Life Against Death

By Peter Bearse

September 28, 2001

So, we are all changed. The fact that we live in a different world is now known to all. And so it is now time to give new meaning to the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg: "It is now for us, the living, to determine that these dead should not have died in vain, and that government of the people, by the people and for the people should not perish from the earth."

What are the lessons of September 11th, an event far more horrific and devastating than any previous "Black September"? What are the lessons we need to take to mind and heart so that the dead have not died in vain? I believe that they are a trinity, a set of three to be developed, interwoven, expressed and applied.

Belief system? We have seen Palestinian terrorists kill because they believe acts of death will give them new life as martyrs in a heaven providing virgins at their beck and call. A vision of heaven justifies the creation of hell on earth, the kind of hell now etched in all our minds by images of the World Trade Center as a mass grave. Unfortunately, all organized religions offer some sort of heaven as a sop to the fear of death. They all contain seeds of death against life -- beliefs that enable individuals to rationalize roles as agents of death for the sake of their own eternal lives. Not being a student of theology, I don't know, but I surmise that Christianity may have come closest to putting human life at its core. If only the life-enhancing teachings of Jesus had not been taken over and extrapolated into the stratosphere by those 2000 years ago (not unlike the rest of us today) whose superstitions, weakness and lack of faith would not allow them to be satisfied with the real incarnation that he (not He) revealed to us.

The airline highjackers were brethren of the Palestinian terrorists. Our government intelligence agencies -- among the many professional public servants to whom we entrust our fate -- could have and should have seen what was coming. The role models were already on view in Israel. As a much bigger, more presumptuous and yet far more na´ve nation, we were more, not less vulnerable. Had we forgotten lessons from our childhood? "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." As a result, are we now to become like Old-Testament Israel, generating endless cycles of vengeance and hatred? Are we now to become like the terrorists themselves -- purveyors of death and continuing war, instead of peace and life? These are questions that we must answer as a people -- "America as a Civilization" -- but the answers start with each of us individually, as questions of conscience.

The long-term resolution of these questions is not yet in view. We need to start thinking of what a belief system centered on life would look like. It would be new as a foundation for life at home in the universe. It would recognize the rarity, uniqueness and preciousness of life at every level, from the individual to human communities, the wondrous blue orb of our precious earth, to our solar system in the vastness of space. It would be as new as cybernetics in recognizing the interdependence of all forms of life. The Universe, with human life as its culminating expression, would be our only God, a source of unknowable and never-ending mystery. It would be as ancient as the universe and as old and wise as the most ancient prophets. "Incarnatus est" would be finally fulfilled but its promise would be never ending. "As it was then, as it is now, as it shall ever be, world without end, Amen." Denying hope of an afterlife for the individual would more sharply focus one's attention on this life, one's one and only life, as never before. Without this denial, and the sharper, deeper reaffirmation of life among the living that it forces to the forefront of our consciousness and conscience, any religion can provide rationalizations for acts of death and destruction by the evil among us.

For evil destroys life. How do we recognize the evil in our midst? How do we truly fight it; indeed, exorcise it or cast out the devils in and around us, in order to move, however uncertainly, towards heaven rather than hell on earth? Americans are largely a good people who look for the good in others but, here again, we have been incredibly na´ve, tending to ignore warnings long since provided to us. The Cole; Ted Kazynski, Tim McVeigh, Black September, GAO reports -- how many warnings did we need? September 11th. Do we need any more? As to the substance of the matter rather than episodic TV coverage: What do we know of the nature of human evil? -- not nearly enough, but some profound insights have been put forth by Eric Fromm, Ernest Becker and Scott Peck. The latter is a best selling author who, almost 20 years ago (the most recent vintage of the three) wrote:

Evil human beings are quite common and appear quite ordinary. They live down the street -- on any street. They may be rich or poor, educated or uneducated. They are not designated criminals. More often than not, they will be "solid citizens" -- Sunday school teachers, policeman, or bankers, and active in the PTA..... the purpose of the book is to lead us to dissatisfaction with the current state of ignorance of the subject.

So, Peck called for "hard science" to mount concerted efforts to study and understand evil. People in his own field, psychology, had ignored it, avoiding the "dark side" of their field. Apparently, Peck's call went unheeded, for we now speculate fruitlessly, ad nauseum, about the behavior of Bin Ladin, Mohammed Atta and other terrorists. Among those public figures speaking in response to the Sept.11th tragedy, President Bush came closest to a meaningful diagnosis when he spoke of terrorists of being the slaves of ideologies like those already consigned to the scrap heap of history, those honoring ideas over lives. He stated flatly: "Osama Bin Ladin is an evil man." See Peck's Chapter 2, "Toward a Psychology of Evil, for more. He came close to providing a checklist of characteristics to look for, including narcissism, scapegoating, negative self-image, projection of self onto others, looking always for the easy way out, and chronic lying to self and others. The crosscut is that it doesn't pay to project evil as something "out there" far beyond ourselves, something whose "exorcism" is effected by "war" and professional soldiers. We need to look within and around us for the signs and symptoms of evil. We need to find ways of confronting evil and minimizing its destructive impacts on lives. Peck provides the basis for a "Neighborhood Watch" far more comprehensive than anything announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Here, we can move beyond the conventional psycho-therapeutic approach that tends to focus primarily on individuals. As we have seen recently in the overwhelming worldwide response to the death and devastation in New York City, the process of confronting evil and human healing is public as well as private. The spontaneous public response leads one to ask: What about the responsibility of the formal public sector through government and politics? This question threatens to indict our own government and, by implication, us as citizens rather than the terrorists and other evil doers among us. There is no governmental function more fundamental than the protection of the lives, safety and security of citizens. We cannot avoid facing the fact that our government failed to fulfill this most basic responsibility. It failed both nationally; e.g., via the CIA, FAA and FBI, and sub-nationally; e.g., via MASSPORT.

The roots of these failures run deep. They are traceable to political failings that implicate us -- We, the people," -- for politics is (or should be) us. September 11th is a wake up call in more ways than one. We need to wake up to the fact that our politics and, therefore, our government, has been both too liberal and far too much influenced by private interests. The weakening of the CIA goes back to the '70's via a liberal agenda enabled by Watergate. The removal of air marshals from airliners occurred in the early '90's after the airlines complained that they cost too much. In a similar vein, air safety -- A PUBLIC RESPONSIBILITY -- was effectively privatized by the FAA allowing airlines to contract airport security handling to private firms. Now, Congress is again debating the air safety issue, and yet the public responsibility may again be compromised -- even in the face of a tragedy of Biblical proportions. The airline lobbyists speak with more powerful voices than ordinary citizens in Congressional committee hearings.

Hopefully, therefore, the "wake up call" will include this tocsin, rung out loud and clear: WE MUST RENEW OUR PUBLIC LIFE and REFORM OUR POLITICS. For too long, we have been living off and cannibalizing the social capital built up by earlier generations. September 11th may come to be seen as a watershed in this respect as well as others. The signs are favorable. We see more people coming together, caring and sharing, giving and helping, and showing a renewed appreciation for the public as well as private values of family and community. We hear some TV commentators asking: "Will we see a revival of civic awareness?"

Will all this amount to just another passing phase of reaction to pain and suffering, rather than a long-term response to problems that are deeply rooted? We need to pay more attention as citizens, and not only to address the roots of poor politics and mediocre government performance. The roots of evil run deep, too, and they are also public in nature, far more than merely "private" -- "narcissism," for example, as revealed by Christopher Lasch and many others. As one of the best political pollsters, Daniel Yankelovitch, advised several years ago, we must "come to public judgement" on these matters. The process will not be easy. It will be long and hard, but death is quick and final and could arrive in even larger numbers than the thousands of September 11th. We have now learned that our public life is at least as important as our private lives. Politics is vitally important because it involves basic values --life and death issues; indeed, battles of life against death.

Fromm, Erich (1964), THE HEART OF MAN: ITS GENIUS FOR GOOD & EVIL. NY: Harper & Row. Becker, Ernest (1965), ESCAPE FROM EVIL. NY: Macmillan. Peck, M. Scott (1983), PEOPLE OF THE LIE: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. NY: Simon & Shuster. Peck, op.cit., pp.47 and 69. Peck, op.cit., p.10.

Peter Bearse is a consulting economist who contributes regularly to The Ethical Spectacle.