There is never any justification for acts of terror against innocent civilians -- it is the quintessential act of dehumanization, one that does not recognize the sanctity of others. The violence being directed against Americans today, like the violence being directed against Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists, or the violence being directed against Palestinian civilians by the Israeli army occupying the West Bank and Gaza, seem to point to a world increasingly irrational and out of control.
It's understandable why many of us will feel anger. Demagogues will try to direct that anger at various "target groups" (Muslims are in particular danger, though Yassir Arafat and other Islamic leaders have unequivocally denounced these terrorist acts). The militarists will use this as a moment to call for increased defense spending at the expense of the needy. The right wing may even seek to limit civil liberties. President Bush will feel pressure to look "decisive" and take "strong" action -- phrases that can be manipulated toward irrational responses to an irrational attack.
To counter that potential of mass panic, or the manipulation of our fear and anger for narrow political ends, a well-meaning media will instead try to narrow our focus solely on the task of finding and punishing the perpetrators. These people, of course, should be caught and punished.
But in some ways, this exclusive 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 people?"
It's true, but not enough, to say that the current violence is a reflection of our estrangement from God. More precisely, it is the way we fail to respond to each other as embodiments of the sacred. 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'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.
When people have learned to de-sanctify each other, to treat each other as means to our own ends, to not feel the pain of those who are suffering, we end up creating a world in which these kinds of terrible acts of violence become more common. No one should use this as an excuse for these terrible acts of violence -- the absolute quintessence of de-sanctification. I categorically reject any notion that violence is ever justified. It is always an act of de-sanctification, of not being able to see the divine in the other.
We should pray for the victims and the families of those who have been hurt or murdered in these crazy acts. Yet we should also pray that America does not return to "business as usual," but rather turns to a period of repentance and atonement, a turn in direction of our society at every level, a return to the most basic Biblical ideal: 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.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of TIKKUN magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco. He is the author of Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation and of Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul.
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