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 the world?

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 lives.

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 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 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 enough.

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 RabbiLerner@tikkun.org .

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 in armaments.

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.

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