A World Out of Touch With Itself

Rabbi Michael Lerner

There is never any justification for acts of terror against innocent civilians--it is the quintessential act of dehumanization and not recognizing the sanctity of others, and a visible symbol of a world increasingly irrational and out of control.

It's understandable why many of us, after grieving and consoling the mourners, will feel anger--and while some demagogues in Congress have already sought to manipulate that feeling into a growing militarism (more spies, legalize assassinations of foreign leaders, increase the defense budget at the expense of domestic programs), the more "responsible" leaders are seeking to narrow America's response to targeted attacks on countries that allegedly harbor the terrorists.

The perpetrators deserve to be punished, and I personally would be happy if all the people involved in this act were to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives. Let's not be naive: these are evil people who planned this and perpetrated it, just as are many who are engaged in acts of terror against Israel. They should not be excused or forgiven for their acts. Whatever cause they claim to espouse is only dirtied and discredited by these disgusting acts of violence.

Yet in some ways this narrow focus on the perpetrators allows us to avoid dealing with the underlying issues. When violence becomes so prevalent throughout the planet, it's too easy to simply talk of "deranged minds." We need to ask ourselves, "What is it in the way that we are living, organizing our societies, and treating each other that makes violence seem plausible to so many people?"

We in the spiritual world will see this as a growing global incapacity to recognize the spirit of God in each other--what we call the sanctity of each human being. But even if you reject religious language, you can see that the willingness of people to hurt each other to advance their own interests has become a global problem, and its only the dramatic level of this particular attack which distinguishes it from the violence and insensitivity to each other that is part of our daily lives.

We may tell ourselves that the current violence has "nothing to do" with the way that we've learned to close our ears when told that one out of every three people on this planet does not have enough food, and that one billion are literally starving. We may reassure ourselves that the hoarding of the world's resources by the richest society in world history, and our frantic attempts to accelerate globalization with its attendant inequalities of wealth, has nothing to do with the resentment that others feel toward us. We may tell ourselves that the suffering of refugees and the oppressed have nothing to do with us--that that's a different story that is going on somewhere else. But we live in one world, increasingly interconnected with everyone, and the forces that lead people to feel outrage, anger and desperation eventually impact on our own daily lives.

The same inability to feel the pain of others is the pathology that shapes the minds of these terrorists. Raise children in circumstances where no one is there to take care of them, or where they must live by begging or selling their bodies in prostitution, put them in refugee camps and tell them that that they have "no right of return" to their homes, treat them as though they are less valuable and deserving of respect because they are part of some despised national or ethnic group, surround them with a media that extols the rich and makes everyone who is not economically successful and physically trim and conventionally "beautiful" feel bad about themselves, offer them jobs whose sole goal is to enrich the "bottom line" of someone else, and teach them that "looking out for number one" is the only thing anyone "really" cares about and that anyone who believes in love and social justice are merely naive idealists who are destined to always remain powerless, and you will produce a world-wide population of people feeling depressed, angry, unable to care about others, and in various ways dysfunctional.

I see this in Israel, where Israelis have taken to dismissing the entire Palestinian people as "terrorists" but never ask themselves: "What have we done to make this seem to Palestinians to be a reasonable path of action today." Of course there were always some hateful people and some religious fundamentalists who want to act in hurtful ways against Israel, no matter what the circumstances. Yet, in the situation of 1993-96 when Israel under Yitzhak Rabin was pursuing a path of negotiations and peace, the fundamentalists had little following and there were few acts of violence. On the other hand, when Israel failed to withdraw from the West Bank, and instead expanded the number of its settlers, the fundamentalists and haters had a far easier time convincing many decent Palestinians that there might be no other alternative.

Similarly, if the U.S. turns its back on global agreements to preserve the environment, unilaterally cancels its treaties to not build a missile defense, accelerates the processes by which a global ecnonomy has made some people in the third world richer but many poorer, shows that it cares nothing for the fate of refugees who have been homeless for decades, and otherwise turns its back on ethical norms, it becomes far easier for the haters and the fundamentalists to recruit people who are willing to kill themselves in strikes against what they perceive to be an evil American empire represented by the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

Most Americans will feel puzzled by any reference to this "larger picture." It seems baffling to imagine that somehow we are part of a world system which is slowly destroying the life support system of the planet, and quickly transferring the wealth of the world into our own pockets.

We don't feel personally responsible when an American corporation runs a sweat shop in the Phillipines or crushes efforts of workers to organize in Singapore. We don't see ourselves implicated when the U.S. refuses to consider the plight of Palestinian refugees or uses the excuse of fighting drugs to support repression in Colombia or other parts of Central America. We don't even see the symbolism when terrorists attack America's military center and our trade center--we talk of them as buildings, though others see them as centers of the forces that are causing the world so much pain.

We have narrowed our own attention to "getting through" or "doing well" in our own personal lives, and who has time to focus on all the rest of this? Most of us are leading perfectly reasonable lives within the options that we have available to us--so why should others be angry at us, much less strike out against us? And the truth is, our anger is also understandable: the striking out by others in acts of terror against us is just as irrational as the world-system that it seeks to confront. Yet our acts of counter-terror will also be counter-productive. We should have learned from the current phase of the Israel-Palestinian struggle , responding to terror with more violence, rather than asking ourselves what we could do to change the conditions that generated it in the first place, will only ensure more violence against us in the future. Luckily, most people don't act out in violent ways--they tend to act out more against themselves, drowning themselves in alcohol or drugs or personal despair. Others turn toward fundamentalist religions or ultra-nationalist extremism. Still others find themselves acting out against people that they love, acting angry or hurtful toward children or relationship partners.

This is a world out of touch with itself, filled with people who have forgotten how to recognize and respond to the sacred in each other because we are so used to looking at others from the standpoint of what they can do for us, how we can use them toward our own ends. The alternatives are stark: either start caring about the fate of everyone on this planet or be prepared for a slippery slope toward violence that will eventually dominate our daily lives.

Let's not be naïve about the perpetrators of this terror. Many are evil people, as are some of the fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists who demean and are willing to destroy others. But these evil people are often marginalized when societal dynamics are moving toward peace and hope (e.g. in Israel while Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister) and they become much more influential and able to recruit people to give their lives to their cause when ordinary and otherwise decent people despair of peace and justice (as when Israel from `1996 to 2000 dramatically increased the number of settlers)

September 17, 2001

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Date created: 10-Sep-03