Wednesday, January 20, 2010


When we attempt to learn a new behavior, something we have never tried or seen others model, we can feel a bit disoriented or off-balance.  This state is termed "cognitive dissonance".  Although it feels uncomfortable, it provides an opportunity to learn a new response, to put in place a new neural pathway in your brain.  For example, if you have always put your right leg into your pants first you have created a neural highway by repetition so that the moment you grab your pants the next action is already starting, almost without your volition.  It's habit.  But you can try an experiment.  You can try putting in the left leg first.  As you do this new behavior you begin to construct a new pathway and with repetition that pathway grows in bandwidth, becoming the faster more automatic response.  Our brains are amazingly plastic in this way, and that gives us hope for change not in simple tasks but in the more serious task of dealing with crisis, anger, and stress.  Do we respond violently, or learn new nonviolent responses to old impulses?

On January 21, 1995 Tariq Khamisa, a 20 year old San Diego State University student, was delivering pizzas to a false address.  Waiting in ambush was Tony Hicks, a 14 year old fresh recruit to the gang life.  Tony's life had not been an easy one up to this point.  His mother was only 15.  Each attempt to make contact with his father found him beaten by this man whose genetics he shared.  Tony's guardian, his grandfather, a Vietnam vet, Ples Felix, tried to give Tony the help he needed in coping with his anger by getting him counseling.  Ples worried over his associations with local "homies".   On the 20th Tony left a note for his Grandfather, saying that he had to run away from home.  The next night, Tony killed Tariq as instructed by an older gang member.  Tony had been drinking and smoking pot and now wanted food.  The violent pathways etched into his brain made this conclusion the only way.  When Tariq's father, Azim Khamisa, got the request to come identify his sons body an enormous mental gap or moment of cognitive dissonance, occurred, as it would for any parent.  Azim describes it as atom bombs exploding in his heart.  For me, if it were my daughter, I'm sure my first impulse would be to find the one responsible for my pain and make sure that person suffers too.  We've seen the plot hundreds of times played out by Hollywood.  Samuel L Jackson's character in A Time to Kill, hides in the courthouse and murders the boy that brutally raped his 10 year old daughter.  He is the protagonist.  He gets sympathy from us, the audience.  We identify with his response because it is the response we've learned from our society.  It's revenge, retaliation and it's killing too many people.  But Azim Khamisa did not stalk and kill Tony Hicks or Ples Felix.  He jumped the mental ruts a socialized human response and instead recognized that there were "victims at both ends of the gun".  It is most likely that Azim's strong spiritual tradition gave him the inner strength and wisdom to see the tragedy clearly.  He is Sufi Muslim.  As he puts it, "one of my life goals has been to emulate a lifestyle that draws on the spiritual wisdom of the East, the material wisdom of the West, and the soul-wisdom of Africa."  Did Azim entertain thoughts of violence and revenge?  I'm certain he did, but fortunately these were not the thoughts that were allowed to manifest into action.

So in that moment, when the bombs are shattering your heart, what can you do?  What did Azim Khamisa do?  Azim honored the Spirit of Life by finding his way to forgiveness, not only in words but in action.  Azim reached out to Tony's grandfather Ples, and together they formed the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (  Through the foundation they have reached out to youth populations that are in gang areas, where violence could easily become their primary method of conflict resolution.  They go to the schools with their programs to guide children in alternatives to the violence that is their daily reality, in hopes of re-routing the neural pathways to non-violent solutions.  TKF has reached out to over 8 million students in 12,000 schools via their documentary.  TKF offers several programs to empower students to make non-violent choices.  And what about Tony?  Tony was the first juvenile to be tried as an adult.  He received a sentence of 25 years to life.  He won't be eligible for parole until he is 46 years old.  Think of it for a moment.  In just an instant, a muzzle flash, Tony will lose all the experiences we take for granted between the ages of 14 and 46.  First love, gone.  Marriage and children, likely gone.  But he has his grandfather and he also has the father of the boy he murdered.  When he does get out, he can begin again.  He will take his place in TKF, working so that other young boys do not have to grow up in prison like he has.  At age 16 Tony became a ward of New Folsom, California State Prison.  He has since been moved, four times in five years.  He now resides in Pelican Bay State Prison.  Prison is not an easy life.  If you think the streets of San Diego or Oakland are violent, then you can just imagine what it must be like to put all that anger and hatred into one building.  Prison guards are often war veterans who themselves are struggling with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and trying to make sense of the evil they were forced to do to innocent people abroad.  Here their abusive training is appreciated.  Our prison systems are but training grounds, galvanizing our most violent tendencies.  But the Spirit of Life still lives in each of these people, both the guards, the murderers, the rapists, the child molesters, yes, even them.  Let's try a new response.  Let's get out of a false comfort zone and begin the restorative process of forgiveness.


Tom H. Hastings said...

Beautiful call for a new way. As a former inmate I can tell you that putting all that anger into one building is harsh at times, but I always found inmates better adjusted than were the guards, at least in the behaviors I generally saw and personally experienced. So your call for hope is, in my mind and heart, quite realistic. We need new paths from our brains to our civil society feet--I had never heard of this foundation and you tell quite a moving story...thank you for a fine post.

Terri said...

I had the great fortune of hearing Azim tell the story in person at the Educators for Nonviolence conference (A Nagler project) in Oakland a couple years back. There wasn't a dry eye in the room when he finished. He's a very powerful and personable speaker. He's on facebook too : )