Saturday, January 07, 2006

Ethics After 9/11: Philosophy in the Language of Wounds.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, "Sermon Given at the St. Paul's Service of Remembrance for the Victims of the London Bombings,"
Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: After September 11 (Grand Rapids: William B. Erdman, 2002), $12.95.

On the morning of 9/11, I remember kissing my child as she headed off to school. Her mother tossed an air kiss my way and grabbed a leather briefcase while going out the door.

I sat down at my computer, sipped some coffee and started on the day's writing projects, when I noticed that the television was still on and that "Regis" had been interrupted by a newscast. It was then that I saw the horror begin to unfold on screen, like a bad action movie. The sense of helplessness was overwhelming. Subways would not take you downtown. I could not reach Isabel or my daughter by cellphone. I felt trapped and helpless. It was a nightmare. It was unlike anything that I had ever experienced, although I have known my share of nightmares. The frustrations of helplessness, of not knowing, are among the most hideous torments that one can experience. They have become a daily agony for me and many others.

Imagine that someone you love is absent from your life. You do not know whether she is alive or dead. You imagine contradictory things. Is she suffering? Is she trying to reach me? Think of the pain for a person in that situation. Every minute is a day long. Thousands of innocent people experienced exactly that evil and pain on 9/11. Some experience it all the time. Images of zombie-like pedestrians filled the airwaves.

Now try to think of persons who are capable of killing others -- deliberately causing such suffering to their fellow human beings -- but also to their own friends and family members, to the loved-ones of the victims, a never-ending cycle of torture.

The 9/11 attack was meant to dramatize a cause. It was also, I believe, an act of undiluted hatred. And hatred like that is always, at least partly, self-hatred.

A terrorist is a tormented, twisted human being, who needs to have others suffer. A terrorist is a kind of torturer. Along with the anger, even rage they receive from us, one also feels a strange mixture of compassion, pity and disgust for persons who are capable of such evil. There is something -- some essential component of humanity -- missing from a person capable of such an act of deliberate cruelty and destructiveness, violence intended to invade the lives of others. What kind of person needs the pain of another sentient creature in order to feel alive? Please study the filmed interviews with Jeffrey Dammer. Jeffrey's murders were about easing his boredom and "helping" his victims.

On 9/11, I thought of every person I love, eventually reaching some of my loved-ones, knowing that they were O.K. Family members needed to speak to one another that day. For as long as the phones worked, we did. There was one person that I could not reach, so I carried this fear inside. Is she there? Are the children safe? Should I try to signal somehow? But how? Living with such fear and horror on a daily basis is like having someone sitting on your chest all day, as you breathe a mixture of air and razor blades.

The paradoxical phrase "pure hate" captures some of the mystery of evil. Evil is a necessary but overused word these days. It exists. I have seen it. Most people have experienced some form of evil, except for analytical philosophers perhaps, many of whom believe that we can dispense with the concept. Sadly, it is an essential concept and word these days. Maybe it has always been a necessary word and idea.

The word "evil" points to the 800 pound gorilla in our moral lives. That gorilla does not look like King Kong, but more like Eichman. He rides the subway with us. He is unassuming, dresses in gray suits. Perhaps he makes policy decisions somewhere, so that persons become numbers in a computer print out. The 9/11 terrorists were products of the educated and affluent segments of their societies. They were not poor or ignorant. Maybe they wore gray suits:

Violence is a communication, after all, of hatred, fear, or contempt, and I have a choice about the language I am going to use to respond. If I decide to answer in the same terms, that is how the conversation will continue. How many times have you heard someone say, "It's the only language they understand" to defend a violent reaction to violent acts?

We rightly feel anger and a desire to respond to violence directed against us, violently, with sufficient force to stop the monstrosities, but we must not become what the terrorists are. And violence is addictive and thrilling, so is power over others. There is a horrible fascination in violence, especially for many men. ("What a man's gotta do.")

"Men love war." I believe that it was Virginia Woolf who first said this, "if they did not, they would have stopped it long ago." Many women have come to share in that love of war, with the acquisition of greater power in recent years. This is especially sad and discouraging.

Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Canterbury. His writings are a recent discovery for me. I am not a religious person -- not according to any traditional understanding of the term -- and I was raised and educated as a Catholic, not as a member of the Church of England. I cannot describe myself as Catholic now. Yet I have found Mr. Williams's writings helpful and wise in thinking through my own feelings about the events of that day and in struggling with the presence of evil in my life, together with the refusal to allow it to enter my heart. Mr. Williams explains why hatred is wrong:

No, it is not death itself that should be the focus of fear. Rather, we should be afraid of losing just that passionate conviction about the beauty and dignity of each person ... We should be afraid of losing the thing that, above all else, sets faith, humanity, civilisation apart from the mind and the world of the terrorist. Jesus tells us not to fear those who can destroy the body, but those who can destroy body and soul; and part of the sickness of spirit we feel when confronted with terrorism is that we face people whose souls are damaged, almost destroyed.

Today, in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, there are psychologists and psychoanalysts who specialize in the destruction of subjects. "Souls" do not exist, they say. ("What is it like to be tortured?")

Professor Elaine Pagels speaks of evil in the early Christian tradition as a "demonizing" (maybe in a literal sense) of the Other. Bishop Williams speaks of the refusal to see the humanity of other persons by turning them into abstractions or symbols. The terrorist believes that he or she is not killing a group of strangers on a bus, but a bunch of rich Americans or Israelis, or even those who cooperate with them, like tourists. A terrorist deliberately refuses to see his or her victims, as persons, refuses to recognize their humanity, refuses to admit that they will suffer and that their absence will cause others to suffer. A terrorist refuses to allow him- or herself to feel what victims' feel. Morality demands that we do exactly that. We must try to feel with and for others, even when this is unbearably painful.

For the terrorist to recognize victims as "persons" is to be forced to contemplate the true nature of his or her actions. What the terrorist must not do in order to remain committed to his or her mission, is to recognize the victims as being like himself or herself, as potential friends or loved-ones, as prisoners of history and politics, struggling to escape those seemingly overwhelming forces. The hideous spectacle of unending violence in the Middle East reveals the horror of nations stuck in a cycle of mutual hatred. Think also of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Perhaps this is something for Cuban-Americans to ponder. ("Time to End the Embargo Against Cuba.")

Mr. Williams is a philosopher whose Christian faith is genuine and powerful. In writings after 9/11 -- he was at Trinity Church in New York on the date of the attacks, serving coffee to the firefighters possibly -- he addresses (as he did after the London bombings) the two great issues that surface in these discussions: 1) Where was God when the planes crashed into those buildings? 2) How can we prevent ourselves from becoming what those terrorists were, or what others like them are today? As to the first question, he recalls ...

... fumbling about how God doesn't intervene, which sounds like a lame apology for some kind of "policy" on God's part, a policy exposed as heartless in the face of such suffering? Something about how God is there in the sacrificial work of the rescuers, in the risks they take? I tried saying bits of this, but there was no clearer answer than there ever is.

The only response that makes sense of such a question focuses on the human need for freedom in order to remain human after the experience of a "limit situation." The choice of goodness is only real when evil is an option. Suffering is the price of that redemption in self-giving, which leads to the saving of others, and thereby of oneself. (Please see my short story "The Soldier and the Ballerina.")

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned only through pain. How do you know when your foot is on fire? Not at second hand, through description. Experience of agony teaches compassion for the suffering of others, it leads us to embrace those others, with love and a desire to take away their pain, to make them laugh, or to bring them peace. Terrorists delight in the infliction of pain for its own sake, then seek to rationalize cruelty as being for some larger cause. But only a meaning of pain that is freely chosen by the suffering person has instructive value. You must decide on the meaning of your own suffering. More than this, I think that all of us must decide on the meaning of the suffering that we will and do experience, collectively and historically, as a people or species. (Hackers have made it necessary for me to correct this sentence yet again, thus proving much of what I am saying.)

The victims of the Holocaust were not only those who died in the camps, but all of humanity. The victims of 9/11 were all decent persons, struggling to live moral lives, anywhere in the world. The same principle applies to all victims of terror, in London or Spain, in Israel or Lebanon, in Africa or Asia. The destruction of my written work and denial to me of freedom of expression is the violation of your rights, even if you are one of the persons committing these acts.

Like love, suffering calls us out of our painful self-absorption. Love liberates us from the prison of selfhood. So does pain leading to compassion. Something desperately needed in contemporary America and elsewhere is liberation from self-satisfaction and smugness through directing the attention to the mystery of our broken condition in this world. I usually speak of transcendence in communicating this idea. Think of Simone Weil and Thomas Merton, also Buber and in Islamic Law, "The Bidding Unto Good" (Al-amr bi al-Ma'ruf):

"The Law orders men [and women] to do good and reject what is reprehensible, and it is also obligatory for Muslims to enjoin right behavior on their fellows and deter them from wrong actions." This includes the killing of innocents. This relies on Islam's version of an ethics of love comparable to the Hebrew and Christian ethics: "This aspect of Islamic ethics (the hisba) explains a degree of being one's brother's keeper in Islamic civilization."

John Alden Williams, ed., Islam (New York: George Brazillier, 1962), pp. 125-126 (emphasis added).

Spiritual suffering (which results whenever we encounter evil, like torture or terrorism) insists on love as the only release from suffering, demanding compassion and community from us. Hatred only produces more suffering, especially for the hater. There is no answer and no meaning in hate. Anger at those who hate may be unavoidable, but hatred (like theirs) inevitably produces more hatred, resulting only in still more hatred in return. Hatred is a dark street leading nowhere. I have seen it. I have been taken there. For once, the expression is apt: Don't go there. It is far easier to speak this truth than to live it.

... we have the freedom to consider whether or not we turn to violence, and so, in virtue of that very fact, are rather different from those who experience their world as leaving them no other option. But if we have that freedom, it ought to be less likely that we reach for violence as a first resort. ... this has nothing to do with excusing decisions to murder, threaten, and torment, nor is it a recommendation to be passive. It is about trying to act so that something might possibly change, as opposed to acting so as to persuade ourselves that we're not powerless.

The one common characteristic that I have discovered among haters, terrorists and those who propose "final solutions," is a yearning to escape meaninglessness, nihilism and boredom through activity. (This means you, Diana.) It may be through the activities of violence or meaningless sex, as opposed to love-making, that this doomed attempt is made. All attempts to escape freedom -- freedom, which leads to morality -- will fail, resulting only in evil and suffering. ("Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture.")

Persons are not mere objects existing outside of morality, but if they try to live in such an inhuman fashion -- as "things" -- the result will be evil, not amorality or neutrality. A person cannot remove or take off his or her humanity; any attempt to do such a thing will result in moral catastrophe. (See "Why I am not an ethical relativist" and "Richard A. Posner on Voluntary Actions and Criminal Responsibility" then "Not One More Victim.")

Sex, not as the expression of something felt for another person but as a desperate effort just to feel something, anything is not very different from indiscriminate violence. Both are ways of convincing yourself that you are still alive or that something is worth caring about. Both have the opposite effect. Much the same is true of meaningless consumption. These activities produce the very death of feeling that its proponents wish to escape. The only answer to this meaninglessness is love. Love costs no money and can only be kept by being given away. The more you love your child today, the more love you will have to give her tomorrow.

Malcom Muggeridge's essay on Bonhoeffer may be allowed to summarize Mr. Williams's book: "blessedness may arise from affliction," Muggeridge writes, becoming a "strange gift" that transforms the straw of pain into the gold of compassion and goodness, that is, moral beauty.

It is very difficult for a twentieth century mind to accept, or even grasp, the notion of the blessedness of affliction. Bonhoeffer provides us with a perfect object lesson. His greatness grew directly out of his affliction, and through the very hopelessness of his earthly state, he was able to generate hope at a dark moment in history, when it was most sorely needed, comforting and heartening many.

In a passage that I found very moving, Mr. Williams refers to W.H. Auden's account of the story of the Massacre of the Innocents: "Somewhere in these unending wastes of delirium is a lost child, speaking of Long Ago in the language of wounds." ("R.D. Laing and Evil.")

It is possible that when we speak this lost language of wounds, with love, we have found what we may call "God." Those, like myself, who prefer to speak simply of love are welcome to do so. What matters is that we allow ourselves to feel and that we care for one another.

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