Horror and perspective. (CHURCH AND STATE).
Like virtually everyone else, I want to see the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks brought to justice--as were Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg after World War II. (I would also like to see brought to justice the perpetrators of horrors in recent years in Chile, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, East Timor, and elsewhere.) But our responses to these tragic events shouldn't be blind lashings out that endanger the innocent. Nor in erecting defenses against future terrorist attacks should we allow incursions on civil liberties. Defense and liberty aren't incompatible.
It is natural, I suppose, for people reacting to atrocities like the September events to fall back on their various religious traditions for comfort, though this can certainly be overdone. Billy Graham certainly overdid it at the ecumenical memorial service at Washington's National Cathedral when he remarked that the thousands who were killed would not wish to return because they are now happy in heaven. (Which reminds one of the classic quip in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, when Feste tells Olivia she is a fool for mourning her brother's death if she really believes he is in heaven.)
Government and media overdid it by focusing so much on appeals to the spiritual sensibilities of theists in general and Christians in particular that they have wittingly, or unwittingly, created a social atmosphere wherein non-Christians in general and nontheists in particular have been made to feel like second-class citizens.
Furthermore, while religious responses to tragedies are traditional and may be comforting to many, I have yet to see a satisfactory answer to the humanist question: how can the suffering and death of innocents throughout the world, throughout history, be reconciled with the notion of a caring and benevolent deity? How much more realistic it is to recognize that the universe is indifferent to the fate of humans, to recognize that we humans invented the notion of good and evil, to acknowledge that only we can create happiness, peace, and good--and that we'd better get our act together.
Many commentators have chosen to soft pedal the religious angle to the motivation of the terrorists. Of course, most Muslims are as peace-loving as people of other traditions and those of no religious tradition, but these particular terrorists are almost certainly extreme religious fanatics. How could people be motivated to train for one or more years for a suicide mission unless they were convinced they would immediately enter paradise? In a recent cartoon, Philadelphia Inquirer's Tony Auth got it right; in his toon's first panel a scowling Osama bin Laden with a smoking submachine gun is saying, "God be praised! He has punished America for its sins!" In the next panel, televangelist Jerry Falwell is grinning broadly and shouting, "Amen, brother!"
Falwell's insensitive remarks were spewed forth September 13 on fellow televangelist and activist Pat Robertson's 700 Club gabfest. Falwell, echoed by Robertson, declared that the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, feminists, homosexuals, abortion rights supporters, and de fenders of church-state separation are partially responsible for the terrorist attacks.
"I point the finger in their face and say, `You helped this happen,'" Falwell pontificated. "God Almighty," Robertson chimed in, "is lifting his protection from us," echoing the Lynchburg loudmouth's comment about God "lift[ing] the curtain and allow[ing] the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve." Is Falwell actually suggesting that God and the terrorists are collaborating? That is on the same level of mindlessness as that of the Israeli rabbi who said recently that the Holocaust was divine punishment for the transgressions of earlier generations of Jews.
Falwell went too far even for many conservatives and had to make a sort of apology. But he has been uttering such nonsense for too many years for his apologies to mean much.
Meanwhile, as the United States deals with the effects of the terrorist attacks and the conspirators who were behind them, we must not allow our concerns to become too narrow. Americans must continue to oppose the Bush administration's agenda of promoting faith-based initiatives and school vouchers, packing the federal courts with jurists like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, restricting embryonic stem cell research, and diluting reproductive rights.
And in our concern for responding to the events of September 11, we must look beneath the surface to understand why they happened and what can be done to prevent similar occurrences--whether in the United States or in such other places as East Timor, the former Yugoslavia, or Africa.
For example, let's look for a moment at Rwanda. In her September 2001 Atlantic Monthly article, "Bystander to Genocide," political scientist Samantha Power provides an excellent analysis of the failure of the United States and the rest of the world to halt the 1994 massacre of 800,000 people in Rwanda. Yet she left out some important background. Some time ago in a letter to the Atlantic, I pointed out that the Nixon/Ford administration's 1974 National Security Study Memorandum 200 report states:
Population factors also appear to have had indirect causal relations, in varying degrees, on ... the communal slaughter in Rwanda in 1961-2 and 1963-4 and in [neighboring] Burundi in 1972.
That report was approved by President Ford in 1974 but immediately labeled "classified" and buried for fifteen years. (The report was unearthed and published in 1994 by population scientist Stephen Mumford in his book, The Life and Death of NSSM 200, available from the Center for Research on Population and Security, P.O. Box 13067, Research Triangle Park, NC 27705). Simply put, whoever was behind the suppression of this important report and its recommendations contributed indirectly to a catastrophe that cost the lives of nearly a million people.
So, let us bring to justice all who were involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks. But let us also take action, as best we can, against all other threats to peace, life, liberty, and civil liberties wherever they occur.
Edd Doerr is president of the American Humanist Association, executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty, and the author or coauthor of numerous books and articles on church-state separation and First Amendment liberties.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2001|
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