Friday, December 28, 2007

Thoughts about Benazir Bhutto

Like millions, if not billions of others, I was saddened and depressed by the news of the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. I spoke to friends, read blogs, and dialed in to talk shows to learn what others’ reactions were, and heard many of the emotions I was feeling. I also heard many struggling to understand what the real issues behind all the Middle East violence are.

For many, it seems to me, the struggle to understand is itself the barrier to understanding. The various groups involved make no secret about what the issues are- indeed, much of the violence is intended to draw attention to their statements and demands. The problem is that many of us are psychologically incapable of accepting their words at face value.

The exact nature of the demands vary wildly from group to group- that is why so much of the violence is Muslim on Muslim. But the heart of all their demands is the same: our interpretation of scripture is the only correct one; this is the will of God and you must obey. And because they truly believe, they are not afraid to kill or die to enforce the will of God; eternal reward is theirs.

Because so many in post modern liberal churches are incapable of that depth of faith, they cannot believe that the problem is that simple and so try to force it into a template they can deal with. “It’s not really about religion,” the Marxists say, “It’s about class struggle, the haves and have nots”- and they are shocked to learn that some of the most stable regimes have the biggest gaps between rich and poor, and some of the worst violence occurred in societies that were reforming. “It’s not really about religion,” progressives say, “It’s about ignorance and want. Educate them, get them into the 20th Century, and the violence will stop”- and they are shocked to learn that many of the terrorists, including suicide bombers, are doctors and engineers. “It’s not really about religion,” the Neocons say, “It’s about disaffection. Bring in Capitalism, get them invested in their own economy, and it will be in their own interest to stop the violence.” Well, Anwar Sadat did exactly that when he cut a multi-billion dollar deal with Israel and the US- and they killed him for it.

I find myself thinking of the movie “Star Trek II”. In the opening scenes, a class of cadets are on a training mission in a simulator; they have to rescue a crippled freighter, the “Kobayashi Maru”. It turns out to be a trap; they are ambushed by Klingons and everyone “dies”. Furious, the cadet in command demands and receives permission to speak freely. “That wasn’t a fair test of our abilities,” she says, “There was no way to win.” “There was no way to win,” Admiral Kirk agrees. “Everyone at some point in their life will face a no-win scenario. This was a test of character.”

For all of humankind- including billions of nonviolent Muslims- dealing with the Jihadists may be our “Kobayashi Maru”. None of the solutions that have stopped violence are working, and we’re operating under a deadline: when will they get weapons of mass destruction? Don’t kid yourself that non-proliferation treaties and technology bans will prevent it forever.

Later in the movie we discover that just one person had beaten the no-win scenario: cadet James T. Kirk- by hacking into the simulator changing the conditions of the test. If we have time, perhaps we can change the conditions of our trial, too- but how? We can’t force peoplee to change their beliefs; that’s impossible to do and immoral to even try. Nor can we force all of mankind to abandon faith, as Dawkins and other atheists would have us do; that, too, is impossible.

But if a universal faith is impossible, a universal agreement, a covenant, may not be. Mankind must give up situational ethics, and adopt certain absolutes, certain behaviors that are never the right thing to do. There must be means that cannot be justified by any end, not even a holy one. Surely that’s an easier sell- how can holy ends come from unholy means? Of course, there will be disagreement at first over just what is and isn’t acceptable, even in vengeance- but just starting the conversation will force people to think about it. Sooner or later, surely even the hardest heart will have trouble publicly declaring the conditions under which it would be appropriate, to use an example from the book “1984”, to throw acid in a baby’s face. There must be limits somewhere that would be universally acceptable... and having found the first set, the next set will be easier.

You think an ethical covenant is impossible? Ok... let’s hear your idea.


hafidha sofia said...

I think an ethical covenant is a great idea. Unfortunately, one problem I see with it is - who will be the first to lead by example?

Joel Monka said...

You've put your finger on a huge problem, Hafidha. Probably the only way such a thing could work would be a huge conference involving representatives of every nation, and every religious denomination, perhaps other organizations as well to hash out a document, then all who agree sign at once. That would put tremendous psychological pressure on the holdouts, I would think- and even if it didn't someone who won't even promise not to throw acid in a baby's face is unlikely to get a lot of backers and followers.

Robin Edgar said...

The Seven Principles of U*Uism are "a universal agreement, a covenant", at least within the confines of the so-called U*U World, but. . . as hafidha sofia says, who will be the first U*U to lead by example? Certainly not this Totalitarian Unitarian U*U "Citizens' Police Officer". . . If U*Us abjectly fail and obstinately refuse to live up to their own universal agreement and ethical "covenants", as expressed in the Seven Principles of the so-called U*U World, what makes you think that a much larger universal agreement and covenant will ever be lived up to in the real world Joel?

Joel Monka said...

Ok, when we start discussing the triage line of atrocities to be banned, from worst to least, we'll be sure to put "touching Robin's signs" on a level with "throwing acid in a baby's face".

Robin Edgar said...

You are misrepresenting my comment Joel. Probably knowingly and willfully. . . I have never put the various injustices and abuses that U*Us are guilty of committing on the same level as far worse injustices and abuses. My point was, and still is. . . that if U*Us abjectly fail and even obstinately refuse to live up to the ethical "covenants" expressed in the Seven Principles that were hashed out by U*Us, it seems exceedingly unlikely and unrealistic that a much larger and broader "universal agreement" and "ethical covenant" will ever be lived up to, let alone signed onto by "representatives of every nation, and every religious denomination."

Dream on Joel. . .

And to think that U*Us believe that I am delusional.

Joel Monka said...

Living up to principals is a different thing from living up to agreements about specific behaviours. If the agreement reads "Use of atomic weapons is unacceptable in any circumstance", then determining whether someone did or did not live up to it is pretty easy. In fact, it's binary: did he, or didn't he?

Living up to principals is a more nebulous thing, in fact the very sort of situational thing I was denouncing. What, exactly, did he do? What were the circumstances? Given those circumstances, can those actions be reconciled with the principals, or not? What, there's disagreement about the decision? Who has final say? How do we arbitrate this? Is there more than one way to read these principals?

As you can see, the answer in the first case is straightforeward and clear cut, with no subjective judgement required. The situation you refer to, however, is not. Out of the six billion people on this planet, you are the only one who sees all the ramifications of your case as clear and straightforeward. A covenant on specific behavior can easily be lived up to, while a covenant about principals is too nebulous to hold to that rigid standard.

Chalicechick said...

(((Ok, when we start discussing the triage line of atrocities to be banned, from worst to least, we'll be sure to put "touching Robin's signs" on a level with "throwing acid in a baby's face".))