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Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Responses to September 11th

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington last year airport security was dramatically tightened. News reports showed proud security guards parading huge piles of penknives, letter openers and kitchen knives they had confiscated from hapless travelers.

There was a buzz on the Buddhist circuit, too. Everyone felt affected, and we all wanted to have a response. Governments spoke of revenge and plotted war, while Buddhists expressed shock: ‘We stand against all this,’ commentator after commentator pronounced. And ‘all this’ included not only terrorism, but also western warmongering.
But these responses – the photo-opportunities, the e-mails, the peace marches – were made in the heat of the moment. In retrospect they seem like ways of restoring our sense of identity, and telling ourselves we are in charge after all. The wave of nationalism that has engulfed America is an attempt to restore the equilibrium of those whose identity depends upon the solidity of American culture. But the converse is true of those whose sympathies are counter-cultural (including most Buddhists in the West), and their automatic opposition to the responses of governments seems no less an emotional reaction.
Perhaps, many months on, it is time for us to reconsider. The worst time to think about issues of war and peace is when a war is underway. We are caught in a maelstrom of nationalist and anti-nationalist sentiment, and deluged by media images and comment that includes both propaganda and the wariness of journalists afraid of being used.

Our reactions came from trauma. I watched aghast as those great towers crumbled, and found myself buffeted by a whirl of images, and swirling speculation: the faces, the deaths and, above all, the sense that for a couple of hours the world was out of control. Like many others I felt I had undergone a horrifying experience. Only I hadn’t. Not directly. That sense of involvement came from the deceptive immediacy of television. Across the world we felt disproportionately affected as our categories collapsed along with those towers.

I have no answers to whether or not wars are ever justified, but I would like to make two points. Firstly, our shock at September 11 suggests we have paid insufficient attention to the Buddha’s teaching of dukkha. Life is full of suffering, he said. That means the world is the kind of place where terrorist attacks occur, and wars are waged in response: there are atrocities and disasters every day that fail to capture our attention because they are absent from the media, or affect less iconic targets. The Buddha told us that such things happen, have always happened, and that we cannot stop them from happening again.

This acknowledgement is not callous or cynical. Being simply the truth, it is the only possible basis for the calm the Buddha also recommended. The fact that evils are endemic does not mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent them, but merely that the latest one need not throw us, however graphically it is presented. Such equanimity is a basis for finding a wise and compassionate response that goes beyond impotent assertions that ‘Hatred is not overcome by hatred, hatred is only overcome by love’.

This cannot be just a matter of forming an opinion for or against when war breaks out. The whole of our lives needs to be a response to dukkha – namely cultivating awareness of suffering and trying to do something about it. To my surprise, I noticed that some of those who feel most confident that they are leading meaningful lives which address suffering and its causes were least affected by the events of September 11.

Secondly, we need to inoculate ourselves against simple, moralising responses to complex events. The principal contribution that Buddhists can offer the world is exemplifying an alternative way of life to conflict and hatred. And we can hardly advocate or support war without compromising this example. However, we must pause before jumping into opposition. Military action is not necessarily blind belligerence and it may sometimes find a legitimate justification in such reasons as deterrence and prevention. Anglo-American military action in Afghanistan has caused death and bloodshed. But would there be less violence in the world if nothing had been done?

It is too easy to adopt a purist opposition to military action, when we have no responsibility for the consequences of choosing or not choosing it. We must resist the consolations of the sense of rectitude this offers. The forces that lead to war often cannot be circumvented or transcended; world politics is intractably complex and demonstrates a second key Buddhist teaching ­– that everything arises in dependence upon conditions. We cannot judge September 11 or the War on Terrorism in isolation. Each is an aspect of a vast web of conditions and connections.

I recently encountered the following scenario when I re-read the poet John Milton. The Palestinians (aka Philistines) have conquered Israel, and rule it from Gaza City. Samson, the Israeli resistance leader, (a ‘terrorist’ to his foes) has been captured through the covert action of a Philistine agent, Delilah. In violation of human rights, he is tortured, blinded and assigned to forced labour at Gaza Mill. Yet he still exacts a fearsome revenge against the Philistines’ twin towers.

‘As with the force of winds and waters pent
When mountains tremble, these two massy pillars
With horrible convulsions to and fro
He tugged, he shook, till down they came and drew
The whole roof after them, with burst of thunder
Upon the heads of all who sat beneath.’
(Samson Agonistes)

Is this past, present or future? The world has spun for eternity. We wish it would stop, and that the tensions of history might settle into a loving harmony. But the wheel won’t stop – although Buddhism tells us that we can step off it – and political leaders have to cope with its chaotic motion. We are legatees of the past and debtors of the future. And thus the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

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