The United States In The Post 9/11 World: An Ethical Culture Perspective

The United States In The Post 9/11 World: An Ethical Culture Perspective

In its emotional impact, September 11, 2000 may have been the most horrifying single day in American history. A year later the feelings of injury are still with us. The terrorist attack, like an assault on our personal bodily integrity, has made us feel vulnerable as Americans as we have never felt before.

In some sense, as life returns to normal, it is hard to believe that the destruction of the World Trade Center ever happened. When I now gaze at the New York City skyline and become aware of the absence of those two massive buildings, I am still struck by a twinge of momentary surprise that they are gone. It’s not that I loved those structures; it was just that after living with them for 30 years, they had become internalized as part of what I understood New York to look like in its wholeness. It is akin to the feelings we have when a close relative dies. We walk around for a while not completely being able to accept that they no longer there; that they have disappeared forever.

New York City is the city of my birth and where I grew up. And that City is now wounded. I have on the wall of my office at home a small black and white photo of lower Manhattan with the skyline intact. I hung it there partially from feelings of nostalgia, and partially from a wish fulfillment, a desire that things be as they were before that awful event.

When we have been injured, there is the desire is to heal; to be safe and secure and whole as we were before. As it is with us personally, so it is with us as a nation, as a people.

A full year has past since that assault. With the immediate shock gone, we are freer to examine how we can move into the future in order to collectively heal and achieve the security which we need and deserve, and which all people deserve.

We are Ethical Culturists. As such Ethical Culture is our world-view, the lens through which we see the world and interpret the world. It is our philosophy, our religion.

And so this morning I want to talk about Ethical Culture by exploring whether it has anything to say about how to look upon the world scene and about the future, given the circumstances and crises of the moment. If the moment we are in calls for international, national and personal healing, does our Ethical Culture outlook on things speak to those problems and needs? I think it does.

Ethical Culture came into the world 126 years ago through the mind of a brilliant, but underappreciated religious thinker and activist on the American scene. Dr. Felix Adler, when he was only 25 years old, set forth the guiding ideas, the template, the framework for Ethical Culture to which our movement has been faithful ever since. In consistently articulating the ethics of Ethical Culture for over fifty years, Dr. Adler laid down two basic ideas. The first was that all people strive to be individuals, and as individual men and women we all possess an inherent dignity that makes us in a sense holy, and speaks against violation and oppression by others. But at the same time that we strive for independence, we, as human beings, are radically interdependent. We are all inescapably parts of the web of humanity, of the human tapestry. Distinctive though we may be, all of us are linked. in ways in which we are barely conscious, to all other human beings. As such we need each other, not only for our survival, but for the building of culture and civilization, and in a very real sense, to express ourselves as fully human beings. Just as the distinctive organs of the human bodily are related so that a change in one affects a change in all the others and in the human organism as a whole, so we as individuals linked to all others affect the lives of others, and they our lives. Using a term that was common in the 19th century, Adler referred to these relations that bind all human beings in an interlocking, interdependent web, as “organic” relationships. And because we are all radically attached to each other, he concluded that ethically the highest principle or rule of life is to enter into the lives of others in order to assist them, in order to help them, and in a way that reaches into the soul of others, strive to bring out what is best in them. Since we are all organically related to one another, when we strive to bring out what is best in the other, we reciprocally bring out the best in ourselves.

It is this idea of mutually enhancing organic relations that stood behind all of Adler’s ethical sermonizing and activism. He applied this concept to all the concentric arenas of life, from the family and child- rearing, to the organization of schools, to the workplace, to the local community, the nation state, and ultimately to relations among nations. The fruits of this ethical concept were often very concrete, and I will give you one example that is close to home.

In the last decades of his life, Adler became active in municipal planning and served as chairperson on several planning borders in the development of new communities in the New York area. One such area is today the Radburn section of Fair Lawn, in which individual homes open out into a common back yard where people can mix as a community. Radburn is an attempt to exemplify Adler’s concern with individualism and distinctiveness, as well as communal and social character of human experience.

The point I wish to highlight is that Ethical Culture from its very beginnings, and throughout, has been a philosophy and movement of engagement and commitment, and not one of isolation, withdrawal and retreat. This has certainly been true in our approach to the international arena and America’s responsibilities in the world.

Adler and others spoke out against imperialism during the Spanish-American war, but he did advocate total abandonment of the Philippines; rather engagement and support.

Our movement was an enthusiastic supporter of the United Nations and international peace. In 1952 we were instrumental in founding the International Humanist and Ethical Union, now a worldwide federation with representative groups in over 100 countries. The IHEU, in turn, is an NGO with representation at the United Nations, and the Council of Europe. Internationalism, which is in accord with ideals of universal respect for all human beings, has long been a part of Ethical Culture and our part in the world.

So is a rational view of life. Adler was a modern, who took for granted that the modern, scientific, rational and democratic outlook was far superior than a life based on authoritarianism, ignorance, superstition, and beliefs that ran contrary to the discoveries science.

I can slice the pie of Ethical Culture many ways. But this morning I want to concentrate on the values of rational, democratic living, and the values of engagement as they blend together. They are two values that lie at the heart of Ethical Culture and which the world needs more of, not less.

I could talk about irrationalism at home. There is more than enough to say about the dangers of religious fundamentalism in the United States, about the sorry state of science education and literacy in this country, about the media that exploit minds, young and old, by saturating popular entertainment with depictions of the occult, the pseudo-scientific and the bizarre.

But I want to focus this morning on the international context. Violent, terrorist movements abound throughout the world, promoting fanaticism and irrationalism, and three thousand of us, mostly young, have been murdered by one such movement. I want a world that will be safe from this danger, not only for Americans but for all.

It is out of those commitments that I want to look at America’s role in the world at this critical moment, and argue for the type of policy that I believe will best ensure our security in the long range. Having spoken about philosophy, I wish to spend the balance of my address on matters of policy, as a concerned citizen of this democratic land.

I need put forth at the outset that nothing I will say suggests that a nation does not have the right to defend itself when attacked. And I certainly aver that it is the responsibilities of governments to protect the lives and security of their people. Nor do I subscribe to the morally bankrupt notion that in the attack of 9/ll America got what it morally deserved, so that we have no right to complain or respond. As an ethicist, I believe that people are responsible of what they do. And though there are certainly root causes for discontent and rage in the Muslim world, much of which we have a heavy hand in and need to redress, in the final analysis, no one forced the hijackers of September 11th, nor their handlers, to plot as they did, and crash jetliners into occupied buildings killing more than 3,000 defenseless people.

With that said, I am fearful of the present course that our government is taking in the world. I am fearful that the current Bush administration is following a policy that is stridently isolationsist, except for the use of American military power. It is this isolationism that I think is very dangerous and will not give us the security from terrorist violence that we seek.

When George W. Bush initiated the war on terrorism almost a year ago, he laid down what has been come to be called the “Bush Doctrine.” He said, to the rest of the world “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” In other, words, you are either with us of against us. Either you stand with civilization and good, namely us, or you stand with barbarism and evil, that is, them. BushHe also said “My job isn’t to nuance.” It was a blunt declaration of unilateralism, in which the United States, the world’s only superpower, is determined by virtue of its military and economic might to dictate policy to the rest of the world, and to override the concerns and involvement of what has come to be known as the international community. While the administration was able to forge a coalition for the military assault on the Taliban and Al Queda, how quickly and utterly that coalition has fallen into disarray, and we scarcely know what has happened to the war on terrorism and where it is going. The disintegration of the coalition is manifest in the total lack of international support for a preemptive war against Iraq. The entire Arab world, and even Kuwait, opposes it. Only Britain has voiced tentative support, but that support is weak and divided.

The Bush White House wants to go it alone bypassing the United Nations and ignoring Congress. Only because of massive pressure from all sides, including the American military and Papa Bush’s closest advisors has the administration conceded, one senses kicking and screaming, to go before Congress and the United Nations. There is an extreme arrogance here, both for the American people and the world community, whose consensual involvement, cooperation, and support I believe we will need if we are to be safer in the long range.

We are unilaterally throwing our might around in the name of civilization. But I was struck by an observation made by Michael Hirsh, a former Foreign Editor of Newsweek, writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. He said:
While Bush talks of defending civilization, his administration seems almost uniformly to dismiss most of the civilities and practices that other nations would identify with a common civilization. Civilized people operate by consensus, whether it is a question of deciding on a restaurant or movie or on a common enemy.

But Bush to judge by his actions appears to believe in a kind of unilateral civilization. NATO gets short shrift, the United Nations is an afterthought, treaties are not considered binding, and the administration brazenly sponsors protectionist measures at home such as new steel tariffs and farm subsides. Any compromise of Washington’s freedom to act is treated as a hostile act.
The examples of the disregard of international treaties and the international community are multiple. They include our unilateral withdrawal from the Kyoto treaty, though the United remains by far the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels which are over-heating our planet, as the Bush administration finally concedes, yet declares it will do nothing about.

When NATO out of the culture of consensus building characteristic of the European community invoked for the first time ever its Article V, stating that an attack on one is an attack on all, the administration’s response was one of contempt, proclaiming that “the mission would define the coalition.” It was a slap in the face, and a disregard of Europe’s long, agonized experienced which has led it to appreciate the need for consensus in international relations.

The United States has played a small role in the international conference on sustainability, just ending in Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s broadly recognized that our country, by far the richest, gives the smallest per centage of its budget to foreign aid of nearly all industrialized countries. This despite the warnings of the Nobel economist, Joseph Stiglitz, that the global economy is choking on its inequalities and cannot sustain itself without rigorous repair work.

Perhaps most blatant is our government’s response to the creation of the International Criminal Court, the first effort to establish a permanent judiciary to try crimes against humanity. Many nations support it as a major component of the growing international culture of human rights. But fearful, as always, of yielding even a small fraction of its sovereignty, we have sought to exempt US personnel from the Court, by threatening to undermine military assistance to nations that will not grant the United States an exemption from prosecution, as well as the threat to withdraw all funds for UN peacekeeping. If we ask “why do they hate us?” I don’t think it is good enough to say that they envy our freedom. We are acting like contemptuous bullies on the world scene. We are attempting to impose our will by “diktat” and not by cooperation and consensus. We have opted for aggressive unilateralism at the expense of the world community.

For past months a highly visible struggle has been played out in this administration between the unilateralist Cheney-Rumsfeld forces around the Defense Department, and the State Department of Colin Powell, who is a moderate multilateralist, and Bush seems to be caught in the middle, sometimes dodging toward the latter when necessary, but swayed primarily by the Cheney-Rumsfeld camp. As a result of America’s isolation, the Israel-Palestine quagmire was permitted to spin out of control for months, and India and Pakistan came to the brink of nuclear war. When these conditions became too dangers, Powell, or his deputy was dispatched in a rearguard and rather pathetic way to quell the immediate crisis.

In this context, I don’t think that waging a preventive war on Iraq will help us. Everyone admits that there was no linkage between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, so that such a war cannot be justified as a step in the war on terrorism. The entire Arab world opposes it, at a time when we increasingly need its cooperation. And the United States leads by example. If we arrogate the right to attack another country, which has not attacked us, who is to say that India will not arrogate to itself the right to attack Pakistan in an effort to but an end to the strife over Kashmir? The repercussions of such a war are unknown, except that they will be many, complex and open up new dangers.

No doubt the unilateralists in the Bush administration have been inspired by the triumphs of military might in regard to the fall of the Soviet Union and the surprisingly rapid routing of the Taliban in Afganistan. But I don’t believe that America’s military strength alone will make us safer in the long run. We need the good will and cooperation of the rest of the world to help assure our own security.

When the United States faced off against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, as horrid as the prospect of nuclear annihilation was, at least this bi-lateral scheme allowed the United States and the Soviets to police and keep in check those entities within their spheres of power.

But that system has broken down, and it’s now a new world. It’s a world of globalization, with one superpower, and many little eddies of powers that grow up in reaction to the imposition of our values, authority and might. It’s a world in which religious loyalties and fanaticism grip the imagination and devotion of masses who have felt dispossessed and left out of the riches promised by the global economic system. It’s a world in which swarms of people feel that Western style of government has led to military dictatorship and authoritarianism. It’s a world in which rhetoric about democracy seems to apply to others but not to them.

What approach would be better? What type of approach would have, broadly speaking, a healing effect on the world, and help create the conditions in which the emergence of extremism, fanaticism, irrationalism, xenophobia and terrorism less likely? What approach would serve our interests of safety and security, and the interests of others in a world that has grown in every way far more interdependent?

It is here that I fall back on my Ethical Culture. Just as I have committed myself in my personal life to be guided and informed by ethical values, so I want to see the foreign policy of my country informed by ethics as well. Clearly in the extreme this is wishing for a chimera. We should not believe that nations are driven by ethics, or ever will be. They are driven by the needs for security, self-interest and power. But I would argue even more strenuously that a foreign policy that excludes ethical values is a very bad policy.

Wilson brought us into World War I, but by doing so he held out a vision and promise of democracy for the world. While Roosevelt was conducting the war on Nazism, he was also proclaiming the “Four Freedoms” – the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom from fear and the freedom from want – not merely for the American people, but for the world. This promise influenced the creation of the United Nations Charter, and with it the blossoming of the human rights culture that has provided hope and civilized norms for the world. We bombed the Germans and the Japanese into submission, but we helped to rebuild those cultures along democratic lines – and it worked.

But what values, what ideals are being held forth by the Bush policy of imposing by fiat our will and power on the world? We cannot impose a Pax Americana on the world simply by military might. We need the participation, cooperation and consent of others.

As a matter of political faith, indeed, as a matter of religious faith, I hold out a belief that, in the final analysis, I cannot totally prove. It is the faith that the more people have freedom and democratic control over their own lives and destinies, the less propone to irrationalism, extremism and violence they will become. The surest antidote to terrorism is democracy.

In Iran, as democracy incrementally increases, interest in Islamic authoritarinism decreases among the younger generation that strives for a better life. Young Iranians want more democracy and less Islam. I suspect that if Pakistan were a true democracy, with the possibility of real economic growth, that the brutalization of women in that country would diminish and the conditions of which give rises to religious schools teaching fanaticism would lose their grip. And if the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories were to end, and the Palestinian economy could be vouchsafed through international aid, and corruption banished, suicide bombers would be marginalized rather than heralded as heroes.

As a nation we will fight terrorism, as we must. But at the same time, I would like to see the United States be a full and cooperative partner in the world community, and not a rogue state.

We need to speak the language and hold out the hope of democracy for all – and mean it! Indeed, we have routed the Taliban in Afghanistan but, consistent with a policy of isolationism, we have withheld the financial resources to help in the construction of democratic institutions. Hence anarchy reigns outside the capital and the status of women is hardly safer than it was.

Perhaps the surest thing we can do is free ourselves from the heroin addiction of Middle Eastern oil. How inspired a Bush administration would be if it would proclaim to the American people that we all could participate in the war against terrorism by conserving energy, while we radically invest in developing alternative energy sources!

But instead we continue to prop up nasty dictatorships and protect the House of Saud, who then pays off fanatic mullahs who preach hatred of the West, and so create the very breeding for terrorism directed at us. Our policy toward Egypt is no better. But if we were to free ourselves from our dependence on these brutal dictators, we could then preach the language of democracy, human rights and hope with less hypocrisy than we do now.

I don’t believe that we are involved in a so-called “clash of civilizations”, but I do believe that we are involved in a clash of ideas. The challenge we confront is not between Islam and West, it is rather a struggle between democracy on the one hand, and autocracy, irrationalism and fanaticism, on the other. It is a battle we can win. But in order to win, we must deploy the values we stand for with earnestness and as much consistency as international relations can allow.

In no way is my safety or yours or America’s guaranteed. But I very much want to see my nation, which is the strongest in the world, also be a moral leader among nations. I would like to see it as a respected and full participant in the international community, operating through diplomacy in the search for consensus. I want to see our nation as the standard bearer for democracy and freedom with words that do not ring hollow. I want to see it as a champion of the economic interests of the world’s neediest and a champion of human rights. I want to see America respected on the world stage, not merely for its economic opportunities, but because of the values for which it stands and which it seems to have forgotten. The very reason for the existence of our country is to maximize freedom. We need to act on that purpose and abandon a quest for empire that can only breed resentment among our friends and enemies.

The anniversary of September 11 is almost upon us. We need to recall with reverence and respect our fellow citizens who so tragically lost their lives through no fault of their own.

But remembering is not enough. I have long believed that the highest form of patriotism as a freedom-loving citizen is to try to repair the breeches of our society, work to overcome its injustices and steer it on the right course when it has gone astray.

What does this have to do with healing? Certainly, the world is fractured and splintered and dangerously in need of repair. But on a personal level also, sometimes our healing comes not solely from introspection, but from action, from doing something that speaks to the problems that pain us. Sometimes it is good to look and act outward in order to overcome the pains of the inner life. And so as I look to the year ahead, I want to rededicate myself to those actions that will make our society and our world a better place. And by so doing I may overcome the wound that has done injury to me, as it has my beloved City and my country. Ethical Culture teaches that also.

Dr. Joseph Chuman
8 September 2002

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