San Francisco, California
This week the small Californian community of San Bernardino saw what the FBI is calling the “biggest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11”. The slaughter of 14 innocent Americans by their ISIS-admiring co-worker and his wife – for whom they had recently thrown a baby shower – has once again bitterly divided the nation.
About half the population, and its president, have painted this tragedy as yet another example of the dire need for gun control and the rampant influence of the NRA over elected policymakers. The other half say this is an act of war by the ever-growing scourge of radical Islamic Jihad, an evil and organised enemy that firearm reform cannot reach and that the Second Amendment is there to protect against.
Both make valid points. But they are largely partisan points, and have been regurgitated on both sides ad nauseum for decades.
Debates about gun reform and terrorism aside, perhaps the more fundamental question is why violence and hatred occur in the first place – the mental health issues, the family, cultural and religious influences that are fuelling this frightening emergence of home-grown terror, as well as the concomitant school shootings, suicides and gang violence, all of which are on the rise.
Given the alarming local homicide statistics and this latest incarnation of murderous terrorism, it’s hard to imagine that this beautiful stretch of Pacific coast and palm-fronded farmland to the west of the Sierra mountains was not too long ago the global headquarters of peace and love.
Though there are few visible remnants of the late 60s countercultural movement left in San Francisco – beyond the outwardly commercial and somewhat tacky bong shops and nostalgia around Haight Ashbury – this glimmering bayside metropolis was once the epicentre of the Age of Aquarius, synonymous with anti-war protests, love-ins, folk music and flower children.
There are many reasons why the hippies ultimately lost the culture wars.
The “tune in, turn on, drop out” message popularised by former Harvard professor and LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary really underpinned the intellectual basis of the movement. To Leary and his disciples, it was meant as a cry to cast off the ‘shackles’ of social convention and embrace the natural environment over human-invented ‘cultural hierarchies’. In other words, to embrace ‘truth’ and shun Babylon’s materialism and lies.
But to most Americans it was read as ‘drop out of school, smoke pot, take acid, sleep around and abandon your constructive capacity’ – a message starkly at odds with the growth-oriented Reaganism that would come to dominate the next half-century.
The latter was arguably more tapped into deep human needs and desires, certainly the more materially lucrative and undoubtedly the more successful.
But in examining ways to confront the now-seemingly-endless cases of violence not just here in California, but in communities from Martin Place to Montmartre, perhaps the hippie message could be revisited.
Granted, the enemy of radical Islam is vastly different to the one perceived at the zenith of the hippie age. Few if any civilian murders were carried out in Western cities by followers of Ho Chi Minh for example.
Appeasement is not an option against an opponent that hates the West for the very tenets of liberty for which it stands, that believes we deserve to die because we allow women to drive and gays to live.
Moreover, the ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’ message is antithetical to the one we should be spreading to disaffected youths, especially young Muslims who are prime targets for nefarious Jihadi recruiters. Instead, we should be counter-indoctrinating and clearly explaining why values of liberty and freedom are more personally fulfilling than the cult of hatred and death. We have to sell the mainstream, not the idea of secluded and separated sub-culture.
It would probably help if they weren’t promised vestal virgins in Paradise for murdering infidels – or if they focused more on the allegedly numerous passages of peace and love in the Koran instead – but, as anyone that remembers Vietnam will tell you, winning hearts and minds is never the easy option.
Putting flowers in your hair or foregoing the restrictive conventions of personal hygiene is unlikely to signal the death knell for Islamic Jihad.
But the philosophy of peaceful co-habitation and unity over division is more powerful than the 60s caricature we give the hippies credit for, and certainly superior to the vile and inhuman bastardry of religious fundamentalism.
Maybe all this sea breeze is going to my head.
The reality is that war is now inevitable whether we want it or not. The threat is too large and thirst for revenge too strong.
Or maybe ‘giving peace a chance’ is not an altogether loony idea.
Published on 5 December 2015