Bad Hombres and Their Mothers

Bad Hombres and Their Mothers

Illustration: Brian Stauffer for The New Yorker.

In his inaugural address on January 20, shortly after taking the oath and placing his hand on Lincoln's Bible and on a personal Bible given to him by his mom, U.S. President Donald J. Trump promised something absurd. He said that the U.S. would "unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth."

Here are three brief responses to this absurdity of ridiculous proportions. Then, the story of a mother's broken heart and a song about the Cold War.

First, even a child knows better.

Our family watched Trump's address to the nation via YouTube sometime during his first weekend as president. As the words came out of his mouth, my 10-year-old son whirled around to look at me in disbelief and confusion. "He can't possibly do that," my son said, referring to the eradication of terrorism from the face of the earth. "That's like saying you can get rid of all the evil in the world."

Second, most political analysts know better.

Take one example. On the heels of Trump's address, Zach Beauchamp, a global affairs correspondent with Vox Media, wrote:

I don’t want to spoil anything, but Trump won’t in fact get rid of every militant terrorist group on Earth. He may weaken them more than Obama or Bush did (though I have my doubts on that point), but it is literally impossible for him to destroy each and every single militant Islamist group, or even just all of the major ones.  

Third, even the word radical knows better.

Muslim terrorists who are inspired by ideologies which appropriate non-mainstream interpretations of Islam do not have a monopoly on radicalization or extremism. Perhaps what is most radical is to forget, dismiss, or somehow minimize the likes of Anders Breivik, Alexandre Bissonnette, or Dylann Roof—bad hombres, if you will, who brought extremist ideas to violent expression.


Two weeks ago, I read Jelani Cobb's Letter from Charleston in The New Yorker (February 6, 2017 edition). It takes the reader inside the federal trial of Dylann Roof, who, by now, we can justifiably call a Radical Racist Terrorist.

In particular, one section of the article arrested me and would not let me go. Cobb writes:

[Dylann] Roof's mother sank down on the bench as [the prosecutor] delivered his opening statement, which contained details of the crime that had previously been withheld from the press. At a certain point, she slumped over. It seemed for a moment that she had fainted, but she was taken to a hospital, and it was later learned that she had suffered a heart attack. She survived, but did not return for the remainder of the trial.

Upon hearing what Dylann had done on account of his ideas and his violence, his mom literally had a heart attack. Dylann had broken his mother's heart.

Meanwhile, on the same day I was reading about white-supremacy-gone-homicidal, Reuters reported (in a rather serious coincidence) that the U.S. government program called "Countering Violent Extremism" will be in line for a name change under the Trump administration. The proposed new name—"Countering Islamic Extremism" or "Countering Radical Islamic Extremism"—would make exclusive the program's focus on Islamist extremism as over against other sources and forms of extremism.

But mothers know better, as do all who love their children.


Strangely (but not), I thought about this connection. Eventually I found myself channeling Sting's 1985 song "Russians," which he performed at the 1986 Grammy Awards show.

The song is an artist's passionate critique of aggressive, hostile, incendiary rhetoric. It pleads for both Russians and Americans to reconsider their predominant Cold War foreign policies. Mr. Krushchev said 'We will bury you' / I don't subscribe to this point of view. Mr. Reagan says 'We will protect you' / I don't subscribe to this point of view.

The idea being that a nuclear arms race, or mutually assured destruction, was not—in the lens of the artist and through the eyes of many mothers and fathers—a realistically hopeful way forward for the humanity of Russians and Americans. Sting honed in on this humanizing aspect when he crooned, "I hope the Russians love their children too."

If the U.S. does indeed back-off from its engagement with diverse sources and forms of extremism (internal and external), if it sicks the hound of resources, strategies, and actions only on Islamist extremism, what I believe we should courageously say to Mr. Trump is this: We don't subscribe to this point of view.

Bad hombres wear many different skins. They espouse many degenerative ideologies. They kill for many diverse reasons.

In other words, Muslim radicals aren't the only ones breaking their mother's heart.

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