the violence comes from
There is never any justification for acts of terror
against innocent civilians -- it is the quintessential
act of dehumanisation 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 defence 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 harbour the terrorists.
But though 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, in some ways this narrow focus 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
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
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 globalisation 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 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.
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.
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 that 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 sweatshop in the Philippines
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 centre and our trade centre--we talk of them as
buildings, though others see them as centres 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 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 counterproductive.
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
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.
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.
We may need a global day of atonement and repentance
dedicated to finding a way to turn the direction of our
society at every level, a return to the notion that every
human life is sacred, that "the bottom line" should be
the creation of a world of love and caring, and that the
best way to prevent these kinds of acts is not to turn
ourselves into a police state, but turn ourselves into a
society in which social justice, love, and compassion are
so prevalent that violence becomes only a distant
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of TIKKUN Magazine and
rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco.
He is the author of Spirit
Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul
and most recently (Sept 2001) editor:
Best Contemporary Jewish
TFF and the
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