A World Out of Touch With Itself:
Where the Violence Comes From
by Rabbi Michael Lerner
Editor, TIKKUN Magazine
There is never any justification for acts of terror against
innocent civilians--not 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.
It's 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 world-view: that the world is
mostly a dangerous place and our lives must be based around protecting
ourselves from the threatening others. In this case, terrorism
provides a perfect base for this worldview--it can come from anywhere,
we don't 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, the Bush team has been able to turn
this terrible and outrageous attack into a justification for massive
military spending, a new war and the inevitable trappings: repression
of civil liberties, denigration of "evil others," and
a new climate of fear and intimidation against anyone who doesn't
join this misuse of patriotism toward distorted ends.
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 act were to be imprisoned for the
rest of their lives. But that is quite different from talk about
"eliminating countries" which we heard from Colin Powell
in the days after the attack. 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, 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 people?"
And why is it that our immediate response to violence is to use
violence ourselves--thus reenforcing the cycle of violence in
We in the spiritual world will see the root problem here
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 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 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
anyone "really" cares about 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.
I see this in Israel, where Israelis have taken to dismissing
the entire Palestinian people as "terrorists" but never
ask themselves: "What have we done to make this seem to Palestinians
to be a reasonable path of action today." Of course
there were always some hateful people and some religious fundamentalists
who want to act in hurtful ways against Israel, no matter what
the circumstances. Yet, in the situation of 1993-96 when Israel
under Yitzhak Rabin was pursuing a path of negotiations and peace,
the fundamentalists had little following and there were few acts
of violence. On the other hand, when Israel failed to withdraw
from the West Bank, and instead expanded the number of its settlers,
the fundamentalists and haters had a far easier time convincing
many decent Palestinians that there might be no other alternative.
Similarly, 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 don't feel personally responsible when an American corporation
runs a sweat shop in the Phillipines 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 center
and our trade center--we talk of them as buildings, though others
see them as centers of the forces that are causing the world so
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 at 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 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 the future.
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.
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. Let's not be naïve about the perpetrators
of this terror. The brains and money behind this operation isn't
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 and hope (e.g.
in Israel while Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister) and they become
much more influential and able to recruit people to give their
lives to their cause when ordinary and otherwise decent
people despair of peace and justice (as when Israel from `1996
to 2000 dramatically increased the number of settlers).
So here is what would marginalize those who hate the United
States. Imagine if the Bin Ladins and other haters of the world
had to recruit people against America at a time when:
1. America was using its economic resources to end world hunger
and redistribute the wealth of the planet so that everyone had
2. America was the leading voice championing an ethos of generosity
and caring for others-leading the world in ecological responsibility,
social justice, open-hearted treatment of minorities, and rewarding
people and corporations for social responsibility..
3. America was restructuring its own internal life so that
all social practices and institutions were being judged "productive
or efficient or rational" not only because they maximized
profit, but also to the extent that they maximized love and caring,
ethical/spiritual/ecological sensitivity, and an approach to the
universe based on awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation (what
I call an Emancipatory Spirituality).
We are trying to develop this kind of "New Bottom
Line" in Tikkun. To build support for this approach we are
now starting what we call "The TIKKUN COMMUNITY"--both
as a vehicle to raise money for the magazine, and as a way of
taking some steps to acknowledge the reality that we have been
functioning not only as a magazine, but as a kind of movement.
The TIKKUN COMMUNITY will be a cadre of people who agree with
certain basic principles. The founding statement can be found
in this very issue of TIKKUN magazine (Nov.Dec, 2001) and on our
website. We hope you'll join us. If you want to, contact me at
Think it's naive and impossible to move American in that direction?
Well, here are two reasons why, even if it's a long shot, it's
an approach that deserves your support:
a. It's even more naïve 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, chemical assaults (like anthrax), etc.
b. The response of people to the World Trade Building 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 goodness-and
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. That same caring energy could have
been given a more positive outlet--if we didn't live in a society
which normally teaches us that our "natural" instinct
is toward aggression and that the best we can hope for is a world
which gives us protection.
The central struggle going on in the world today is this one:
between hope and fear, love or paranoia, generosity or trying
to shore up one's own portion. In my book Spirit Matters I show
why there is no possibility in sustaining a world built on fear.
Our only hope is to revert to a consciousness of generosity and
love. That's not to go to a lalla-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 who they didn't 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 and fear become the power in this new
century that it was in the last century.
And it's up to us. We can't expect the Left to be able to
organize a successful movement, because they will define it in
the most narrow terms. They will talk about the rights of the
oppressed and make everyone believe that they don't really care
about the terrible loss of life and the terrible fear that everyone
now how to endure about our own safety. Their justified anger
at the way capitalist globalization has hurt people around the
world will make them play down the outrageousness of this particular
attack--and hence be disconnected to the righteous indignation
that most the rest of us feel. Rather, we need a movement that
puts forward a positive vision of a world based on caring--and
a commitment to rectify the injustices that the globalization
of selfishness has wreaked on the world--while simultaneously
making 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. It's
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. It's about time we began to say unequivocally
that violence doesn't work--not as an end and not as a means.
The best defense is a world drenched in love, not a world drenched
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 memory.
11th, 2001 - New York City
Michael Lerner page