Return to the Desert IV: The Xenophobe

I kept walking, leaving the canyons behind. The eerie stone pillars and rugged topography of the badlands faded away like a mirage, and soon, the land was flat and featureless again.

This part of the desert was what geologists called a hamada, a low, level plain of boulders and stony soil. Low, wind-carved dunes rose in the distance, and far beyond them, hazy with distance, stood the ever-present mountains in whose rainshadow this barren land lay. My steps crunched on the rough gravel, whose wobbly and irregular stones threatened to twist a carelessly placed ankle.

Out on the open plain, there was no shelter from the sun’s brutal heat. I pulled the brim of my hat low to shade my face, but I could feel beads of sweat sliding down my back. The ground was brilliant white, a blinding dazzle, and even if there had been anything to see, it was hidden in the heat shimmer. Under those circumstances, it was no surprise that I almost tripped over the stone wall before I saw it.

Regaining my balance, I took a step back and surveyed the scene. The wall was no more than knee-high, made of rough, natural rocks that someone had carried and fit together. It was circular in shape, enclosing an area the size of a small room. It was much the same as the stone walls you might find on an old farmstead, but here in the desert, beneath this blistering sun, the labor required to build it must have been grueling.

I walked around the perimeter of the wall, trying to guess who might have built it and why, when I got a second violent shock. Someone leaped up from where he had been crouching behind it, someone I hadn’t seen before, and glared full into my face. He had skin the color of leather or old parchment, a long, scraggly beard and a balding head of wispy gray hair, and wore only shapeless, colorless rags. His eyes were set deep in his skull-like face, and they darted around like the eyes of some trapped animal.

“Enemies!” he shrieked, in a voice like an old cracked radio. “Danger! Beware! Enemies all around!”

With that, he dove back down, huddling behind the wall as if it could shelter him. I glanced out across the scorched plain, but from horizon to horizon, there was no one else in sight besides the two of us.

“What enemies are you afraid of?” I inquired, as politely as I could.

He leaped up again. “Terrorists! Immigrants! Gays! Communists! Scary dark-skinned people! They’re coming to take our guns and our Bibles. We have to bomb them, we have to occupy them. We have to invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity! The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world!”

Despite myself, I was impressed. He had delivered that entire rant without pausing for breath.

“I think you’ve spent too much time listening to the gossips and scandal-mongers out here in the desert,” I said. “Is this how you live? Have you ever stopped to consider why it is that you spend every day being told about the newest group of people to hate and fear? Your leaders do it on purpose – fill your head with fear, teach you to jump at shadows – because people who are angry and afraid don’t think. They’re easily herded, less likely to think rationally, and they’ll gladly follow anyone who promises them safety. It’s a tactic that political leaders and demagogues have been using successfully for centuries. The script stays the same every time; it’s only the name of the enemy that changes. And the remarkable thing is that this works even when the designated victim is a small, marginalized, almost powerless minority, and it’s the large, powerful majority that’s being told to be afraid.”

I couldn’t tell if the raggedy man was even listening to me. He paced back and forth inside his circle of stones, muttering words under his breath as if deep in thought. “The powers that be are watching. The Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati. Children dragged away by jackbooted thugs for praying in school. Satanic cults and their baby sacrifices. Evolution is a fraud. Global warming is an invention of Big Environmentalism. Christmas is under attack. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Cell phones cause cancer. Toxins in our vaccines. Teach the controversy!”

“And isn’t it remarkable that you see yourself as surrounded by enemies?” I asked. “Who here is really threatening you? What rights of yours are being taken away? You in the desert far outnumber us in the garden, you realize. We’ve never called for the conquest of the desert by force, nor could we succeed even if we tried. All we’re doing – all we’ve ever done – is to assert our right to live as we choose, and ask that you respect that by not trying to coerce or bully us. Our society has gone so out of kilter that you have special privileges which you’ve come to think of as your due. When fairness prevails and those special rights are taken away, you think you’re being unfairly persecuted, because you don’t realize that no one else has ever had them.”

The strange man shook his head, but I couldn’t tell whether it was in response to what I was saying. “All flu shots are poison, you know. 9/11 was an inside job. HIV doesn’t cause AIDS! HIV was man-made to cause AIDS! They have secret technology to cause earthquakes and hurricanes. They put fluoride in our drinking water to keep us under control. Chemtrails sprayed from airplanes. The moon landing hoax. Who really shot JFK? Big Pharma is hiding the cure for cancer – there are natural cures they don’t want you to know about! You can run your car on water. Big Oil is covering it up!”

“Have you ever heard the theory,” I asked, still unsure if my words were falling on deaf ears, “of the hyperactive agency detector module? Human beings are primed to see intelligent agents even in natural cycles where none exist – or to see broader patterns of agency and intent where the actions of one or a few are a perfectly sufficient explanation. It’s as if we have a predisposition to believe that the intent must correspond to the cause – that a huge disaster can’t be caused by random chance, or by basic human motivations like self-interest and in-group bias, but must be the product of an equally huge and powerful conspiracy.

But don’t you see what all these conspiracy theories require you to believe about your fellow human beings? They force you to see us – to see everyone outside your narrow circle of like-minded allies, as not merely ignorant or indifferent, but as actively malevolent. They force you to see other people as strange and dangerous aliens whose wants and desires can never be reconciled with yours. Do you really find it plausible that we’re so different from you? Despite the scare stories, all we really want is the same things you want: peace and safety, health and prosperity, and the right to make our own choices in life. We’re all human beings trying to live together on this world, and the things which make us similar are far more important and meaningful than the ones that make us different. You really don’t have to be afraid.”

I awaited another burst of accusations, but there wasn’t one. Instead, when I looked up, the man was staring at me with a haunted expression. “I really don’t have to be afraid…?” he said hesitantly. He took a step forward, but flinched back from the boundary of the stone wall.

“It’s just a little step, you know,” I said.

He stepped forward again, and this time he didn’t flinch back. He stepped over the stone wall, and the instant that he did, he vanished like a swirl of smoke: no longer a denizen of the desert, but gone on to some other place entirely. In the same instant, a startling change came over the circle of desert enclosed by the rock wall: suddenly, it was no longer a desert at all, but an oasis. Where once there had been sand and stones, leafy flowering plants and tall palm trees now shaded a shallow pool of bright, clear water. It might not last forever, I knew… but even in the desert, such places did appear sometimes. More importantly, I knew I could use it as a path home. All gardens were connected at some level.

I looked around the otherwise desolate land once more. “Until next time,” I murmured, and stepped into the shade of the trees. I knew there would be a next time… but if there was a prospect of causing more gardens like this one to bloom in the desert, the thought of returning didn’t seem nearly as dreadful.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Little James

    I like these, and I love the idea, but I think I like the Scholar installment best. It was the least “literal”. I think including real-life issues (like every conspiracy theory you could think of, or to a lesser extent the end-times prophecies of the previous installment) rather than making it a completely self-contained story about strange desert dwellers makes the allegory less effective.

  • http://atheistwiki.wikispaces.com Jon Jermey

    “Terrorists! Immigrants! Gays! Communists! Scary dark-skinned people! They’re coming to take our guns and our Bibles…The powers that be are watching. The Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati. Children dragged away by jackbooted thugs for praying in school. Satanic cults and their baby sacrifices…Christmas is under attack. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Cell phones cause cancer. Toxins in our vaccines….’

    So people whipping up hysteria and preaching doom and destruction are wrong? Mmm-hmm.

    ‘Global warming is an invention of Big Environmentalism’…?

    Ah, so apocalyptic cults that you disagree with are the result of brainwashing, but apocalyptic cults that you happen to agree with are rational, and OPPOSITION to them is the result of brainwashing?

    OK, got it.

  • Nathaniel

    Ok, so scientists coming up with predictions based on evidence from study of the weather and the climate are an apocalyptic cult?

    Ok, got it. You’re a moron.

  • http://www.AtheistsUnited.org/ Neil C. Reinhardt

    Yes, there is hysteria, AND there IS also little things called FACTS!

    And the FACTS ARE: Knowledgeable and intelligent people who are also well informed know the Moslem Terrorists, in league with the Moslem Brotherhood, bin Laden, etc. have been Attacking and KILLING our Friends, Allies & Americans for OVER THIRTY YEARS!

    They also know Moslem Fanatics have published long range plans, covering a hundred year time span, to TAKE OVER our ENTIRE PLANET!

    (FYI. They are in about year twenty and they are pretty much ON Schedule.)

    Then these Moslem whackos fully intend to establish a World Wide Caliphate ruled by Moslem Clerics under Sharia Islamic Law.

    So Children, SOME threats are REAL!

    Of course, I am sure some retards will disagree with the above, Those who do only prove they are just too lazy to do sufficient research to find out that I am correct.

    As I am correct and know the facts are there to prove it, I will dismiss them in advance.

    The same applies to Global Warming as there ARE more than Sufficent Facts PROVING it IS HERE, and we HUMANS are the MAIN Cause of it.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    You never know, Nathaniel. Personally, I have talked to a few people, and none of the confirm nor deny hearing directly from scientists that they are planning a second life underneath Mars’ surface once they boil all the Earth’s oceans in a manmade global warming plan by adding extra fluoride into the drinking water of genetically modified cows.

    Besides, its a Pascal’s Wager of sorts: Regardless of global warming, even the psycho-conservatives acknowledged acid rain when I was, like, six or seven years old. GW has become the poster child for environmentalism, but using less of the same greenhouse gasses reduces acid rain as well, so you might as well go along for that reason. I mean, nuclear wind and solar power are pretty cheap, comparatively speaking, to fossil fuels. Uranium is as common as oil and its output is vastly superior, wind and sun are everywhere, with no real searching required.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I’m choosing to let comment #4 stand, but be advised that it exhibits neither the civility nor the spirit of reasonableness I expect from commenters at Daylight Atheism. Neil, I strongly advise you not to make a habit of writing comments like this.

  • Camus Dude

    Perhaps Neil is trying his hand at Poe-ing? His name links to a Californian organization called “Atheists United” after all.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Nope, he’s the real thing. Do a Google search on his name. Or, on second thought, don’t.

  • lpetrich

    Ebonmuse, that’s a thought about conspiracy theories that I’ve long thought. Overactive detection of agency, ought to happen outside of religion, and conspiracy theories look like a good example. Instead of impersonal forces or lots of small-scale decisions, it’s a few large-scale decisions which are carefully kept out of public view by their deciders.

    Some conspiracies do turn out to be real, but many purported conspiracies might best be described as unnecessary hypotheses.

  • Valhar2000

    And the FACTS ARE: Knowledgeable and intelligent people who are also well informed know the Moslem Terrorists, in league with the Moslem Brotherhood, bin Laden, etc. have been Attacking and KILLING our Friends, Allies & Americans for OVER THIRTY YEARS!

    Well, this is, in broad terms, correct.

    They also know Moslem Fanatics have published long range plans, covering a hundred year time span, to TAKE OVER our ENTIRE PLANET!

    Calling them “plans” is far too charitable. What they have are rants and delusional fantasies to this effect. But plans? No.

    Instead they have a steady state. They have a pool of angry scared people who are willing to pay money, a promise to use that money toward a goal, and a plan to achieve that goal that is sufficiently vague that no-one can accurately point out its flaws (and more importantly, sufficiently vague that they don’t actually have to go through with it). This way, money keeps flowing in, and a few sociopaths earn an easy living.

    In other words: religion.

  • Joffan

    I sometimes use the propensity for Gish Gallop, a lovely term I first heard here, as a marker for which side of a debate (probably) has least science on its side. Watch out for a rush of adjectives, rapid shifts of subtopic, demands for quick answers to complex questions, and a hair-trigger sense of outrage. Conspiracy theories are another frequent marker of reality-challenged views.

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    I have to agree, terrorists are neither smart nor organized in any meaningful way. They are uneducated, have limited rescources, are remarkably predictable and pose no signifigant threat to anyone but each other. In a post-911 age we can use simple caution and racial profiling, and air cops to keep them out of the skies and x-ray scanners to check mail(and irradiate anthrax bugs). Throw in some uavs and survaillance airships and they really become not much of a threat. Demographically, though, we should be very afraid.


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