The Lunatic Fringe

I was having dinner with some well-traveled friends the other night, and we started a discussion about how the vast majority of people we’ve met in our trips throughout the world have been decent and kind to us. We hear so much about violence and wrong-doing that it’s easy to forget how we are usually treated. I’ve also found that when I am considerate toward others they are far more likely to be considerate toward me.

Islam continues to get a bad name because a relatively small minority of adherents brutally kill people in the name of their religion. Internet sources tell me there are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, yet the number who actually harm others is a small fraction of the total. My experience in visiting and living among Muslims is that most value the same things we value. I literally owe my life to the goodwill of countless people who worked with me during my assignments in difficult places.

I have often wondered why we are so easily led astray by people who I will charitably refer to as the lunatic fringe, and I would offer up the following possible reasons:

  1. Passion – We may like to think we are rational beings, but emotion and passion play a big role in our decision making. Emotional people feed our appetite for passion, which I believe has both physiological and psychological roots. I’m not sure what else could explain the popularity of people whose only qualification for celebrity or political power is the volume and venom that comes out of their mouths.
  2. Blame – It’s seductive to believe that some evil or misguided group of people is the source of all our problems. It would be humorous to list all the different groups that have been persecuted throughout history if the human costs were not so tragic. Often, the victims of earlier persecution become the persecutors when they achieve the power or position to do so.
  3. Misinformation – Many who would seek to capture our support or sustain our apathy know that most of us do not really check their facts. Information presented as truth is too often misinformation or argument cloaked as fact. The Information Age allows us to see vast amounts of information without providing much guidance about its accuracy or relevance. The volume of stuff on the Internet can make it difficult to judge or even find decision-making information.
  4. Ignorance – Modern humanity probably knows more than any generation that preceded us; but even the smartest, most educated people are essentially ignorant about entire fields of knowledge. Our lack of knowledge is routinely exploited by those seeking power and fortune.
  5. Circumstance – Bad things sometimes happen regardless of what anyone does or does not do. We die, lose money, and live through countless trials because in many cases we have no choice. Taking advantage of negative circumstances by promising something better is a proven route to power.

The list of ways a vocal minority can lead us to do harmful things is probably much longer than my five observations. I think the antidote, however, is relatively short and simple. Kindness, consideration, service, knowledge, and general goodwill go a long way toward frustrating the ambitions of the lunatic fringe. Refusing to hate, even when there may be more than sufficient justification to do so, is perhaps our best protection.

“The Really Big One”

I think every resident of the West Coast should read an article in the most recent edition of The New Yorker entitled, “The Really Big One.” We have been hearing for years about the potential for a massive earthquake in our region, but this thoughtful, well-researched article should cause all of us to consider our response to a very real threat.

My greatest concern is for children. I visited Sri Lanka in 2006 and met a number of children orphaned by the tsunami that struck the island in 2005. I can’t adequately describe my feelings as some of these children bowed before me as I handed them bank books with small balances that had been donated for their benefit. I also remember visiting Balacot, Pakistan, in 2008, which was the epicenter of an earthquake that killed more than 17,000 children in their schools and more than 77,000 people throughout the nation. The keynote speaker at the conference reminded all of us that the real tragedy was that most of these deaths, particularly in the schools, could have been prevented and would not have occurred if a similar quake took place in California, Chile, or Japan. He could not have made that claim for Oregon.

Ironically, the Oregon State University geologist and expert on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, Chris Goldfinger, quoted in The New Yorker article is currently waging a fight against his own university to halt construction of a new marine science facility in Newport’s tsunami zone. Goldfinger is suggesting the area be turned into a park now, rather than a memorial park after a tsunami strikes. The Oregon Coast Aquarium and several other facilities are already located in the neighborhood. The dispute illustrates the difficulty of this issue.

Most of us are reluctant to bite the bullet and spend large sums of money on a problem that seems distant and unlikely. Authorities in New Orleans knew years in advance that the community was unprepared to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, but they were unwilling to invest several billion dollars to upgrade the city’s flood control system. In hindsight, saving two thousand lives and many billions of dollars would seem to have been a worthwhile investment.

Albany voters recently approved a bond measure that will bring all of our public safety facilities up to the most current seismic standards and insure that our most critical emergency service personnel will be able to respond. Unfortunately, most of our schools and other places where we congregate do not meet this standard. I don’t have a simple solution to suggest, but I believe we should be talking more about the problem and doing some serious planning.

Personally, I am going home tonight and repacking my 72-hour kit that will allow my wife and me to have the basic necessities during an emergency. There are many on-line sources to advise us about what needs to be in a 72-hour pack, and I would encourage everyone to act now to prepare a kit. We know with some certainty that an earthquake will occur in this area within the next 50 years. The least we can do is make sure we are individually prepared.