calling him a yahoo and other choice epithets.
Many of you didn’t agree. To judge from my e-mail — granted, a decidedly unscientific survey — roughly half the country considers bombing Mecca a fine means of retaliation. “What would you do?” people snickered. “Talk to the terrorists? Read them their rights?”
I shouldn’t be surprised. It has become an article of faith for Karl Rove and other far-right extremists that only they are “man” enough to handle terrorism and that anybody who didn’t vote for Gee Dubya thinks terrorists should be, I don’t know, counseled.
What would I want to do to terrorists who struck this country with a nuclear device? Hit them, duh. Hit them hard, hit them repeatedly, hit them, their sponsors and allies, with every form of force — military, political, economic — we could muster. Hit them till they were destroyed. Then hit them again.
None of which requires striking Mecca. In the first place, such a strike would probably not kill those who struck us. In the second place, it would give mortal affront to 1.1 billion of the earth’s people — millions of them American, by the way — thus creating more enemies than it dissuaded or killed. In the third place, the threat has little deterrent value. Our enemies are fanatics; fanatics by definition cannot reason.
But it would feel good, right? Show “them” we are not to be messed with. Not a week goes by without someone telling me how terrorism can be solved by destroying “them” — Muslims. Me, I’m not worried about Muslims. I’m worried about fundamentalism. Literalism, absolutism, extremism under the guise of faith. Any faith.
I mean, anybody who thinks fanaticism a trait exclusive to Islam must not have heard of Eric Rudolph, the Christian terrorist who bombed the Atlanta Olympics, a gay nightclub and two abortion clinics. Some alleged Christians in rural North Carolina, where he is believed to have hidden for five years, consider this murderer a hero.
Fundamentalism is the enemy, then. It should be obvious, but fear makes you stupid. It makes you panicky, it makes you act without thinking.
That police officer in London had an excuse. He had to act in a few pressure-packed seconds. And he made a decision that will haunt the rest of his life.
You and I face no imminent threat. We have time to think, to reflect, to wrestle fear back into its cage. Yet the best some of us — a U.S. congressman among them — can come up with is an inflammatory, irresponsible suggestion that cannot fail to make matters worse?
Thank God the question was only hypothetical. God help us if ever it is not.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org