A Moral Cusp

Joseph Bergin

September 21, 2001


The deadly attack on America has left us at a moral turning point. This country has the potential to do great good in the world -- or to do great harm. If we do the right thing, remaining on the moral high ground we now occupy, the world will be a much better place in ten years. Otherwise we will deserve the damnation heaped upon us now in some parts of the world. All will depend on the direction in which we guide the fantastic energy created by this tragedy.

What do we want?

America needs to decide what she wants. The stark choice is between vengeance and justice. Will we and our leaders be happy if we achieve only the latter or do we need to see lots of brown bodies and Moslem blood around the world before our own blood lust is satisfied? The citizens and leaders of the U.S. and the free world now are expressing a lot of justified anger. What was done was WRONG. If our response is also wrong then the world becomes a less tenable place in which to live and prosper. Vengeance breeds only future vengeance -- never justice. The Chinese say "He who breeds vengence must dig two graves." Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and the Middle East have given us adequate evidence of that. Parts of the rural south of the U. S. have histories of blood feuds lasting generations.

If the US attacks Afghanistan militarily, I fear that we will be participating in another multi-generational cycle of violence and vengeance If we are civilized then we need to be smart enough to break this cycle.

You cannot do justice to one person by doing injustice to another. This is the fundamental dilemma of the Middle East. Great injustice was done to the Palestinians in the founding of Israel. To destroy Israel would do great injustice to them. How do you break the cycle. If neither side gives up some of its long held positions, the cycle will not be broken. Both Palestinians and Israelis will continue to die, possibly for hundreds of years as in the Balkans. The only solution is for both sides to agree that they WILL live together, and will no longer listen to the cries for vengeance that come from the graves of both their ancestors. You cannot bring justice to the ancestors by killing the descendants. You cannot bring justice to anyone by acting unjustly yourself.

If we react to the current crisis by turning America into a police state, then all is lost. If we now require a national identity card be carried and yielded to "authorities" on demand, we will not improve our freedom or liberty. And it will be without benefit, as such documents are easily stolen and forged.. If we change wiretap laws so that all citizens can be tracked and traced in their communications on the internet we will have given up privacy and the rights of expression and association. Do we want 1984 to occur here in 2004? Do we want the all seeing eye of government upon us constantly?

Do we understand that if we destabilize Pakistan, and we have been doing that, in fact, terrible things can happen. For one, we can deliver atomic weapons to the mullahs of hate and subsequently to the terrorists. Would India stand by? Would Israel? Are we ready to step in to prevent Pakistan from falling to the extremists? Or are we willing to see a few atomic weapons used? Are we willing to use a few ourselves? Will China then stand by? And then Russia?

What can we get?

If we treat this as a war, and accept "collateral damage" then we can get nothing of value at all from this. Remember that collateral damage means the deaths of innocents. The Afghani people are by and large innocent. I've met many and taught some. The father of one former Pace student was killed by the Russians when they took over Kabul. I don't remember his position, high in the government, but he seems to have been killed simply because he was influential. Afghanistan does not need thousands more such tragedies. Afghans, no less or more than Iranians, Iraqis and others, are wonderful people. Bright, warm, smart, caring. They are not our enemies. Neither are Syrians, Russians, or anyone else.

If we treat this as a war and create widows and orphans--or worse, kill widows and orphans--then we will simply breed tens of thousands of people all around the world willing to die to destroy us. They will be patient and they will act. We see this in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East today. If we overreact with inappropriate force, we will be playing into the hands of terrorists who would love to see a justification for further hate directed at us by ordinary people.

On the other hand, if we treat this as a criminal problem, then several things occur. First we don't give the enemy the status of warrior, but only that of common criminal. The energy for a solution CAN be directed into solving many of the conflicts around the world. The recent movement between the Palestinians and the Israelis is a case in point. The starkness of the recent terror has made it clear to the world where vengeance leads. The opportunity to direct the incredible forces at play now will not soon occur again. They can be directed for good or ill. Some in our government want to use the unity of Americans as an opportunity to "take out" Sadaam Hussein now. This is idiotic thinking that will leave us isolated and justly condemned. It will also certainly lead to future attacks on ourselves. If we are to deal with the current Iraqui government, then all must see our actions as just.

This is not a call for inaction. Action is demanded. Laws need to be changed. Laws need to be enforced. Greater cooperation between governments needs to be established. Institutions beyond national governments (World Court, United Nations) need to be strengthened. Governments, including our own, if it comes to that, that do not cooperate with the common good need to be isolated and condemned. Conservatives need to stop attacking institutions like the World Court and the United Nations that cross national borders. Liberals and Libertarians need to stop attacking institutions like the World Bank that cross national boundaries. Both nationalism and religion have at times and in places been used to do great harm. The Nazi's come to mind, of course, as do the Crusades. The same is true of ethnicity, as in Burundi and the Balkans.

Is it reasonable for the Taliban to ask for evidence? Of course it is, even though it is used as a stalling technique. If we were talking of France instead of Afghanistan, we would have to show evidence to obtain an extradition. The circumstances here are extreme, of course, but either we will be ruled by laws or we will be ruled by passion. If the latter, then anyone's passion can kill us.

Our job is not to "take out" Osama bin Laden or the Taliban. Nor was it our job, and no such calls were made, to "take out" American separatists after Oklahoma City. We treated that as a criminal act as we should treat this. In this case our criminal laws don't reach far enough to assure justice. We should therefore work with our coalition to see that they do. These terrorists are not glorious warriors. They are criminal scum. Treat them as such. Imprison them for life as they have given up the right to live in modern society.

Action is required. Reckless action that will breed unintended consequences in the future will be fatal to us. If we respond to barbarism with more of the same, then we are not worthy of our own ancestors. We need to think hard about the consequences of our actions so that we leave the world a better place for our children and grandchildren. We need to avoid the "fallacy of the last move"--the failure to anticipate the potentially disastrous consequences of likely countermoves by our opponents. Whatever we do will be countered. If we proceed with injustice we will only be met with injustice.

If we can build a coalition of nations that includes all but a handful, and if we don't let history determine who is out and who is in, but only actions now and resolve for the future, then we can begin to erase some of the inequities in the world that have helped breed the current situation. I think that if 20% of the money that the militarists among us want to spend on Star Wars in the the next decade were spent instead on lessening the inequity in the world, then we wouldn't need Star Wars or most armaments. Our goal should be a place in which such hate doesn't occur because it isn't seen to be necessary. Reducing global inequity will not change the minds of criminal fanatics like bin Laden, but it will deprive them of the fertile breeding ground of frustrated and angry young people who feel they have nothing to lose, from which terrorist masterminds can easily recurit willing followers.

What can we do?

Here I take "we" in the broad sense--people of good will throughout the world. We can begin to cooperate more with each other in solving the world's problems. We can begin to lessen the inequities that let a rich nation dictate to poor ones over the distribution of wealth. We can commit more of our abundance of resources to the problems outside the developed world. Religious leaders of good will can speak out loudly so that the extremists don't have the only stage. In many ways Jerry Falwell speaks the same language as the Taliban -- a language of exclusion and hate. Political leaders of good will should speak out in a language of inclusion, not exclusion.

Ordinary people like ourselves can agree to "do no harm." It is appalling that some Arab people have been thrown off airliners in the wake of the disaster. Was no one willing to stand up and say "this is wrong"? Was no one willing to voluntarily leave the plane as well to protest this unjust action? Or even to complain. We can demand of our leaders that the rights we have be extended to others. We should demand that our leaders work with the leaders of other countries to see that human rights are extended to all people and that the laws of different countries be harmonized on civil rights as they have been on banking and other economic issues.

And finally, if we build a world with more justice we will get a world with less violence. How far are we willing to push that idea?


Thanks to Dietrich Fischer for suggesting changes and improvements.