E s s a y s
BEFORE THE WORLD FEELS LIKE HOME AGAIN
Anyone who was forced to endure a search of his home by the secret police under the communist regime in the Czech Republic knows the feeling: a reckless invasion of the intimacy of one's home, the sickening knowledge that one's most intimate space, full of memories and emotions, has been defiled. The assault on one's emotions hurts more than the loss of things. It will take some time before the apartment feels like home again.
The world is going through something similar after the attack on America. We feel compassion for the victims, and hope that measures are taken quickly to ensure national security. But more deeply, we must ponder this question: what shall we do with this world so that it can again become our home?
I am observing the cataclysm and its aftermath from the thoughtful silence of Oxford, and I realize that these events close a large chapter in the history of western civilization, a chapter whose composition began here centuries ago. This event is the third in a series that shook the assurances of a civilization built on the enlightened faith in the power of reason. The first was what took place in Auschwitz: the flame of hatred, which nearly consumed an entire human race. This horror burst forth from a nation which was rightly considered to be among the most culturally advanced countries of the world. The second was the oil crisis of the seventies: it swept away the illusion that this planet's natural are practically inexhaustible, and that humankind is moving steadily on the road of scientific and technological progress toward a blissful future. Now, another illusion has disappeared: the notion that the ideals of an open democratic society are so attractive that the whole world will sooner or later accept them, just as the world has embraced the advantages of western science and technology.
Make no mistake: the terrorist attack on America was not simply the work of a small group of madmen. It was the biggest battle to date in an ongoing war between closed and open societies. It is a new phase in a long struggle in which forces within the former "third world" decided to exchange defense for offense. Up to this point, they have been rejecting the cultural influences of the western world. Now they feel strong enough to start destroying them. These forces are powerful not just because they are determined and driven by ideology, but also because they skillfully use the weak spots of today's west, such as drug abuse (most likely the source of much of the income of the terrorist groups), "moral weariness" and fascination with violence, which is omnipresent in the popular entertainment industry.
I do not want to superficially identify what happened in September as God's punishment for the consumer civilization of the West. I defend western civilization from the negative labels. Fundamentalist calls to "rearm the west ideologically" seem to me as risky for freedom-the fundamental western value-as populist calls for the rule of a strong hand, of powerful police control of dissident movements and a harsh military response. There will undoubtedly be efforts to strengthen security in ways that limit freedoms.
The response to this terrorism must be much more than a defense of national security. We must carefully think through the meaning of "security," and ensure that we do not lose sight of the values of our civilization and culture. A xenophobic view, seeing the sources of the threat only in forces which are distant geographically ("evil Muslims"), would be a mistake. And we must ensure that we act according to our conscience, and not on a spirit of revenge which will prevent us from escaping a downward spiral of fear and violence. Before our shocked world returns to something resembling normal everyday activity (pain and horror and unfortunately the strong sense of solidarity will wash away), we must take a moment to think about the state of the world and the way it functions.
Use of violence in international relations cannot be the ultimate solution. While it might stop the genocide of Balkan dictators, it cannot resolve deep cultural conflict between traditional and modern societies. An angry rallying cry such as "The only answer to terrorism is to kill the terrorists!" might gain political points, but it is foolish: threatening Arab terrorists with death is not threatening them at all. They welcome it, and in any case, we cannot annihilate the whole planet. The communities throughout the world which feed and otherwise support these groups out cannot be physically destroyed. A long-term solution to the terrorist threat cannot be limited to retaliatory or security measures.
The world's experience with Nazi crimes, the existence of nuclear weapons, and fear of communist totalitarianism led to the acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Oil crises strengthened consciousness of environmental responsibility. And now, at least a segment of humankind has grasped the fact it is necessary to actively battle for fundamental values. Today's manifestation of evil, in the form of terrorist attack, also forces us to change our thinking, and to look for new alternatives.
It seems to me that it is time to formulate a new "moral ecology" that fosters care of the environment of values. In this environment of values, open society can not only survive, but also gain such credibility that its citizens will find it worth the effort to defend it, and for many of those who do not live in it, it will be an inspiration rather than a threat.
The attack on Manhattan will represent a victory for terrorism to the extent that the world becomes succumbs to fear. We have not seen fighting armies, but we have seen thousands of people just like us fall into the flames. Coping with our fear and sorting out our relationship to life should be the first steps in our own reflection. Was the horrible similarity of the events in USA to the sequences from thousands of films fed to hungry viewers every night by commercial TV stations only a coincidence? Some witnesses to the New York tragedy describe it as if they had somehow found themselves in the world of action and horror films. Did this fantasy world somehow spill over onto the streets of New York? The entertainment industry's glorification of violence may well have become the most popular psychological drug for suppressing the deeper anxieties of civilization. Lack of a respect for life, especially in its most fragile forms, and a willingness to abuse medical inventions to manipulate human beings and the essence of life itself for commercial purposes, render us less able to struggle with violence and death.
If respect for life is not the cornerstone of our culture, and if we do not begin solving societal problems without escaping into shallow entertainment, drug abuse, and playing games with emotions of fear and aggression, then all the attempts to defend our civilization by one or another kind of violence will only demonstrate that we are only able to play with the cards dealt to us by others. But they are better at this game than we are. It is difficult to judge in to what extent the September assassins were inspired by the dark side of Islamic tradition and to what extent they were influenced by popular American films and TV series.
Sooner or later, the West will have to learn to communicate effectively with the Islamic world. A chasm of complete mutual distrust lies between the Islamic and Western worlds, and understandably, the September events enlarged this gap dramatically. Although the great majority of Islamic countries and organizations condemned the terrorists, it is not possible to deny that the September attack can be understood only in the context of this struggle between civilizations. While it is not possible to negotiate with terrorists, of course, it is crucial that we get to know the Islamic world, and understand the circumstances that produce deviant offshoots of Islam and cruel terrorists.
It may be that the understandable emotions raised by the New York catastrophe make deeper communication between the West and the Islamic world difficult to imagine today. Nevertheless, it is essential for survival of the world. Perhaps intellectuals and the clergy might gradually pave the way for a political and diplomatic mission, if they take seriously the moral and political gravity of this step. I rely here on my own experience. Two years ago, I sat with Islamic clergy in the center of Islamic thought at Al Azhar University. I am not an Islamic specialist, but what I do know about it makes it impossible for me to join those who demonize Islam as a whole, or reduce this enormous living culture to bands of extremists. I think that open Christian thinkers can fulfill an eminently important task at this historical moment: they are exactly the ones who can understand not only the strict world of Islamic law to which they are connected through monotheistic faith of the Old Testament, but also the secular world of the West, which was not born by accident on the land cultivated by the Christian faith for centuries.
I believe it is correct for Christians of the West to be sympathetic with those who have suffered so much in this attack. And even with all the soft spots and failures of western civilization, they won't let themselves to be drawn into joining opponents of an open society. Western Christians must not only value the precious freedom of their own culture, they must also work to understand a culture with distinctly different values, in this case the Islamic understanding of the world.
The September attack on America was another nail in the coffin of the "modern World," whose center has been in Atlantic civilization. A different world, which does not accept our values by definition, is being born - whether we like it or not. If we want to defend our values - including the principle that arguments must be finally solved through reasonable discussion - we must place our trust in them again. We must not lose sight of the fact that the greatest tragedy would be, if in fighting the opponents of "Western Civilization," the open societies of the West became closed societies themselves.September 2001