World Out of Touch With Itself: Where the Violence Comes From
By Rabbi Michael Lerner
There is never any justification for acts of terror
against innocent civiliansnot in Israel and not in the U.S. 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.
Its understandable why many of us, after grieving and consoling
the mourners, feel anger. Unfortunately, demagogues in the White House
and Congress have manipulated our legitimate outrage and channeled it
into a new militarism and a revival of the deepest-held belief of the
conservative worldviewthat the world is mostly a dangerous place
and our lives must be based around protecting ourselves from the threatening
In this case, terrorism provides a perfect base for this worldviewit
can come from anywhere, we dont really know who is the enemy,
and so everyone can be suspect and everyone can be a target of our fear-induced
rage. With this as a foundation, justification is seen for massive military
spending, and a new war with its inevitable trappings: Repression of
civil liberties, denigration of evil others, and a new
climate of fear and intimidation.
Of course, the people who did this attack are evil and they are a real
threat to the human race. If they could, they would use nuclear weapons
or chemical/biological weapons. The perpetrators deserve to be punished,
and I personally would be happy if all the people involved in this
were to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives. But that is quite
different from the suggestion of some in the Bush administration of eliminating countries. Punishing
the perpetrators is different from making war against whole populations.
The narrow focus on the perpetrators allows us to avoid dealing with
the underlying issues. When violence becomes so prevalent throughout
the planet, its 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? And why is it that our immediate response
to violence is to use violence ourselvesthus reinforcing the
cycle of violence in the world?
We in the spiritual world see the root problem here as a growing global
incapacity to recognize the spirit of God in each otherwhat 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 the September 11th attack which distinguishes
it from the violence and insensitivity to each other that is part of
our daily lives.
A World Out of Touch
We may tell ourselves that the current violence has nothing to
do with the way that weve 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 worlds 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 usthat
its 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 our own daily lives.
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 economy 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 dont feel personally responsible when an American corporation
runs a sweatshop in the Philippines or crushes efforts of workers to
organize in Singapore. We dont 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 and South America. We dont even see the symbolism
when terrorists attack Americas military center and our trade
centerwe 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 usso why should
others be angry with 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 Israeli-Palestinian struggle that responding to terror with
violence will only ensure more violence against us in the future.
A World Based on Caring
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.
None of this should be read as somehow mitigating our anger at the
terrorists. Lets not be naive about the perpetrators of this terror. The brains
and money behind this operation isnt a group of refugees living
penniless in Palestinian refugee camps. Many of the core terrorists
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
Imagine if the bin Ladens and other haters of the world had to recruit
people against America at a time when America was using its economic
resources to end world hunger and redistribute the wealth of the planet
so that everyone had enough; a time when America was the leading voice
championing an ethos of generosity and caring for othersleading
the world in ecological responsibility, social justice, open-hearted
treatment of minorities, and rewarding people and corporations for
Think its naive and impossible to move America in that direction?
Well, here are reasons why its an approach that deserves your
support. Its even more naive to imagine that bombings, missile
defense systems, more spies or baggage searches can stop people willing
to lose their lives to wreak havoc and capable of airplane hijacking
and chemical assaults. The response of people to the World Trade Centers
collapse was an outpouring of loving energy and generosity, sometimes
even risking their own lives, and showing the capacity and desire we
all have to care about each other. If we could legitimate people allowing
that part of themselves to come out, without having to wait for a disaster,
we could empower a part of every human being which our social order
marginalizes. Americans have a deep goodnessand that needs to
be affirmed. Indeed, the goodness that poured forth from so many Americans
should not be allowed to be overshadowed by the subsequent shift toward
militarism and anger.
The central struggle going on in the world today is one between hope
and fear, love and paranoia, generosity and trying to shore up ones
own portion. There is no possibility in sustaining a world built on
fear. Our only hope is to revert to a consciousness of generosity and
love. Thats not to go to a la-la-land where there are no forces
like those who destroyed the Word Trade Center. But it is to refuse
to allow that to become the shaping paradigm of the 21st century. Much
better to make the shaping paradigm the story of the police and firemen
who risked (and in many cases lost) their lives in order to save other
human beings whom they didnt even know. Let the paradigm be the
generosity and kindness of people when they are given a social sanction
to be caring instead of self-protective. We cannot let war, hatred
fear become the power in this new century that it was in the last century.
We need a movement that puts forward a positive vision of a world based
on caringand a commitment to rectify the injustices that the
globalization of selfishness has wreaked on the world, while simultaneously
it clear that we have no tolerance for reckless acts of violence and
terror such as those which Israel has had to experience this past year
or those which the U.S. faced in September.
Its only with that balanced view that we can say that it is a
huge mistake to make war or violence the primary way we respond to this
situation. Its about time we began to say unequivocally that violence
doesnt worknot as an end and not as a means. The best defense
is a world drenched in love, not a world drenched in armaments.
We should pray for the victims and the families of those who have been
hurt or murdered in these crazy acts. We should also pray that America
does not return to business as usual, but rather turns
to a period of reflection, coming back into touch with our common humanity,
asking ourselves how our institutions can best embody our highest values.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine,
a bimonthly Jewish critique of politics, culture and society (www.tikkun.org),
and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco. He is the author
of Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul (Walsch
Books/Hampton Roads Publishing) and, most recently, editor of Best Contemporary
Jewish Writing (Jossey-Bass). He can be contacted at RabbiLerner@tikkun.org.