Message from Rushworth Kidder

President, Institute for Global Ethics

September, 2001

Below is commentary by Institute for Global Ethics' president Rushworth M. Kidder on the moral hazards and opportunities reflected in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Dear Friends:

I saw the first one along Route 2 in Naubinway, Michigan. He was standing in his front yard along the nation's northernmost highway, waving a large American flag. At that time -- late Tuesday afternoon, the day of the terrorist attacks -- this stretch of the Upper Peninsula atop Lake Michigan was almost deserted. But there he stood, responding from his rural isolation to the day's events as best he could. I waved back.

It was a theme repeated with variations for the next three days, as I drove a rented Blazer from Wisconsin to Maine after all flights were grounded. In community after community, businesses, town halls, fire stations, and schools had put up signs reading "God bless America" and "Condolences to the victims." A large banner, hung on an old white-clapboard church in southern Vermont, said "Open for prayer." And American flags were everywhere, including one draped from a freeway overpass by a man waving to the cars below. That was in Canada.

Spinning quietly home, alternately listening to the news and turning it down to contemplate a radically altered world, I found myself thinking about the millions of similar gestures popping up spontaneously across America. Some people drove to New York to help search for victims. Some gave funds to charities. Some gave blood. Some organized candlelight meetings and prayer services. Some sought out friends in distress. Some just spoke earnestly with one another across hardware store counters and in grocery store lines. But everywhere, it seemed, the same question was on people's lips: "What can I do? How can I help?" For answers, they turned to actions that ranged from moving rubble to waving flags, from the tangible to the symbolic.

In times like this, symbolism matters. International terrorism, after all, is a message system. It is practiced by those who feel they've been shut out of the global discourse and will go to any lengths to be heard. Only rarely do terrorists have specific, tangible demands, like ransoms paid for kidnappings. Usually their message is broader and more symbolic: "You have ignored us at your peril, and in revenge we will destroy all you stand for." What's under attack are ideas, values, and beliefs. The targets are often symbols for those intangibles -- in this case, global trade and capitalism (the World Trade Center) and military dominance (the Pentagon).

Not surprisingly, the response from Americans under attack also comes through symbols -- in this case, the impulse to reach for the flag. But the symbolism of the flag is complex. It ranges from the loftiest ideals of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" to the structures of legislative democracy, from the local governance of school boards to the practical volunteerism of fire stations. For some, the flag evokes the best of military discipline, honor, and courage. For others, it stands for the worst jingoistic assertions of militarism, exceptionalism, and superiority. Americans use flags to open baseball games and cover coffins, to decorate parades and label products. So the real question, as we come to clarity over the next few months, can be put simply: Which of these flags should the nation be waving? Put another way, it's a question about values: What does America stand for?

As we move forward, the nation will need to address three moral hazards -- three temptations that would distort and disintegrate our values.

1. Revenge. The first and most immediate will be the desire for vengeance, bloodlust, and a venting of rage. Yes, the nation must respond with firmness and vehemence. But we must not react with an outsized vigilantism that tramples the standards of international law and human rights. While such lashing out is a recognizable human response to the unconscionable evil of these attacks, it must be resisted, for several reasons:

- Cultural spillover. Terrorism is low-intensity warfare, where the "enemy" is tiny, diffuse, and often unidentified. Almost inevitably, any massive retaliation abroad would produce a significant physical spillover, creating collateral damage among civilians unconnected to the terrorists' acts. Equally harmful would be the cultural spillover in this country -- the stereotyping of Afghans, Arabs, even Muslims in general as objects of loathing. If we could be talked into believing all Afghans really are awful, we would have fewer qualms about wiping them out in large numbers. The argument for massive retaliation, then, may depend on the linkage to cultural stereotyping. While that genocidal link is acceptable to Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and other tyrants, it's wholly repugnant in a democracy -- especially one that has struggled to reduce racism and respect diversity. The moral challenge ahead will be to fight terrorism without using the tyrant's immoral methods.

- The terrorist mind-set. Those who study terrorism have noted a strong parallel between the mind of the fanatical terrorist and the mind of the undeveloped adolescent. Each tends to feel a certain invincibility, a catch-me-if-you-can bravura convinced of its own exemption from danger -- or, in this case, its own assured place in heaven. Each puts self-interest well ahead of concern for others. Each is prone to adulation, hero-worship, and the manipulations of cult leaders, whether fashion icons or fundamentalist clerics. Most importantly, each tends to see the world in black-and-white absolutes, without nuance or shades of gray. The ethical response to absolutism is not counter-absolutism. To be sure, the core values we hold must be clear. But the way we apply them must be sensitive, thoughtful, and appreciative of the complexity of the world -- the moral opposite of the terrorist mind-set.

- The Middle East effect. All evidence from the Middle East crisis -- the most fertile breeding ground in the world for international terrorism -- is that tit-for-tat responses between the Israeli military and Palestinian suicide bombers merely prolong the conflict. The assassination strategy of the Israelis, attempting to take out Palestinian leaders, may backfire. Rather than eliminating leadership, the Israeli strategy appears simply to be replacing leadership -- opening opportunities for younger leaders to step into the vacuum. The lesson for America is clear: However much we want to personalize the conflict as the work of one individual, there's no evidence that assassinating Osama bin Laden would end terrorism. The enemy is not a personality. It's a set of corrupted and dogmatic ideas rooted in decades of hopelessness and rage.

Bottom line: American policy must walk a fine and principled line between non-response and over-response. And, tough as it is to say at this moment, that will require patience. Rooting out terrorism is not the work of cruise missiles but of intelligence gatherers. Fortunately, Tuesday's events may prove counterproductive to terrorism. Unlike the bombing of the African embassies or the USS Cole, this month's attacks went so far over the top that they have galvanized a global response. Billions should now be spent buying insight, intelligence, and analysis -- the weapons terrorists most dread.

2. Lockdown. The second moral hazard, arising in the middle term, will challenge us as we attempt to tighten our own security. For too long, Americans have lived with a false sense of airport security. Remember those signs at check-in desks, warning that airline security in Nigeria was lax and travelers should avoid going there? Oddly enough, such signs helped us think that we in the West were fully secure. No more.

In security, there's not much debate about what's doable. We already know how to make installations almost perfectly secure, given enough resources of money, people, and technology. So did the Soviet Union, whose leaders thought so highly of tight borders and invasive policing that they made life almost unlivable for many of their citizens. What level of lockdown are we willing to trade for security? If individual freedom and respect for privacy are at one end of a dial, and total security and safety at the other, where should we set the needle? The moral temptation will be to curtail the very values -- free assembly, freedom from intrusive inspection, the right to privacy -- that are central to the nation's being.

Finding the middle ground will not be easy. Take just one example: Secure borders. If, as seems probable, some of the perpetrators of Tuesday's attacks crossed into the United States from Canada, what does that say about the world's longest unfenced international border? Canada's relatively open immigration policies often make it easier for foreign nationals to enter Toronto or Vancouver than New York or Los Angeles. Canada is also an increasingly diverse and polyglot culture, where foreigners can blend in unnoticed. If some of them slip south, whose responsibility is that: America's, for maintaining such permeable borders, or Canada's, for letting them into North America in the first place? The ethical dilemma here -- choosing between the needs of individual refugees and the safety of the entire community -- will need to be resolved in a way that honors human dignity while ensuring human safety.

3. Isolationism. The third moral hazard will arise over the long haul. It will be a tendency to believe what the terrorists are saying: That America is a degenerate culture of sex, wealth, and violence; that all it stands for is material acquisition and military domination; that its people are not serious about defending their own country; and that its values deserve to be eclipsed. Already, sadly enough, the video imagery we project to the world paints us as a land fixated on guns and dollars. Little wonder the world looks disparagingly at us. And little wonder that, in response to that disparagement, a new isolationism may try to draw us into our shell just when we need to stride with confidence into the new world.

What are we doing to correct these mistaken views? Not enough. By an extraordinary confluence of events, the United States finds itself the undisputed leader of the world. Yet its citizens, per capita, probably know less than any other free peoples about the world's countries, cultures, and languages. We think of ourselves as a self-sufficient nation. And the danger of self-sufficiency is that one becomes convinced of the supremacy of one's own culture. As the dust settles from Tuesday's attacks, we'll be tempted to continue in egocentric ways, paying scant regard to global affairs. Notice, for example, the level to which international news has already been reduced on CNN. It's now called "the global minute."

The moral imperative, at this juncture, is for a wholesale revolution in how we teach the next generation. World history, geography, foreign affairs, comparative religion, global ethics -- these are not just luxuries. They're central to our future. In the past, the case for global education hardly rose above the anemic promise that, if you study another language, you'll have more fun traveling abroad. In fact, the real argument for global education is that it's essential to our survival. What we know about Afghanistan, Islam, and the reasons America is despised abroad is but a fraction of what Tuesday's terrorists knew about us. If the first rule of warfare is to know your enemy, we've got lots of work ahead.

Which flag, then, will we wave? I hope it will be the flag of patient, precise punishment rather than angry revenge, the flag of values-based security rather than suspicion-driven lockdown, the flag of global outreach rather than retrenching isolationism. There is an old Quaker saying that if, in order to defeat the beast, I become a beast, then bestiality has won. If to defeat an attack on our values we surrender our values, then we've lost. But if September 11 proves to be both a Pearl Harbor of the heart that coalesces our national spirit and a Sputnik of the mind that transforms our educational institutions, the new world order could be a winner for everyone but terrorists.


Rushworth M. Kidder

President, Institute for Global Ethics

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