Nothing Human is Strange to Me – Part 2

Practically speaking, being able to identify at a deeply human level with people capable of carrying out horrific atrocities does not mean that one need not prepare to defend oneself when it is 1939 and Adolf Hitler is gearing up for war. Nor does it mean in 2015 one does not seek to identify and detain potential ISIS terrorists before they find an opportunity to act. It does, however, mean that on a higher, strategic level one makes a concerted effort to understand what the human motivations are that are operative in the ones one fears. In the moment, it may not be helpful. Over time, it will rewrite the basic script.

Consider the difference between how the victors treated defeated Germany in 1918 and in 1945. In 1918, all that was offered was humiliation and contempt, with no acknowledgement that no particular blame accrued to Germany in 1914 that was not equally shared by the other empires that went to war. In no strict moral sense were Great Britain, France, or Imperial Russia more virtuous actors than the German, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman empires when the war broke out. All the powers went to war for reasons that are understandable from a deep human perspective, but none with an overwhelming claim to higher virtue. For a variety of very practical reasons – not least the fact the United States entered the conflict and turned the balance against it – Germany lost the war, and was then humiliated by terms dictated at Versailles.

Scroll forward to 1945. Arguably, the moral case is much clearer. Whatever Germany’s legitimate grievances in the 1930’s may have been, the atrocities carried out under Hitler’s command compelled as full a military response as the Allies could muster. Few people, whatever their other differences, would question that it was a good thing the Third Reich was defeated and Germany completely occupied by forces from the countries that defeated it. Most notable, however, is how the country was treated this second time in defeat. Fundamentally, the humanity of the German people was acknowledged and their need to rebuild and to reconnect with their neighbors on an amicable footing was respected.

To be sure, the scripts followed were markedly different in the eastern and western parts of the country as the Cold War took hold between the occupying powers, and the country was divided. Common for both, however, was a willingness to integrate the parts into the respective systems of economic and military alliances. Since, it has taken generations for Germans and their neighbors to work through the traumatic legacy of the two wars. Despite ample grounds for impatience, annoyance, frustration, and anxiety among them for economic, political, legal and other policy reasons over the intervening years, Germany and its neighbors have learned to behave largely as neighbors do, when neighbors are able to see the human beings on the other side of the fence; even when the grass there is growing taller, or the crab apple is dropping more fruit across the fence, or the adolescent child is playing louder music than one likes.

Imagine now one were to look closely at the young people who are drawn to answer the call of ISIS and to see what grievances drive them. Imagine now one were to look closely at the leaders of Iran, with whom their Western peers still find it hard to make a working peace, and to see what human qualities there call for respect and recognition. Imagine the peoples of Palestine and Israel setting aside the differences that largely define their relationships and looking instead for the humans wanting their dignity, worthiness and basic needs for security and prosperity to be acknowledged and honored. Imagine now one were to look within the United States at peoples of European, African, Latin, Asian, and indigenous heritages, Northerners and Southerners, Easterners and Westerners, left-wing progressives and right-wing libertarians, peoples of every ethical and religious tradition, educational background and economic condition, and all were asked to see in the others first the human qualities that are always there, and from there then to get on with the business of doing the business at hand.

Few are the psychopaths and sociopaths completely beyond the reach of human connection. The Adam Lanzas and Anders Breiviks of the world may always be hardest to reach. Even so, there is in every case a desire to send a message, though the message may simply be testimony to unbearable pain, loneliness, despair and attendant rage. Homo sum. Humani nil a me alienum puto. To be human is above all to speak, to signal, to connect, with a drive and a need orders of magnitude greater than that of any other creatures under the sun. Hear me. See me. Embrace me. Honor me. Terence was right. I am a man. Nothing human is strange to me.

Nothing Human is Strange to Me – Part 1

Homo sum. Humani nihil a me alienum puto. – Terence
I am a man. Nothing human is strange to me.

Ever since I stumbled across this line by the Roman playwright Terence when I was working on my dissertation almost 40 years ago, I have found it the most challenging piece of wisdom to live into of all that I have ever encountered. Recently it was the attackers who carried out assaults in Paris and in San Bernardino, in which scores of random innocents died. Earlier last year, it was Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein who terrorized ever-peaceful Copenhagen for two days, killed two people and was finally killed by the police himself. Once it was Adam Lanza, who killed his mother, 20 elementary school children and six school staff members before killing himself in Newtown, Connecticut, close by where I live. It has been Mohammed Atta and his companions who carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks. It has been Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal office building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people in the process. It has even been Saddam Hussein and Augusto Pinochet and Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung and Adolf Hitler. Again and again I have been confronted by these words in all their baldness and boldness: “Nothing human is strange to me.” Each time, I am faced with the challenge “Can I connect with my inner Hitler, my inner Stalin, my inner ISIS terrorist, or, heaven help me, with whomever at the moment I personally most despise, say my inner Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney or Donald Trump?”

As the world grieves for the random victims of each carefully planned and executed, and indeed meaningful attack, attacks intended to convey strong and powerful messages, I am faced with the challenge: Can I recognize the deeply human qualities of the assailants? Can I trace the thoughts or discern the soul-mutterings that led worldly-wise, educated, and technically savvy young human beings to spend the last weeks, days, and hours of their lives preparing and carrying out murderous assaults on other human beings they had no personal animus towards, assaults in the successful accomplishment of which they would deliberately and consciously sacrifice their own lives?

To be sure, I know virtually nothing about the particular young men who carried out the recent attacks in Paris or the couple that carried out the attacks in San Bernardino, other than that they were affiliated with a movement that proclaims itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Indeed, I’m sure even if I did know more facts and details about their individual life stories that I’d still be not much the wiser. I’d likely find myself thinking about countless other human beings with comparable descriptors who are not and never will become terrorists.

And so I look within. As a human being, what would I need to feel in order to be able even to contemplate carrying out such actions? Anger, for starters. Very deep, very expansive, very powerful anger. Humiliation. A profound sense that my worth and dignity as a person has not been recognized and respected. Impotence and despair. Intense feelings of powerlessness to enter into another mode of living, wherein I would feel the love and joy lacking in the one I know. Hunger for meaning, and for reasons for my suffering. Longing for a cause to compensate me for and give purpose to the feelings of pain and loneliness I routinely live with. Let me become then a warrior for a cause, whereby I can give direction to my anger, avenge my humiliation, and give ultimate purpose to my life. Viewed from this perspective, terrorist acts such as the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino can be understood with full appreciation for their truly human qualities.

The horror, fear and revulsion the attacks elicit – were designed to elicit – may tempt onlookers and survivors who do not for their own reasons applaud the perpetrators’ actions to deny them any identifiable human motivation or reason. To explore this more deeply, we must for starters break away from a facile Good vs. Evil paradigm. It sheds no light to assume from the outset that these are evil people engaging in evil actions for an evil cause. One of the few certainties is that attackers who carry out intentional acts of terror for a cause believe their actions are righteous. If, for instance, one views the infidel West as the citadel of the satanic enemy, and if one believes that violent acts of war are valid options, taking the battle to the enemy’s home terrain is a reasonable, honorable, and virtuous thing to do – one worth dying for in the execution if need be. All the more so, if firsthand experience has shown that people like you are treated with contempt and fear by the natives of the infidel West and their friends farther afield.

One need not succumb to complete ethical relativism, nor need one shelve assessment of actors’ psychological constitutions, to note that atrocities are rarely committed without a rationale plausible to the perpetrators. Hitler most certainly believed the world would be a better place if it were dominated by the German Master Race, a belief that provided ample reason for him and his followers to launch a war to redraw the map and reset the relationships established by the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. Harry S. Truman almost certainly believed dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would bring a swift end to the Second World War – and send a message to Josef Stalin that in the post-war world the USA was not to be trifled with. On a more modest scale, Timothy McVeigh believed it was his patriotic duty to push back violently against the encroachment of federal government power on the freedoms of right-minded citizens like himself. Common to all these circumstances is a belief that some evil is being perpetrated or threatened by the present course or existing order of things. As an agent of the good and true, one is duty bound to push back as forcefully as possible, using all means at one’s disposal – from suicide vests to atom bombs, as the case may be.

Once one permits oneself to begin to imagine from within how a Hitler or a Mohammed Atta or an ISIS-affiliated terrorist could carry out actions that horrify most of the rest of humanity, one discovers other paths to understanding to guide one’s response. Guided by compassion, one recognizes one has a choice whether to conduct oneself in ways that validate the attackers’ premises, however misguided they may be, or whether to respond in ways that call them into question and subvert them. An ISIS-affiliated terrorist believes he is a warrior in a divine cause to preserve Islam in all its purity from infidel attacks. Respond to his action, however despicable it may seem, with attacks on Islam as a religion or on Muslims where they live, and he – or his surviving sympathizers – will feel validated in their cause. Conversely, see the troubled, hurting human in the terrorist who shoots scores of innocents and then blows himself up in a final glorious blast, and respond by reaching out with compassion to his kindred, engage with them, connect with them, recognize them, respect them, honor them, and the game is profoundly changed.

Breathe in peace.

Breathe in peace.

Breathe.

 

Keep breathing.

In peace.

 

Breathe in peace.

In peace breathe.

 

Breathe within peace

that there may be peace within.

 

Breathe out peace.

Out of inner peace breathe out.

In and out.

In and out.

 

Peace is not static.

Peace is alive.

 

Within peace move.

Within peace feel.

Within peace give and take.

 

Peace embraces the manifold.

Peace lives with uncertainty.

Peace holds on moment by moment.

 

Peace is ground and home

whenever we have a mind

to return to the first and last

of all our beings and doings.

 

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

 

In peace we are not alone.

What Part of the Solution Are You?

Picking up the thread from yesterday’s post, where I suggested it is time for us as a nation to wake up and grow up, here’s what I mean by grownup.

Grownups are genuinely mature (which should not be taken as a degraded euphemism for  older) people who know that real life is replete with tough challenges, sorrows, disappointments, tragedies, and hard choices; and also with blessings, joys, loves, beauties, wonders, miracles and glories. They are people who do not expect somebody else magically to fix whatever is distressing them, as a two-year old having a tantrum expects it of a parent. They are people who understand accountability is something that pertains to them as well as to others. They are people who understand that to achieve a higher good – say a better life for their children – sacrifices must be made. They are people who understand that adversity calls for them – not somebody else – to discover and display real courage, fortitude and endurance. They are people who know asking hard questions, drawing lines when needed, and being able and willing to negotiate with others are essential and honorable skills.

They are people who understand that radical individualism is a juvenile dream, that it really is not all about you, and that without the social, the collective, the community there is no life livable at all. They are people who know blame games are a waste of time and debilitating distraction, who do not think it’s all somebody else’s fault – government’s, corporations’, unions’, welfare cheats’, bankers’, men’s, women’s, gays’, straights’, blacks’, whites’, Latinos’, Anglos’, the military’s, the city’s, the state’s, the schools’, teachers’, parents’, immigrants’, Iran’s, Al Qaeda’s, Israel’s, Palestinians’, China’s, Russia’s, Democrats’, Republicans’, cops’, gangbangers’, Catholics’, Jews’, Mormons’, Pentecostals’, Muslims’, rednecks’, elitists’, Fox News’s, the liberal media’s, Northerners’, Southerners’, Socialists’, Tea Partiers’… as if magically getting rid of whoever the scapegoat of choice is would make it all better.

Grownups live in the real world, where there are real differences in perspectives, needs, resources, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. Wishing people with different backgrounds, personality makeups, aptitudes, native languages, life experiences or dreams would go away – or in the worst case be made to go away – is childish. Grownups understand that, like it or not, it’s on them to be the best stewards and caretakers they can be of whatever has been entrusted to them by destiny – their children, their property, the enterprises and organizations they work for or take part in, their community, their country and their planet. It is their responsibility to recognize real problems and work with others to find real workable solutions. Nobody gets a pass.

We all have something to offer, even if it’s the last wink the dying grandfather secretly shares with his distraught granddaughter or it’s the homeless guy volunteering to sweep up after the meals have been served at the soup kitchen. They didn’t ask me what family or country or century I wanted to be born into. They didn’t ask me what toolbox of skills I wanted to be equipped with, when I landed in my mother’s lap more than 65 years ago. Yet here I am, child of a certain family, citizen of a certain country, endowed by birth and life experience with certain skills and assets, and it is on me to make the most of them, for the well-being of those I belong to and who belong to me. Everyone has a right to ask for a hand, for help, for advice and counsel, and responsible grownups recognize that good stewardship calls on them to respond when they are able, as they are able. What goes around really does come around. Call it Karma.

Grown-up people definitely exist. Heck, we wouldn’t be in as good shape as we are if they didn’t. However, it appears, as the current campaign is making painfully plain, that there’s an appalling dearth of them in public life – in elected office, in business, in labor unions, in trade organizations, in advocacy groups, in universities, in healthcare, in the media… Terminal me-first-ism. Me first! Take care of me first and ask me last to make a sacrifice! The really sick part is that in politics and commerce there’s now a social contract that goes something like this – I make a fool of you by promising you the elixir of eternal life, when what I’m really offering is snake oil; and you agree to play the part of the fool and take on faith that this snake oil truly is the elixir of life… at least till the next snake oil salesman comes along, at which point you throw a tantrum about how what I sold you was actually snake oil.

So: It’s no news we’re addicted to oil, and if we keep mainlining it that addiction will kill us – maybe all of us. But the first problem is that we’re addicted to snake oil. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee and get on with the business at hand, focusing directly on the parts of the solution we realize are ours. There are no daddies or mommies in the big bad sweet old world who are going to make us happy. What part of the solution are you?

Scary Thoughts

One cannot have spent time studying and living in Europe in the 1960’s and ‘70s, as I did, and not see comparisons between the present state of civic life in the United States and the conditions that led eventually to the unfathomable horrors of the Second World War. Lest we forget, tens of millions died on all sides in that war, including combat casualties, civilian “collateral damage”, and the victims of the Holocaust – not to mention the many millions more who suffered and died due to famines and displacement in its wake. By the time I was there, the worst of the physical ravages – in western Europe at least – had been cleared away, but the psychological traces were everywhere evident when one encountered adults in the prime of their lives who as children had lived through the war, whichever side their country was on. Considering the continuing consequences of the Cold War that followed and the still ongoing chaotic and bloody process as people in the Middle East, in India and Pakistan, in Africa – former domains of the British Empire demolished in the War – seek to find some viable way of living together, it is clear that the legacy of that War is leaving traces as deep as those that followed the demise of the Roman empire a millennium and a half before.

Go read up on the histories of Germany and Italy before and after the First World War, and you’ll get a sense of what made Hitler and Mussolini seem like good choices to “get the trains running on time” again and to restore a sense of national dignity – “Germany above All” – to enough of their fellow citizens for them to be handed the reins of power. Make no mistake, Donald Trump is in their league. That many millions of Americans all over the country feel that he would be the best choice to lead the United States down the next stretch of road confirms – as commentators all around the world are noting – that there is a massive crisis of confidence in our government and its institutions. Trump now appears to be leaving in the dust all competitors for the Republican nomination who are players in the Establishment game, including even those the Establishment has not liked having at the table, such as Ted Cruz. The crisis is also evident on the Democratic side, where Hillary Clinton, whose Establishment bona fides are unquestionable, is facing a serious challenge by a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist”, whose whole campaign is based on the argument the Game is fixed and that government will never serve the interests of people broadly until the power of corporations and banks to dominate the nation’s political life is curtailed. Mix in recent turmoil around race, mass shootings and militia activity, suffice it to say, across the spectrum people are pissed.

Consider now the stakes today and here, compared to Europe 80 years ago. Arguably, that War was fought over the usual occasions for conflict: power, prestige, and cuts of the action, in a world divvied up into colonial domains. Those occasions are still with us. The jokers in the deck, however, are the exponential increases in the power of the technologies of war (think nukes, chemical and biological weapons, drones, and satellite global guidance and surveillance systems), and Climate Change. Imagine Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin with the destructive power that is in the hands of the President of the United States. Do not suppose that the legal, constitutional and administrative constraints that generally limit what the Chief Executive will do, will apply should Donald Trump come to occupy the Oval Office. It is clear from his track record that rules do not apply to him, there is no truth that is binding, and what he wants is the highest and only imperative. Concern for the impact of his actions on others is not part of his internal operating system. Think Nero with the Bomb.

And then think about Climate Change. It’s heartbreakingly sad, and may eventually prove truly tragic, that far too many US citizens believe it is a hoax. Extreme weather is already happening, displacements are occurring all over the world, and the prognosis is grim. Hundreds of millions of people around the world live in coastal areas and cities where rising sea levels and storm surges will make life as we know it unsustainable in the near future.

To take one example close to home: picture Manhattan with flooded subways and substantial areas under water. Think then about the implications for people living in low lying areas of the outer boroughs, of Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut. By the time Manhattan is under water, existing transportation, water and sewer and energy infrastructures will be failing, and there will be extreme displacements in all the systems life as we know it depends on. Commercial and industrial activity, food production and distribution systems, health care delivery systems, educational institutions, housing – everything will be affected, and while people from metro New York are seeking options elsewhere the same conditions that put Manhattan underwater will be prevailing all around the country and all around the world. Few things are certain, but it’s a safe bet if the same trajectories continue as we are now observing, 80 years from now the planet will no longer be hosting 7.3 billion human residents and the processes by which the reductions happen will make the Second World War look like a walk in a park.

This is reality people. It is time to wake up and grow up. This scenario does not have to become reality. However, we can no longer afford such silliness as could make Donald Trump seem like a serious alternative. We all have work to do rebuilding our res publica, our people’s thing. We can do it. We can begin by ending the blame games.