Friday, June 5, 2009

The impotence of indignation

Columbus, Ohio is Middle America, USA, home to nearly two million people. For simplicity's sake, you may consider it my hometown.

Derided by some as inconsequential or at best overrated, Columbus and its patchwork suburbs always have been viewed as relatively conservative and football-crazed, a fine place to raise a family. It's never been as perfect or as perfectly boring as the stereotypes imply, of course -- like many metro areas across the Midwest, it's simply a decent place to live with lots of room for improvement.

These days, being labeled a "cow town" is the least of our concerns. In addition to high unemployment, a painful budget crisis and embarrassingly low high-school graduation rates making national headlines, there's a much darker blotch on Columbus:

"Nuradin Abdi was convicted in 2007 of planning to blow up an Ohio shopping mall. Iyman Faris was convicted in 2003 of planning to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. Christopher Paul was convicted in 2008 of conspiring to use explosives against targets in the U.S. and Europe.

"All three terrorists worshiped and socialized at a small mosque in Columbus, Ohio, and, according to David B. Smith, an attorney for Faris, were part of a larger group of jihadists and extremists who frequented the mosque.

"The FBI now is investigating reports of links to that same mosque by Muslim-convert Abdulhakim Muhammad who allegedly shot and killed one soldier Monday and critically wounded another in a drive-by attack on a Little Rock, Arkansas, recruiting station...."

The seeds of terrorism -- or, to borrow the term invoked yesterday by Pres. Obama, "violent extremism" -- have taken root right here in the Heartland.

This isn't about Muslims, though, and it's not about tens of thousands of displaced Somalis who live on the city's northeast side. It's about a sleepy citizenry that's cleared the land where evil now grows.

Columbus is paying a high price for its contentment, and not just at a small mosque preaching radical Islam. The hateful tentacles of Christian extremism, the equivalent of "jihad for Jesus," reach beyond long-established rural enclaves to cast dark shadows on our suburbs. Thousands of our youth are infected with meth, heroin and indiscriminate violence.

Our complacency makes all of this possible. Our self-absorbed ignorance allows it to continue.

At the KintlaLake dinner table one evening, shortly after this blended family came together, the younger spawn let out with a loud belch. As my wife and I glared at him, the older boy responded with a belch of his own, louder and longer than his brother's. They giggled.

"That's disgusting," Mrs. KintlaLake scolded.

More belching, more giggling. At that age, I guess, "disgusting" is something of a compliment.

After dinner, I suggested to my wife that classifying such behavior as "unacceptable" might be more effective. Once we took that approach, the spawns' mealtime eruptions ceased.

Our communities face scourges of extremism, violence and hate. We're swimming in effluent spewed from narcotics pipelines. In response to these evils, all we seem to offer is, "that's disgusting."

Righteous indignation won't get the job done. Only by declaring evil unacceptable -- and then acting on that declaration -- will we reclaim our communities.

To those who would take my suggestion as an excuse to amplify their hatred or magnify divisions: Go to hell. Yours is precisely the curse we seek to remove.

When we get it right, we'll accept Christians and Muslims but reject extremism in the guise of any religious faith or ideology. We'll welcome a drug-rehab clinic in the center of town and yet be wholly intolerant of a crack house, even if it's on the other side of the tracks. We'll actively guard our borders against illegal immigration while embracing anyone who's here legally -- whether they tend our lawn, befriend our kids or live next door.

The difference between disgusting and unacceptable is the difference between righteousness and reclamation. Without being naive, it acknowledges that a simple-minded obsession with race, religion or affiliation blinds us to the facts we need to survive.

It charts our road to ruin, and it shows us the way home.