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.

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Book review: This Side of Peace

April 6, 2011

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

I was excited to read This Side of Peace, by Hanan Ashrawi, because I have not read (or even come across) many books by either women or non-Westerners about peace. Ashrawi is a high-ranking woman in the Palestinian movement and served as a spokesperson for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this book she discusses her involvement in the events leading up to the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

I found This Side of Peace at times quite interesting and at other times quite boring. I was most interested in the parts where Ashrawi discussed her background and personal experiences, thought, and feelings. However, there was not as much of this as I expected in the book – a great part of the book was a fairly detailed account of all the negotiations Ashrawi participated in. I was not particularly interested in all the back and forth details of these negotiations and found myself even skimming a little bit at certain points.

There is no question that this book casts Israel in a negative light, but this was not unexpected since it is written by a Palestinian. I have read some critiques of the book that criticize how one-sided her perspective is – how she mentions the harmful things Israel has done to Palestinians but not vice versa. However, I don’t think Ashrawi would deny that the book is one-sided – she wrote it to give us her and the Palestinian’s perspective on the issues, not to present an unbiased look at all perspectives in the Middle East. I believe it is important to hear the Palestinian perspective from a Palestinian, not filtered through what the American media would like us to hear.

This Side of Peace also casts the United States in a negative light – from Ashrawi’s perspective, the United States negotiators who were involved in the peace process were clearly biased towards Israel rather than truely uninvolved third parties. I found this aspect and Ashrawi’s description of the negotiation process quite troubling. Of course Ashrawi’s perspective is filtered through her own desires and beliefs, but I have no doubt that negotiations do in fact follow a process similar to what she described: each side has its position, and does its best to hold firm to that position, demanding that the other side do X, Y, or Z before they will sign any agreement. Reading descriptions of these processes strengthened my belief that true peace cannot be reached through such negotiations. We need to at a minimum move away from position-based negotiation and towards interest-based mediation. As long as the parties stick firmly to their positions the best that can happen is a compromise that neither side is happy with. The “peace” that results is unlikely to be long-lasting, as we have in fact seen in the years since the famous 1993 handshake. The parties involved deserve a truly unbiased third-party intermediary guiding them through the process, rather than people working for a government that has a clear interest in one side.

I felt that the personal aspects of This Side of Peace were most effective in evoking compassion from the reader and allowing the reader to view the Palestinian people as human beings rather than simply the “other.” Ashrawi describes air raids and the complexities they had to go through simply to have adequate schooling for the children in their community. This sort of story needs to be told and heard by people on both sides if we truly want to achieve peace. Ashrawi is clearly a compassionate human being who cares deeply about her family and her people. Scattered through-out the more tedious negotiation descriptions, she had insightful comments into human rights and personal motivations. I was most touched by this passage from the first chapter:

My life has been taking shape as a Palestinian, as a woman – as mother, daughter, wife – as a Christian and a humanist, as a radical and a peace activist, as an academic and a political being. And as a composite of all these constituents, I am hopeful that one day I shall attain the only identity and name worth seeking – that of human being.

Although I was not as captivated by This Side of Peace as I hoped to be, I am glad that I read it and have therefore broadened my perspective a bit more.


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.


A role for the third side?

January 1, 2009

Well, after a two and a half week hiatus, you get two posts from me in one day! I guess I am in the mood to write today.

The situation is Gaza is awful. Just awful. I read the news and all I can think about is how much senseless killing is going on. I am not in favor of either side; I am simply against all the violence. You could say I am on the third side.

It seems like an intractable conflict. How will the violence ever end? On one side we have terrorists willing to do suicide missions and on the other side we have a powerful military. Does each side really think they are going to “win” if they keep on bombing each other? Currently Israel is refusing to hold a cease-fire, although they claim they are pursuing diplomacy at the same time. I do not think this is possible. How can they hope to come to some sort of diplomatic resolution while they continue to kill each other? Clearly these two sides see only “the other”, an enemy, when they look at each other. Until they can really see who the other side is and what that entity’s legitimate needs are, there is little hope for a permanent resolution. How does one bring about this sort of transformation? I only wish I knew the answer to that question.

I know little about the history of this region, but it seems clear to me from my outsider’s perspective that violence and force is not an effective way to resolve the differences between Israel and Hamas. Israel, Palestine, and now Hamas have been trying violence for a long time and it hasn’t gotten them anywhere. They are still in conflict. I do not understand how the leaders can continue to believe that there is any point in using yet more violence. What exactly does it gain them? They are just so locked into one way of thinking.

This is where I think the third side should step in. The rest of the world needs to let both Israel and Hamas know that their use of violence is unacceptable. That we do not support their continued attacks on one another. Perhaps with enough outside pressure, these two entities will come to their sense and see that what they are doing is pointless. I thus call on Obama when he takes office to condemn the attacks on either side and to halt U.S. support of Israel until they reach a cease-fire. I do not know how one should progress from there, but little is going to change except more people dying as long as the bombings continue.


Imagine compassion

December 7, 2008

At my Unitarian church this morning, our speaker was Dahlia Wasfi, M.D., a peace activist with an Iraqi father and an Ashkenazi Jewish mother. Using a mix of personal photographs and depressing statistics, she spoke strongly for immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the United States from Iraq. Immediately following her talk, I sang with the choir John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” a beautiful and appropriate song with powerful lyrics such as “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” At the end I felt compassion and a strong agreement that the United States has no business being in Iraq and should get out.

I was therefore deeply disturbed by the reactions of other people. I heard several people say that they thought her talk was “over the top,” that she had an “edge,” and that leaving Iraq was “complicated.” I even heard indications that some people were questioning the truth of the statistics and claims in her talk. Many of these same people do not think we should have invaded Iraq in the first place, and yet now that we are there they seem unwilling to admit the extent of damage that our military presence there has and is continuing to cause. I am disappointed that this is the reaction from individuals in a liberal community.

Yes, her talk was strongly worded, and perhaps that was just not the right technique to get through to these people. I agree that I would have liked more of a focus on the personal impact, but the pictures said more than enough to evoke my compassion: some of the most striking were a contrast of herself as a happy 4-year-old in Basrah with a 3-year-old whose parents were killed by American troops last summer, a photo of a hospital destroyed by American bombs, and a photo of an American soldier giving a thumbs up and a grin over the body of an Iraqi she helped torture to death.

No, all violence is not going to magically stop when American troops leave Iraqi, but I can guarantee it won’t stop as long as we are there. I don’t want to hear excuses for why getting out is “complicated.” I don’t care what the latest reason for staying is. The simple fact of the matter is that the Iraqis see us as invaders, not liberators, and they want us to leave. And if they see us as invaders then that’s what we are. It is unacceptable to have invaded a country, to kill civilians (or anyone, for that matter), to destroy hopitals, to cause thousands of people to become refugees, and then to insist that getting out is complicated. Leaving Iraq may be “complicated” from an intellectual, strategical, or economic point of view, but that does not change the fact that it is the compassionate and right thing to do.

If all of us, every day, based our actions on compassion for other human beings, we would have peace. I challenge each of you to make an effort every day to live as a compassionate person, with awareness of everyone’s shared humanity, and to base your decisions in that compassion.


Reading Lolita in Tehran

September 24, 2008

I recently read Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s memoir of her life in Iran during and after the revolution, where she taught literature at the universities as well as to a private group of women. It is an excellent, well-written and heart-wrenching book, and I highly recommend it (you can read my full review here, on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany).

It was a difficult book to read, however, because of Nafisi’s honest and intense depictions of life under an oppressive regime and during a war (the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s). The horror of the atrocious human rights violations, as well as of living in a country at war, is made incredibly real. Through simply relating her life and those of her students, Nafisi shows the damage that oppression does, the way in which it prevents people from being able to know who they truly are or what they truly want. This an important book, because it humanizes war and oppression.

Reading Lolita in Tehran left me with many questions on my mind. How does this happen, that people come to power and then succeed at restricting people’s freedoms and rights? How is it possible for a government to get away with executing thousands of people? Is it true that violence wins in the end, because if you try to resist it, you will just be killed? Is it possible to counteract such regimes, for human rights to win in the end, without violence? What makes people act with such cruelty towards others?

It is easy to dehumanize the leaders in a regime such as the one in Iran. It makes things simpler if we call them monsters, subhuman, doing things that humans – you and I – would never do. However, this is a very dangerous thing to do, because it masks the fact that anyone is capable of committing “evil” acts – yes, even you and I. I was recently reminded of psychologist Phil Zimbardo’s work on evil, in particular his famous prison experiment. He demonstrated the conditions under which ordinary people will treat others cruelly. In fact, he recently wrote an entire book on the topic of how good people turn evil, titled The Lucifer Effect. Only when we remember that in fact anyone can be cruel under the right conditions can work towards ensuring that such conditions do not exist, and towards resisting cruelty in ourselves. Instead of dehumanizing oppressive leaders, we should remember that they are just as human as you and me, and examine the conditions that led them to become cruel and that allowed them to come to power.


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.