Rabbi Arthur Waskow
One of the most serious problems we face in working out how to deal with the dangers of terrorism is a deep split in our awareness of ourselves.
On one side of that split is "America the Beautiful," our awareness of ourselves as a decent, caring society.
On the other side of that split is "America the Obscene Machine" -- others' awareness of us as a destructive center of arrogant power.
The notion that in some ways BOTH these pictures could be true is rarely held by anyone.
What does it mean to assert that "America is beautiful"? -- From inside American society, most of us experience it as quite good. Free speech & religion, astounding material prosperity, a free-and-easy atmosphere that most of us enjoy.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks (9-1-1, David Waskow points out to me), in some ways we are even a better country than usual: We took self-sacrifice and solidarity as real, and acted to make them happen.
Some of us who feel this way in our own ongoing lives are uneasily and maybe dimly conscious that some Americans may not FULLY experience it this way: many African-Americans, many Native Americans, maybe Hispanic Americans, right now Muslims and Arabs, people of truly unconventional religions, some women, some gay people, the poor in chronic-economic-disaster areas, those emotionally and spiritually connected to shattered earth-air-water. (Adds up, hmmmm?)
But on balance, what most of us see and live every day is that this is a really GOOD place to live.
IT IS. THIS IS A TRUTH. THOSE OF US ON "THE LEFT" NEED TO INGEST, DIGEST, THAT IT IS A TRUTH.
What VERY few of us Americans really grok is how we come across to much of the human race from OUTSIDE the circle of this society.
For millions, we are NOT a "good country." They don't hate "ordinary Americans" -- most of them had real horror and empathy at seeing screaming, burning people leap from the Twin Towers -- but they also remember:
The USA killed about a million Vietnamese.
Sponsored terrorists in Nicaragua that killed about 30,000 and shattered an experiment in socialist democracy.
Sponsored a coup in Chile that overthrew a democratically elected govt, killed 30,000 or so Chileans and tortured many others.
Pays for the Apache helicopters that shoot into Palestinian cities.
Smashed democracy in the Dominican Republic.
Paid (thru the World Bank/IMF) for economic plans that privatized water supplies for desperately poor people who then had to pay for water -- WATER!! -- so they died of disease from foul water.
Let our drug companies charge so much for anti-AIDS drugs that millions die.
And on and on and on. (It is true that in some of these cases "it is more complicated than that." But complexities pale in the face of suffering -- as we are seeing right now inside America itself.)
The "remembering" of these atrocious experiences is not just in the cerebral cortex. It is in the guts -- family dead, tortured, starving, exiled (sometimes becoming refugees to America, and liking what they find there -- INside the society).
So there are millions who hate us -- not the us that comes one by one or two by two or even ten by ten, but the US as a collective institution, what for them is an obscene machine of American wealth and power.
What is deeply disturbng to us is that what they hate is also in our own lives the GOOD America, the us who experience ourselves as "America the Beautiful."
JUST AS MOST AMERICANS ARE CORRECT ABOUT THIS BEING A GOOD COUNTRY, SO MOST OF THESE MILLIONS ARE ALSO CORRECT WHEN THEY SEE THE MACHINE-UNITED STATES AS IMMENSELY DESTRUCTIVE.
Very few of them -- but a few -- turn this rage into mass murder. Understanding that does not justify the mass murders. From any decent value system, anger at what the obscene machine does to human beings would also prohibit acting in such vile ways to human beings as the mass murders of the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks. And the terrorists ought to be arrested, tried, punished.
But we Americans don't restrict our anger to the few who actually become terrorists. Since for most us the hatred of millions for the Obscene Machine runs totally contrary to our own life-experience about our own days and nights in America, we define it as demonic. Evil. How could they hate us -- we who are decent people in a decent society -- unless they were evil?
THAT IS THE DISCONNECT THAT WE NEED TO ADDRESS.
We need to be able to affirm BOTH truths. Not only because it's politically crucial to get it, but because in fact they are both true.
America the beautiful society -- and America the obscene machine.
How do we learn both truths, teach both truths -- and change the reality?
Changing the reality is going to happen in one direction or the other. Either our approach to the world at large will become more like our sense of community in America the Beautiful, or America itself will become less beautiful, less free, in our own lives more like the machine that gobbles up the world.
Historically, this would be no surprise. For Imperial machines almost inevitably undermine the Good Society at home. Republics that become empires lose their republican quality, to use the language that comes from Rome.
Already at home we have seen jobs lost and workers undercut because imperial/ global corporations set up sweatshops elsewhere. We have seen our own environmental protections, inside our own borders, attacked under provisions of the WTO. Now we see serious threats to our own civil liberties proposed on the grounds they are necessary to deal with terrorism.
OR -- we can extend our sense of community to the planet. We can draw on exactly the outpouring of generosity and love that has stiirred our hearts in these last weeks, and extend it to those who are suffering in other places. And by doing this, we can also make our own society more rooted in its beauty and its freedom.
For words of prayer, Torah, and social action for peace, justice, healing of the earth, and community-building, explore www.theshalomcenter.org
You can subscribe to a weekly "thought-letter" on new Jewish progressive/ renewal/ feminist approaches to prayer, celebration, Torah, & healing of the world, by clicking here