Thoughts on the death of Osama bin Laden

May 2, 2011

I have felt disturbed since reading last night that US forces killed Osama bin Laden. Since then it has been sitting in the back of my mind but I had trouble putting words to my reaction. This afternoon I read an excellent blog post that helped clarify things for me: “Osama bin Laden is dead. One Buddhist’s response.” by Susan Piver. I wish I could quote the whole thing but I will restrain myself with these two parts that particularly hit home:

Was there even a hint of vengefulness or gladness at Osama bin Laden’s death? If so, that is a real problem. Whatever suffering he may have experienced cannot reverse even one moment of the suffering he caused. If you believe his death is a form of compensation, you are deluded.

When we hate, we cause hate. When we think we have won by vanquishing our enemy, we have lost. In killing Osama bin Laden, “they” lose because one of their leaders is gone. But we lose too, because we have deepened the causes and conditions that lead to more hatred and its consequences. This is not over.

I did not feel glad at his death. I felt sadness. And fear. And hopelessness.

I fear because I know that this death is not the end of anything. It will fuel the flames of hatred against the United States that bin Laden himself fueled. Do not be mistaken into a false sense of security: there is no doubt in my mind that there will be attempts at retaliation. It is just another peak in the vicious cycle of hatred and fear, of us versus them.

I feel hopeless that there will ever be an end to this vicious cycle. Hopeless that we will ever be able to move beyond us versus them. I do not believe that bin Laden was an isolated case, one sadistic individual, such that removing him removes all danger of terrorist attacks. No, rather I believe that he was part of a system, a system that the US helps create, in which the US is locked head to head with the terrorists from the Middle East. Another leader will rise to take his place and the cycle will continue. I feel hopeless that we will ever be able to break such a terrible cycle. Will we ever realize that violence is not a solution because it only fuels more violence?

And why do I feel sad? I feel sad because Osama bin Laden was a human being. I feel sad that we cannot see any solutions beyond violence and murder, that we are still stuck in the archaic attitude of an “eye for an eye.” I feel sad that societies do not have healthy ways of handling troubled individuals, ways that keep those individuals from turning into sadistic terrorists. I am sad that more people do not recognize the core humanity of every single human being on this earth.

Osama bin Laden will not harm any more people, but little else has changed. The United States still has an enemy. The people who died in the 9/11 attacks are not going to come back to life. The flames of hatred and fear continue to be fueled.

Lest we forget, we are all human. Every single one of us. I’ll end with this quote from Strength to Love, by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. … The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.


Book review: The Lucifer Effect

March 4, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was really looking forward to The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo. I had high expectations that it would provide me with a deeper understanding of how “evil” comes about. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed with it, and did not come away with the sense that I had learned much at all.

Before I delve into my critique, let me start with the caveat that I do not think I was the target audience for the book. In college I took several psychology classes, including social psychology. Therefore many of the studies and psychological principles that Zimbardo discusses in The Lucifer Effect were quite familiar to me. This is probably the major reason I did not feel that I learned much from the book; I was expecting it to somehow go deeper than the classic psychology studies. That said, however, there were other reasons that I did not find the book particularly compelling, some of which I think would in fact be a turn-off to the target audience (the general public, and in particular people who believe that individuals are inherently good or evil).

One major issue I had with The Lucifer Effect is that it is extremely long-winded. In fact, while reading it I did something quite rare for me: I skimmed large chunks of it. Zimbardo’s main goal in this book is to demonstrate that situational and systemic factors have a far stronger influence on behavior than we realize or want to believe (people in general tend to attribute behavior to dispositional – inherent to the individual – factors rather than situational ones). To achieve this goal, he presents an in-depth analysis of two situations: his famous Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. I felt that there was far too much detail; it was not interesting to me and I did not need it to be convinced of the results. In addition, I found the writing itself to be long-winded. Often there would be a sentence or even paragraph that I felt like I had read before. He repeats the same important points over and over in slightly differently phrased ways, and it felt tedious.

I do believe that the points Zimbardo makes in The Lucifer Effect are important ones. However, I fear that the length of the book and the details it contains detract from these points reaching the people who are skeptical – would they really spend the time needed to read such a heavy and long book? On the other hand, for those of us already convinced of the general principles and hoping for new insights, it is a disappointment as it seems to mainly re-hash the standard psychological experiments (for example, the Milgram obedience study and the blue-eyed/brown-eyed children experiment).

The other major issue I have with The Lucifer Effect is that I do not feel his systemic analysis, particularly in the case of Abu Ghraib, goes far enough. While he thoroughly covers one systemic aspect – the way in which even the top of the chain of command was aware of and allowed the sorts of abuses that occurred – he spends only a couple pages addressing the fact that the very core of the military is in training people to kill and in dehumanizing other people because they are the “enemy.” The fact is, the individuals who committed these “evil” deeds existed in a culture with an authoritarian and violent mindset, and to me that is an important influence on their behavior that needs to be taken into consideration.

I believe that, while situational factors are certainly important, the picture is not complete without examining the societal context as well. Most cultures, including the American culture, normalize authoritarian, punitive, and dehumanizing behavior at some level. In the American culture, most children are raised using punishment, sometimes physical punishment, people who have broken laws are routinely dehumanized, and we have a powerful military actively fighting wars. Most people act morally in the normal situations they encounter in their life, but this morality is layered on top of the non-verbal messages in our culture that normalize authoritarian, punitive, and dehumanizing attitudes. When a particular situation then provides the additional factors necessary to normalize actually acting in such ways, it is not surprising that many people do in fact then act in ways we label as “evil.”

I suggest that if our culture did not in any way normalize authoritarian behavior – that is, if children were raised using non-punitive discipline, people who broke laws were treated humanely (such as through restorative justice programs), and we did not engage in wars – then far fewer individuals would turn evil even in the situational factors described by Zimbardo. Although as Zimbardo says, we can never know for sure how we ourselves would act in a particular situation until we are actually in the situation, I am fairly sure that I would not treat other people inhumanely no matter what the situation. I was raised non-punitively and any form of violence against another human being is completely outside of my way of being in the world.

Weapon production and sales

September 14, 2008

The United States sells weapons to foreign countries, and, as described in this NY Times article, the Bush administration is currently pushing through new deals resulting in a sharp increase in sales. Now, I was aware that the U. S. sells arms, but I was not quite aware of the extent of it:

From tanks, helicopters and fighter jets to missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships, the Department of Defense has agreed so far this fiscal year to sell or transfer more than $32 billion in weapons and other military equipment to foreign governments, compared with $12 billion in 2005.

There are so many things wrong about this I am not sure where to begin. It’s not that I think the U. S. should get to have weapons while other countries don’t, it’s that we should not be building these weapons to begin with. Neither for ourselves nor for other countries. This is NOT the way to create a secure world, as one person involved in the sales seems to think:

“This is not about being gunrunners,” said Bruce S. Lemkin, the Air Force deputy under secretary who is helping to coordinate many of the biggest sales. “This is about building a more secure world.”

Knowledge that you can blow up your enemies is not security. Security is having the knowledge that nobody is going to try to blow up anybody, and that differences will be resolved peacefully. Why do other countries want new weapons from the U. S.? Well, probably in large part because the U. S. has them. Other countries understandably want to keep up with the big powers in terms of weapons, because these big powers (the U. S. and Russia, primarily) have demonstrated that they are willing to go on the offensive. We may think that we are selling the weapons to our “allies” but there is a very good chance those same weapons will someday be used against the U. S., as has happened before:

Arms sales have had unintended consequences before, as when the United States armed militants fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, only to eventually confront hostile Taliban fighters armed with the same weapons there.

When this happens, what does the U. S. likely do? Build bigger and better weapons, of course. The mass production and sale of weapons can only lead to a vicious and dangerous cycle of more and more potent weapons. Where will it end? In the mass destruction of the human race? This archaic approach to relations between nations needs to stop. There are far more productive ways to solve differences. But it will not stop as long as the U. S. continues to build weapons for themselves. Thus, the U. S. needs to stop not only selling weapons, but producing weapons, either for themselves or for other countries. We need to stop thinking in terms of enemies.

It is also horrifying that weapon sales is a major factor in our economy. That people make money off of weapon sales. How can they do this with a clear conscious? It is essentially making money off of, ultimately, people’s deaths. That’s right, do not ever forget that a weapon is meant to kill people. To take away, in one instant, many people’s lives. It is perhaps too easy for people to distance themselves from this fact, to see it as a purely economic transaction, to think of it as ensuring some abstract and false concept of “security.” Everyone, and particularly those most closely involved in weapon production and sales, needs to be reminded on a regular basis of the true impact of weapons. Perhaps then we will make progress towards eliminating them.

On the middle east and legitimating your enemy

May 2, 2008

On IntentBlog, Rabbi Lerner wrote about former President Jimmy Carter’s recent talks with Palestinian leaders and how we should be thanking him, not scorning him. I agree with his points. They are not going to get to peace anytime soon if Israel is not even willing to talk to Palestine. One paragraph in particular stood out to me and highlights what I think is at the core of the problem not only with Israel and Palestine but with the United States and the middle east in general:

Ostensibly, the reason for Israel refusing to talk to Hamas or Hezbollah is the same as that of the U.S. refusing to talk to negotiate with Iran or Syria-talking, they insist, involves legitimating these terrorist-supporting-states. Just as for decades many Arab states talked of Israel as “the Zionist entity” rather than acknowledge that Israel was really there in the Middle East and unlikely to go away, and the U.S. refused to talk to Communist China until President Nixon reversed a policy that he himself had championed for decades, so the U.S. leadership imagines that talks will strengthen the regimes they wish to overthrow. Yet there is little evidence that terrorist groups or terrorist-supporting-states have been significantly weakened by being ignored by their enemies.

It seems clear to me that the U.S. and Israel, in being unwilling to talk to their enemies because it means legitimating the states, do not actually want to come to peaceful resolutions. Because in order to reach a state of peace in which the two parties are no longer antagonistic and fighting each other, they necessarily have to talk to each other. Not only that, legitimating the other party is a crucial part of reaching a solution to their differences. Each side needs to see that the other side has a valid point of view in the conflict – getting people to do this is one of the steps in mediation – and it’s pretty hard to do that if you won’t admit that the other side even has a right to exist.

I think the phrase “terrorist-supporting-states” plays right in to the us versus them dichotomy, allowing us to ignore the complexities of a government and boil an entire state down to one thing that we disapprove of. Not that I condone terrorists or the actions of a government supporting them, but I think there may be more complexity in these governments than this phrase allows for. Not only that, but the U.S. is not exactly innocent of being a terrorist-supporting state (e.g. U.S. support of Afghanistan in the 1980s).

At the end of the quote, Lerner states that “there is little evidence that terrorist groups or terrorist-supporting-states have been significantly weakened by being ignored by their enemies”. Indeed, this does not surprise me. It is not as if we are totally ignoring these groups and allowing them to exist in peace (yes, I realize that the terrorists are not allowing us to exist in peace, but we do tend to rather egg them on); rather we are waging war against them and denying their right to exist as independent states. If anything, I would expect this to make them stronger, as they pull together against their common enemy.

Once again, it boils down to the dangerous and prevelant us versus them mentality. There is not going to be peace in the middle east until our leaders can see beyond this dichotomy. As Lerner concludes, “This may not change until the larger dysfunctional policy of ‘not talking to our enemies’ is rejected as fundamentally irrational by a majority of Americans.”

So, like Lerner, I applaud Carter for taking a step towards talking instead of fighting. I do not think his step is going to be enough, because I doubt that Palestine is committed heart and soul to ending the fighting, and clearly Israel is not at all committed to such a thing, but it is a step in the right direction.