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Blind Men and an Elephant; or, The Slow Death of Reason

A Memory of a Shadow

One of the first times I felt old was the day I realized the students I was working with were not even born when I was watching burning buildings collapse in on themselves on live television in the waiting room of a doctor’s office in seventh grade.

I was these kids’ age — these kids who have never known an America not at war. Who only know the panic of that day through memes about jet fuel and steel beams. Whose knowledge of the horror of watching grown men tumble out of hundredth-story windows on cable news is the sort of knowledge you’d gain from a history book — sterile, statistical, cold.

If images like these do not elicit an emotional response, I question everything about you.

Though I was young, I remember a palpable unity, the kind that springs out of necessity in the glassy-eyed wake of unfathomable, unpredictable tragedy. I listened to the President’s speeches and felt a stir toward patriotism in the shadow of a hole-punched, tattered, threadbare flag. One stuck out:

Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.

That’s some powerful rhetoric. And it worked. We were at once a nation at war — against Al-Qaeda in miniature and against terrorism at large. We were the America of the wild west, rooting out evildoers where they roosted.

I didn’t know it then, but we’d be fighting branches of that war long after the President’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech. The fight would stretch from mountain to valley, from castle to cave; it’d take on nebulous enemies in all manner of jihad dress with foreign-sounding names. Al-Quaeda, the Taliban, ISIS.

I also didn’t know it then, but those rousing words — “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” — were a bit more rhetorical than I’d imagined.

A Brief Modern History of “Enemy”

In the 70s, we hated Communists. So I’m told. We made it a mission to fight them anywhere, anyhow. They represented this monstrous other — this antithesis to our Western way of life. We’d seen Communist regimes turn their lands to waste; their people to impoverished beggars; their economies into relics of the past. We watched Communist dictators enslave those within their borders or march them off to the tundra to die.

So we did something sneaky: we started funding groups opposed to Communism. In 1978, we launched Operation Cyclone, in which we gave militant Islamic radicals that were recommended by the Pakistani Intelligence Agency money, for starters. Lots of it. Something like $7.5 billion, if you want to get an idea. We set up madrassas (Islamic schools) specialized in radicalizing its people to turn them into anti-Communist weapons. The goal was for them to recruit more fighters, train them, and give them proper weapons with which to withstand Russian attacks and aid us in the fight against our Red enemy.

President Reagan in the oval office with members of the Mujahideen (1985)

In Islam, the name of someone engaged in jihad — holy war — is mujahid. The groups we were funding and arming were called Mujahideen. The Mujahideen in this case was a collection of loosely organized groups with a variety of perspectives on religion, government, and culture, but were fundamentally opposed to the regimes we wanted taken down. So we sent them dangerous toys with which to fight (you can read about the main factions we were supplying here, in an article written by retired Army Col. Lester W. Grau).

One of the groups our money funded in this campaign (taken from was called Maktab al-Khidamat, or MAK. It was headed by famed radical Osama bin Laden. He used this money to construct a CIA-sponsored tunnel complex and training facility, which was also used as an arms and medical depot for the Mujahideen from 1986 on. When the public heard almost two decades later that bin Laden was hiding in caves, these are what he was in: not caves, but a vast network of inter-mountain tunnels furnished by our anti-Russian Operation Cyclone.

Bin Laden, however, soon grew unstable. On repeated instances during the Clinton administration, we were given chances to stop him… here. I’ll let Michael Scheuer, a 22-year veteran of the CIA, say it:

I speak with firsthand experience (and for several score of CIA officers) when I state categorically that during this time senior White House officials repeatedly refused to act on sound intelligence that provided multiple chances to eliminate Osama bin Laden — either by capture or by U.S. military attack. I witnessed and documented, along with dozens of other CIA officers, instances where life-risking intelligence-gathering work of the agency’s men and women in the field was wasted.
Meanwhile, CIA-trained fighters like Egyptian Ali Mohamed, a Green Beret and drill sergeant at Fort Bragg, were busy in Afghanistan training insurgents like Osama and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the then-leader of Al-Qaeda.
Ali Mohamed’s US Passport

Fascinatingly, Ali Mohamed also provided clandestine training during this period to Mahumud Abaouhalima, who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.

In the ’80s, as I’ve said, it was the CIA that funded these madrassas that were training soldiers on jihad in an effort to fight against the Communist threat growing in the east. Though we don’t directly send money to them anymore, a WikiLeaks cable (full WikiLeaks cables here) revealed that Saudi Arabia is now the one funding the radicalist madrassas in that region. This is the same Saudi Arabia that, as recently as 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry said was “one of our closest partners” in the Middle East. The same Saudi Arabia that gave at least $1.474 billion to the Bush family. The same Saudi Arabia the Obama administration sold $60 billion in arms. Saudi Arabia was unequivocally providing resources to the very groups carrying out terrorist attacks throughout the world, and the US has been forthright in its support of Saudi Arabia for decades — both before and after (perhaps in spite of) the attacks on September 11.

To what extent our government knew about the Trade Center attacks in 2001 I am not going to speculate, and it’s something I doubt we’ll ever truly know, but I said all of this for a specific reason: I want to revisit a quote we read earlier.

Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.
Mission Accomplished, 2003

It would seem as though the line between who was “us” and who were the “terrorists” is a bit blurrier than we’d like to pretend. In fact, as the evidence starts to pile up upon examination of this case, perhaps Al-Qaeda, the thing so monstrous and huge that it provoked the United States into an ideological war against “terror”, has turned out to be nothing but the shell of an operation financed by the US and its stated allies. But as long as politicians and the media continue shining the light just right, it makes the shadow of the model boat appear eldritch large on the wall behind it — and it’s that shadow we’ll continue attacking.

The Root of Our War Against “Them”

The United States has not shied away from mounting wars on ideologies: it was British Imperialism and then Communism and then Terror. But its people are doing the same — but among ourselves. In fact, every facet of the way we spend our lives lends itself not to healthy competition, but the same deep-seeded “Us vs. Them” narrative espoused by the War on Terror.

It seems to be ingrained into our natures as Americans. A core tenet of Americanism is the protection of individuality and individual liberty — the ability to protect ourselves and practice what we like, so long as we’re not harming another person in the process. It’s ourright to pursue our own happiness, as stated by the Declaration of Independence.

“among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”

In rare instances, we’ve found ourselves united as a country; unfortunately, it feels as though every one of these instances is in times of war. When we’re being attacked, we retreat and assume the stance that will ensure the majority of us survive, like gladiators in the Colosseum. We disregard business-as-usual and reduce our size to the smallest survivable form in order to ensure we make it out of the skirmish alive.

Otto Neurath

Otto Neurath, a political philosopher, wrote that we are each constructing a ship to help us sail through the ocean of existence, and this ship is comprised of all the bits of truth we can scrap together. As we build a ship, some boards need to be replaced with newer, improved ones, but over time our ship has a distinct look and feel — the collection of our beliefs is what makes us people.

What’s ultimately, endlessly fascinating is that the “defense” response is not limited to physical attacks — it’s just as prevalent in ideological ones. When you are presented with an ideology or frame of reference that directly competes with your own, your brain interprets it as an attack. It threatens to dismantle the ship that you’ve built for yourself and send you tumbling into an ocean of uncertainty.

There is an excellent post on The Oatmeal that talks about this, and I recommend that you read it. But I’ll summarize some of his examples below, in case you don’t feel like clicking over and getting through it (it’s decently long, as well).

Do you remember how you always heard that George Washington had wooden teeth?

Well, he didn’t. In 2005, the National Museum of Dentistry performed a scan of his preserved dentures and found that they were made of gold, lead, hippopotamus ivory, and horse and donkey teeth.

How’d that make you feel? Probably not super terribly — the contents of George Washington’s teeth don’t really affect you or your worldview all that much.

Now what if I told you that he also had dentures made from the teeth of slaves?

The teeth in question

I’m willing to bet you clicked on the second source (or were more compelled to) instead of the first. The first little bit of knowledge is like a party trick — a conduit of small talk. The second betrays something inside of you that has made up your Neurath Boat of survival: how you feel about slavery is tied to the fundamental way you think about George Washington, the foundation of this country, and how you see the world.

You might have a similar reaction if I told you there is no evidence that Jesus Christ was born in December. Or that the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist. Or that six of the seven justices who approved Roe v. Wade were Republican-appointed.

American children saying the Pledge of Allegiance

We tend to find ourselves balling up inside, perched and on the defensive. You honestly might feel how you felt reading the beginning of this article — about the United States’ complicity in the very terrors it sought to combat. It’s why I sourced it obsessively — I want you to see where I got the information and how I drew my conclusions because it offends some part of us to think that the world is not how we perceived it to be, especially when that perception is tied to our political or nationalistic ideology.

As soon as we begin attaching ideologies to the people we see supporting them, the physical reaction inside of us that comes from that rejection gets attached to the person as well. We see the person, itself, as a threat and make them the object of our countermeasures.

Especially as Americans, we’ve internalized the individuality encouraged by our country’s founding. It is something that we don’t just feel passionately about, but it defines us as a people. And over the years, we have struggled to find where individuality fits inside the construct of a society. As a result, we band together with other people who share the same proclivities and commune with them. West Ham fans hang out with other West Ham fans…and get into fist fights when Manchester United fans start talking too much smack. Those who think certain ways about the role a government should play in an individual’s life find others who share similar leanings…and start flame wars on Facebook when they find someone who thinks differently.

If there is one thing we are learning from this Trump presidency, it’s that we are all too willing to see someone we disagree with as, at times, an absurd reduction of their ideals. Trump supporters look at those attacking him as “stupid liberals.” Trump critics see those who support him as “idiotic bigots.”

From a 2015 riot in Lexington, KY

We see college campuses descend into anarchic nightmares at the threat of Ann Coulter’s visit. We call something that doesn’t align with our perception of the world “fake news.” We conflate disagreement with an attack on our very personhood, which may well be tied to our survival instincts.

But here’s my point: when we step back and see it for what it is, the threat disappears. We don’t have to resort to calling someone who disagrees with us on Facebook a Commie or a White Supremacist. We don’t have to descend to fist fights when someone who likes a different sports team says mean things about the sports team we like.

I am not saying that the world is sunshine and roses, and I’m not making a case for the non-existence of absolute good and evil. I’m advocating a change of mindset from reactionism to reason. By rejecting the notion that the world exists purely as some nebulous “Us” against some nebulous “Them”, we take our first step toward knowing the Truth and being set free by it.


As we come to recognize that an ideology that stands in opposition to a position we’ve previously held is not an attack on us as a person but is an opportunity to hone our own conviction of what is true and what isn’t, we will be freed from the constraints of “Us-vs-Them” and we’ll be given over to understanding.

No unexamined truth is worth believing. No unexamined belief is worth holding. No unexamined hero is worth following. Question things not as a means to nihilism on one end or relativism on the other, but as a means to understand the things we see. As a means of parsing information we hear. Want to fight “fake news”? Do it by encouraging honest examination, not by yelling your truth louder.

Don’t repeat something simply because it agrees with a previously held belief. Perhaps if everyone in your circle agrees with you, it’s not a sign that you are right, but that you’re not getting the whole picture. If a team of blind men examining an elephant are all huddled around the trunk, they’ll think an elephant looks a whole lot like a snake.

Take what you hear and parse it before retweeting it; blind allegiance is not allegiance at all, it’s the desperate bleating of a sheep headed for the shears.