Sunday, March 2, 2008

Terrorists on Two Wheels.

Last Sunday morning, a 29-year-old Chicago man rode his bicycle through a busy intersection in my neighborhood, against the traffic light, and was struck and killed by an SUV.

Since the only person who died was the bicycle rider, it will seem very odd that I'm going to call him a terrorist. Stay with me on this.

"Terrorism" is defined as "the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons."

The crash last Sunday happened because about 40 bicyclists were participating in an unsanctioned race called "Tour Da Chicago." In such races, participants ride against traffic, deliberately defy traffic laws, and use their numbers to intimidate drivers into stopping or getting out of the way.

Here is what one of the organizers told a local TV station after the death:

"To blame the victim for dying such a tragic death I think is an injustice. It's an injustice that our culture is so embedded in auto use and the convenience of autos that we're willing to let our friends and loved ones be killed."

There you go.

Races such as "Tour Da Chicago" are related to a movement called Critical Mass, the only difference being that the Critical Mass riders aren't racing. The belief system behind them is the same. Cars are bad. Saving the earth is good. The ends justify the means. Have you heard of Earth First? They're an underground environmentalist group that sets fire to buildings that offend them, such as ski lodges in Colorado. Same mind-set.

I encountered a Critical Mass ride once here in Chicago, or maybe it was another one of these races, about a year ago. It was at night, on Montrose I think. I was driving, the car in front of me stopped suddenly, seemingly for no reason, and bikes appeared out of nowhere, just a few at first, then dozens more, riding against traffic. There were no accidents that I saw, but there certainly could have been. As others have reported, there was a lot of taunting and berating of motorists, some of it good natured, a lot of it not, which might easily have provoked violence.

Like a lot of people, I use both kinds of vehicle, so I had mixed feelings. The bicycle rider in me thought it looked like fun but I was in a car that night, so I became one of the bad guys.

All of us who survived our own youth know young people wouldn't do 90 percent of the things they do if they thought about the consequences. Reckless. Thoughtless. Endangering themselves and others. The risky behaviors usually involve alcohol, drugs, cars, sex. Why not bicycles?

Because kids do crazy things, most of the riders probably had only a vague understanding of the movement's ideological underpinnings, although the guy who died last week wasn't a kid, he was 29.

The ideology at work is a form of nihilist extremism. The only real difference between this and flying hijacked airplanes into buildings is one of degree. It comes from the same place. Now this extreme political movement has a new martyr.


Dingbat said...

The rest of your blog is good stuff, but this post is way off. The TdC (I'm not a participant; I recognize that it's too dangerous) is not intended to intimidate or coerce society, even at the level of a group of people at an intersection. That may be an incidental effect, at times, but it's not the reason for the event. The event occurs so that people can meet up, have a good time, and challenge themselves and others to do their best. Yes, it's stupid to race bikes on open streets. No, it's not nihilistic.

Some of your description applies to Critical Mass: there, the goal is, in fact, to stop traffic, to cause people to rethink their behavior if not change it. And if Critical Mass can be defended it is on the basis that CM'ers are trying to bring humor and joy: they are trying (not necessarily succeeding!) in showing the sheer, childlike joy of motion, of riding a bike.

One man's joy is another man's hell, however: I don't suspect you're hopping on too many bandwagons that advertise 70 virgins at the end!

All in all, try to understand that Matt, both on his own, and as a member of a group, made a series of bad decisions that ended horribly for him and for a great number of other people: the driver who hit him and his own family most immediately. But nowhere was he motivated by a desire to instill fear in others.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Thanks, dingbat, for your very thoughtful comments. But in the event I encountered, there clearly was an effort to intimidate motorists. As terrorists go, these bicycle warriors are low grade, and I conceded that in the original essay, but the shoe still fits.

Da' Square Wheelman, said...

I greatly appreciate your thoughtful comments although I disagree over your conflation of terrorists and alley-caters as well as alley cats and critical masses.

I wouldn't dignify alley-caters with the sobriquet terrorist. Whatever their chronological age, they're adolescents pure and simple. That someone would risk their life for a signed bike jersey & bragging rights is beyond my humble understanding.

As for critical mass, at least in The Windy City, it lacks many of the empty confrontational antics you see in NYC or SF. And as it has attracted 1000s bikers, particularly in the summer months, many massers have begun to organize smaller, more intimate mini-masses throughout a number of neighborhoods. This is rather amazing given the fact that in spite of the occasional obermassenf├╝hrer there is little or no leadership on these rides.

Dingbat said...

I suspect you ran into a CM, since it was evening. And your response was the reason that I don't participate in the the things; they succeed more in getting riled up than in increasing everyone's pleasure.

Dan said...

I'm sorry, but this is really a stretch. I understand that you were frustrating at having to wait for some Critical Mass folks to get out of your way, but this comparison really doesn't work.

"Have you heard of Earth First? They're an underground environmentalist group that sets fire to buildings that offend them, such as ski lodges in Colorado. Same mind-set."

This comparison is also ridiculous as the two groups are completely unrelated.

By your logic, all the H2 drivers that edge me out of my lane on the highway are also terrorists because they're coercing me into conceding my space to people who drive vehicles larger than mine, thus enforcing the idea that SUV drivers should have the right to more of the road and shouldn't be held to the same standards as other drivers. Terrorists?

"The ideology at work is a form of nihilist extremism. The only real difference between this and flying hijacked airplanes into buildings is one of degree. It comes from the same place. Now this extreme political movement has a new martyr."

I'm sorry, but this is just silly. I'm sure no one takes you seriously here anyway, but you can't just casually state that the only difference between inconveniencing auto drivers and murdering thousands of people is a "degree." Critical Mass rides don't aim to kill anyone and they certainly aren't violent. The ideologies are *completely* distinct from one another.

Also, the Cyclist who died during TdC wasn't trying to be a martyr and no one is treating him like a martyr. The cycling community recognizes that it was an individual choice and a mistake, at least from the dozens of forum threads I've read - written by participants in the race. The only people who have used the term "martyr" are those who use the event to denounce a sector of culture they perceive exists.

I will always maintain that more lives are lost and endangered by pushy motorists disobeying the law than will ever be threatened by cycling. If a cyclist who runs a red light is a terrorist, then what do you call the rest of us? How many people can honestly say they've never broken the speed limit, run a red light, or otherwise disobeyed the rules of the road? How about the drivers who swerve at cyclists, honk their horns and yell obscenities in order to intimidate them?

I understand that you're frustrated at cyclists who get in your way. However, the argument you make is completely irrational. Again, I'm sure no one takes you seriously.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You apparently did.

Look, Da' Square probably comes closest to a fair criticism when he talks about conflation. What I'm pointing out is connections that I see, running from TdC, through CM, to Earth First. The comparison I draw is to similarities in philosophy. Humans who hurt nature are bad and must be stopped by any means necessary.

Terrorism is about fear and intimidation. If I see a bunch of people on bikes, swarming around me, acting a little nutty, and I feel like I have to slam on my brakes to avoid an accident, that's intimidation.

Dan said...

The comparison in philosophy is assumed. You're projecting those assumptions to a level that isn't really sensible. It's not reasonable to compare violent and destructive acts to ones that are simply disruptive. They may illicit anger in YOU, but anger as a reaction is not the goal of the events. And illicit anger seems to be your main beef.

Peaceful protests by minority groups, like those organized by groups of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, also led to anger and tension. Would you also label them as terrorists? The only difference seems to be your perception that these biking events are intended to intimidate onlookers. However, it's just that - a perception. Critical Mass was started as a way to increase bike advocacy. It's not an "anti-car" event specifically, though it may lead to anti-car sentiment, warranted or not.

"Humans who hurt nature are bad and must be stopped by any means necessary."

I'm not sure where this comes from. It seems to me that you would like to paint all environmental interests with the same brush. Since they all care about the environment, they must all have the same philosophy and must therefore be terrorists.

By that logic, I should assume that every person with a jesus fish on the trunk of their car protests at the funerals of gay soldiers.

There is a serious gap in your logic. I don't take you seriously, but feel that your argument should be questioned since it is being referenced by several more prominent blogs.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Okay, here is the gap in your logic.

Peaceful, legal protest is one thing. Civil disobedience is another thing. It involves breaking the law but in a very controlled way and accepting, even inviting, arrest as part of the protest. Then you get to law-breaking that is outside the bounds of civil disobedience, in which there is violence or the potential for violence and a real chance of injury or death, case in point being last Sunday's TdC.

I've already conceded that I'm stretching a point to make a point.

You obviously take me seriously enough to have written two long commentaries, so please show a little more respect for both of us and stop the belittling asides.

This is a worthwhile discussion about important subjects. Maybe you and others don't like what I'm saying, but nobody has had to risk their life and limb to be heard.

Angel said...

I will repeat the sentiment above - If cyclists participating in Critical Mass are terrorists, what does that make the motorists in the jacked-up H2's and F-1050's who deliberately swerve at cyclists, honk, make obscene gestures, and sometimes even threaten them with weapons - knives, guns, etc?

You've managed to avoid answering this question, and I'd like an answer. What do you consider these folks? Shall we ship them down to Gitmo along with the cyclists who run red lights, and the granny with the knitting needles on the airplanes?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Answer what exactly? Because SUVs are obscene, bike riders can do whatever they want? Is the best defense you have for irresponsible bike riders the argument that motorists are worse? Let me keep this simple, when you try to get your way by frightening and intimidating people, the word for that is terrorism.

Angel said...

So in your opinion, critical massers, crazy drivers, labor unions, protesters, people who fly planes into buildings and kill thousands, DC snipers, and pretty much anyone in government should be treated exactly the same way?

Shall we send them all down to Gitmo and have a waterboarding good time? Shall we send the truckers who are protesting high gas prices by refusing to run their rigs down there? After all, they're using intimidation to achieve a political goal.

How about folks protesting the war? They're doing the same thing.

The Bush regime, who puts out an alert to scare the country every time something politically inconvenient comes up? That's using fear to make people bend to your demands. Let's send them down too!

While we're at it, how about fathers who use the fear of being grounded? Mothers with their wooden spoons? Anyone who tries to change things in this country?

Perhaps a rethinking of the word "terrorist" is in order.