Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Civilization and Terrorism.



I had planned to post an essay dealing with Susan Sontag's writings today, but a virus makes this impossible. Yet I am happy, at least, to include Ms. Sontag's picture with this post because, along with a few others, she symbolizes civilization for me. It is likely that Ms. Sontag's picture will be blocked, eventually, probably by the uncivilized.

Adam Morton, On Evil (London: Routledge, 2004).

Richard Harries, After the Evil: Christianity and Judaism in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Maria Pia Lara, "Narrating Evil: A Postmetaphysical Theory of Reflective Judgment," in Maria Pia Lara, ed., Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives (Los Angeles: University of California, 1997), p. 239.

The following historians are among the best analysts of civilization:

E.P. Thompson, Making History: Writings on History and Culture (New York: The New Press, 1994).

Eric Hobsbawm, On History (New York: The New Press, 1997).

"The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered, (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice."

C.S. Lewis, Preface, The Screwtape Letters (1961).

I sit in a small room located a few blocks away from one of the great museums in the United States. From my dining room window I can see the tower which was transported by the Rockerfeller family from France to New York for the specific purpose of housing a world-class collection of medieval art. Surrounding this museum, now called "The Cloisters" (a division of the MET Museum of New York) and its priceless antiquities, is one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city. This is, of course, yet another irony in a time and place filled with great ironies.

There are some people who criticize the mere existence of this museum and suggest that it should be closed and its contents sold, so that the proceeds might be turned over to the poor. But there are many ways of being poor and most people realize that such a sale would only further impoverish every citizen of this metropolis, especially its poorest citizens. The inescapable presence of that tower in my life has made it into a symbol. Like it or not, I see it every day. So it has come to symbolize civilization for me.

What is civilization?

British art historian, Kenneth Clark, raised exactly this question in a PBS documentary, then devoted fourteen weeks and a thick book to trying to answer it. Even more time and effort would be inadequate, of course, to the task of defining civilization. Like American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart seeking to define obscenity, we might just shrug our shoulders and say, "I know it when I see it."

I see civilization in the contents of that museum: in paintings and sculptures, in beautiful buildings, films, books in libraries and bookstores, even in jewelry and clothing, in the way fashionable women wear colorful scarves and arrange their hair as they stroll down Fifth Avenue. There is civilization also in the small gestures of civility (appropriate term) that make up our daily lives, in the rituals of our meals and forms of greeting. And all civilizations have a history which alone makes them understandable.

All of these things are connected, somehow, to often unarticulated and unexamined aesthetic and ethical ideals that we assume, that we feel to be present in our lives, without finding it necessary to make them explicit in any way -- ideals by which we live our lives, by which we establish, through time, a continuity with the past.

There is no people on earth with a greater experience of the challenge of protecting their civilization, as a legacy to be handed on to their children, than the Jewish people. There is no people that has faced greater obstacles in the effort to hang on to their civilization, as a set of ideals that are defining even as they are to be defined by each generation, successively, which may be one way of succintly stating the meaning of the history of the Jewish people in its entirety.

That civilization has been in danger for thousands of years. It is still in danger. Yet it is still with us. I think that it always will be with us, despite the challenges -- because of the vitality and richness of its symbols and the beauty and power of its ethical wisdom. It is a living and a very strong civilization. Those of us who have have seen a Jewish wedding ceremony will recall the symbol of a shattered glass goblet bound in cloth. This is a symbol which gestures (among other things) at the pain of life and at the binding qualities of love within that pain. A people that inherits such symbols will never be destroyed. Paul Ricoeur's celebrated maxim comes to mind: "the symbol gives rise to thought."

It may be useful to recall the etymology of the word religion: re-ligare, is to "bind together" or bind again. It is the function of the moral law in the Hebrew tradition to bind a people together with God, who is the source of that law. This binding is accomplished through a better understanding of the values of goodness and justice over time, by clarifying and deepening interpretations of the traditions and sacred texts of a people. Professor Michael Perry, whose book I have been reading, speaks eloquently of an analogous understanding of the American people's Constitutional mission:

"The American people still see themselves as a people standing under transcendent judgment: They understand -- even if from time to time some members of the intellectual elite do not -- that morality is not arbitrary, that justice cannot be reduced to the sum of the preferences of the collectivity. They persist in seeing themselves as a beacon to the world, an American Israel, and they still value, even if they resist, prophecy -- although now it might be called, for example, 'moral leadership.' "

In writings that may be associated with the work of thinkers as diverse as Cornel West and Ronald Dworkin, Professor Perry argues that the function of non-interpretive judicial review in human rights cases in American Constitutional law is "prophetic":

"... it is to call the American people -- actually the government ... -- to provisional judgment."

The Constitution, the Courts, and Human Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), pp. 98-99; and compare R.M. Dworkin, "The Forum of Principle," 56 N.Y.U. Law Review 469, pp. 517, 518 (1981); and Cornel West, Prophecy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), pp. 95-130. Notice that this is a recognition of a secular moral purpose to the American experiment, which is rooted in Western religious and philosophical traditions. Edward S. Corwin, The "Higher Law" Background of American Constitutional Law (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1955). I urge you to consider and ponder a response to Tony Judt's brilliant, meditative, and well-informed "Introduction" to Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (New York & London: Penguin, 2008), pp. 1-23, then pp. 106-116 and pp. 129-147.

In light of this moral mission, the harm done to America's own (and the world's) understanding of U.S. society by the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo tortures is and will continue to be devastating. See Somini Sengupta and Salman Masood, "Guantanamo Comes to Define U.S. to Muslims," in The New York Times, May 21, 2005, at p. A1.

I think that civilization, as an achievement and a value, is in danger once again.

Perhaps the best way to understand what terrorism is may be to think of it as the negation of civilization. It is the major threat to both Western and Hebrew civilization, but also to non-Western civilizations, including Islamic civilization. Civilizations, of course, overlap, have become gobal, and are mutually reinforcing in the contemporary world. It is difficult to draw a boundary between them, though they are also distinct in many ways. It seems clear that the tendency in the world today is for increasing unification of civilizations or "cultures."

Israel has been coping with this terrorist threat for some time. We are beginning to have a sense of what the Israelis and all peace-loving peoples of the Middle East have been struggling against, in light of the events of 9/11 and our own experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. But also in light of what we have seen in Beslan, Russia, along with the bombings in Madrid and London. Maybe the tortures in Guantanamo, Cuba illustrate the same principle.

Terrorism is not simply something that other people are capable of, but something to guard against in ourselves. Torture is the mirror-image of terrorism.

The word "terror" says it all. A person who is terrorized or tormented will not paint a picture, nor create a symphony, nor write a book, nor discover a cure for cancer. Terror itself is a weapon against such efforts; and is, thus, damaging in many subtle ways in addition to the obvious ones. On the other hand, such efforts at creativity are weapons against terror. Terrorists kill people. Yet they also kill the climate that makes the peaceful transmission of ideas, of wisdom and beauty from one generation to the next, possible. If terrorism exists on a spectrum of deliberate cruelties, then there may be small or even not so small steps that one might take, every day, towards terrorizing another person and enjoying it. This is something for the powerful in any society to bear in mind.

I have seen persons take pleasure in frustrating and denying a permit or license that might have been granted to another human being, who has stood on line for hours to receive it. I have seen delight in the petty cruelties that petty people -- who are given a tiny measure of bureaucratic authority over others -- inflict on their neighbors. I have seen films of the Holocaust and of post-war efforts to have German citizens -- who must have been aware of the horror -- "experience" the full evil of those camps by walking through them and being confronted by the corpses and human waste. Too often the response is a kind of dullness, a stunning lack of moral feeling and comprehension of the pain and suffering of others, annoyance at being "inconvenienced" in this way.

One sees also -- in some of the Nuremberg defendants, for example -- a pleasure in the very theatricality of the process of being called to account, of being made to confront the consequences of their actions, a frightening absence of remorse or pity, combined with an incapacity to share in the suffering of another, an inner emptiness that speaks of a bereft condition and an icy estrangement from their own humanity, so that the guilty may no longer deserve to be described as "persons." Something vital to his or her humanity seems to be missing from the torturer's personality. The spectacle of Saddam Hussein's "trial" being a contemporary example of what I describe.

"War," Herman Goring said, "is like a football game." He explained that: "One side wins and the other loses. The players shake hands and then everyone goes home." The war criminal said: "Accept the result and move on." The thought of the ten million in the camps alone, who would not be going home, did not enter Goring's mind. (Only one "error" inserted by hackers since my last review of this essay. I have now corrected it.)

I oppose this increasingly prevalent attitude of indifference or pleasure at the suffering of others, rationalized by reference to political issues, which are usually poorly understood. I call this attitude "terrorism." It exists in degrees, even in people who fail to realize it. The use of terror as a weapon and delight in terrorizing and hurting others, for the sake of doing so, is a undiluted form of evil. ("What is it like to be tortured?")

Regardless of who is President of the United States, or of the opinions expressed either in National Review or The Nation magazine, such an indulgence in torture by government agents or "therapists" must be opposed because it conflicts with everything that the U. S. Constitution requires in terms of the dignity of persons.

I see the Israeli struggle as increasingly similar to the struggle of global civilization against the ideology of evil that led to bombings in France, to the taking of a school in Beslan, Russia, to bombings in Spain and Britain, and to the flying of airliners into buildings in New York a few years ago, or the bizarre and unusual killing of a Palestinian child by an Israeli soldier, who has since been arrested and charged criminally on the basis of the testimony of an Israeli officer.

Terrorism is a principle or an attitude that is found in the lives of individuals and in societies. It begins with, and it thrives upon, the rejection of any notion of an inherent and inviolable human dignity and worth, of goodness and justice as "real" values. Terrorism is a refusal to see persons as anything but instruments or means to the terrorist's ends. For terrorists, right and wrong are all about power -- until someone else has power over them. ("The Allegory of the Cave.")

Each person must be regarded, from an ethical perspective, as a source of value in him- or herself, a locus of rights and responsibilities, whose subjectivity is priceless and not something to be discarded after the person has served another's purpose.The struggle against terrorism is everyone's struggle. It must not become merely ideological. It is not an "issue" belonging only to one of the political parties in the U.S.A., which is something that all Americans must recognize.

No matter who is responsible for the hijacking or destruction of a civilian airliner, for example, the person responsible must be tried. If proved guilty of the crime, then that person must be punished. The same is true for torturers everywhere, no matter who they are. (See "Psychological Torture in the American Legal System" and "American Hypocrisy and Luis Posada Carriles.")

Americans and others sometimes fail to understand what the Israelis in particular have learned over the past fifty years, and very painfully too. Terror is not just an instrument of policy, but it is an end in itself. It works. It gets concessions and bribes. We only pretend that it does not work. It must not be allowed to work. Terrorists cannot be appeased and they cannot be bought off. Those who use terror and grow accustomed to using it -- whether they acknowledge it or not -- quickly come to derive almost a sexual thrill from terrorizing others, from the sense of importance and power they gain as a result of instilling fear and destroying lives.

There is almost a seductiveness about such evil, for some people, so that the attractions of terrorism will not be negotiated away accross a bargaining table. They must be halted. Terrorists must be stopped.

It is difficult for some of us to appreciate that the currency of civilized life -- rational discussion, tolerance, a willingness to understand a hostile point of view -- is not recognized as valid in some social settings, where brutal instincts hold sway. It is difficult to fathom that efforts at comprehension, far from being respected, are deemed signs of weakness or stupidity. One finds it difficult to believe that there are persons who are utterly without human compassion or concern for others. A physician imprisoned in Pennsylvania for denying anesthetics (that he was then using and selling from his hospital office) to patients who were experiencing great pain, said: "Pain is 'subjective,' it's only relative ..." John Fowles writes in a short story entitled Poor Koko,

"... inarticulateness ... is a symptom of cultural breakdown. It means: 'I cannot, or I probably cannot, communicate with you.' And that, not the social or economic, is the true underpriviledge [in life]."

And he concludes:

"... I am convinced that the fatal clash between us [criminal and victim] was between one who trusts and reveres language and ... one who suspects and resents it. My sin was not primarily that I was middle class, intellectual, that I may have appeared more comfortably well off financially than I am in fact; but that I live by words."

I believe that history will judge individuals and nations faced with the challenge of coping with international terrorism at the dawn of the twenty-first century by whether we manage to make the world in which our children will live safer for civilization, for those who rely on language (with all of its limitations) as the instrument of reason, rather than violence to resolve disputes.

Those of us on the side of civilization (and yes, there is such a side) must not fail in the task that history has set for us. This is the great issue of our times, for our generation, and this mission is transcendent of all political parties and affiliations in America.

I believe that this devotion to civilization defines "where we stand," as a people, though we may often fail to articulate it or to live up to our highest ideals, it is what we will not relinquish. I believe that others in the world share this commitment, for sound historical and intellectual reasons, against dehumanization and terrorism. I refer not only to the British people, whose historical connection to the U.S. makes them strong allies, but to nations large and small, who refuse to give in to criminality or threats -- including, perhaps, nations we may not have regarded as friendly in the past, like Cuba. The attacks directed at my writings are meant to hurt me. I realize now that they are also an attack on language, beauty, and meaning. ("Time to End the Embargo Against Cuba.")

No matter what the media seems to suggest, we are not alone in this struggle, and we will win. But we must begin to do so at home, within our own hearts and in our society, not just in the Middle East.

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