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9/11/02

by Susan Haack


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 1.


For me at least, it is still hard to speak or even think clearly about the terrible events of a year ago. The sheer complexity of the tangled political, legal, military, strategic, theological, and philosophical questions—about international politics and the role of religion, about the goals, strategies, and costs of a new kind of war, about religious toleration and its limits—daunts me; and horror, fear, anger, and sadness still sometimes overwhelm me. It’s hard even to know what words to use; “tragedy,” now worn thin by overuse, seems inadequate, too easily allowing us to forget that we are dealing with human evil, deliberate death and destruction prompted by resentment, hatred, despair, fanaticism.

Human evil”: I don’t believe God is on our side—or anyone’s; and what follows will be thoroughly and unapologetically humanist reflections. We humans aren’t the Chosen Creatures, just very complicated animals. And we are divided creatures, both intellectually and morally—made up, as Denis Diderot once wrote, “of strength and weakness, of insight and blindness, of pettiness and grandeur.” We are capable of remarkable intellectual and artistic achievement, but also susceptible to superstition and obfuscation—for “mysteries” are a balm to our uneasy sense of self-importance; and we are capable of great kindness, but also of appalling cruelty. The dark side of the human creature is inclined to tribalism: fear of, hostility towards, those who are different, Not Us. This is an ancient, deep, emotional response. Even in the modern world, it is sometimes useful, and often enough harmless; but it can be deadly—and never more deadly than when it is harnessed by religious fanaticism.

The perpetrators of the September 11 attacks were Muslim fanatics. It is doubtless all to the good that, in the last year, many of us have become at least dimly aware of differences among the various branches of Islam, and of various subtleties of Islamic theology, hitherto quite outside our consciousness. And of course it is important that we remember that not all Muslims are fanatics, nor all fanatics Muslims. But it is no less vital to recognize how religious ardor can come to serve our darker side. Tribalism is a natural human weakness; if it is not to destroy us, we need to understand why it grows so luxuriantly at some times and in some cultural contexts, and how it resonates with deprivation, despair, envy, and old resentments long nursed.

It is difficult, not to say impossible, to rank cultures holus bolus and simpliciter as better or worse. Still, British cooking is surely gastronomically inferior to the gloriously subtle and versatile cuisine of India. And a culture in which some people are enslaved is surely morally worse, in that respect, than a culture in which all are free; a culture in which women are treated as chattels or children is morally worse, in that respect, than a culture in which women are accepted and treated as fully human; a culture in which people are subject to imprisonment and punishment without trial is morally worse, in that respect, than a culture in which they are not; and so on. To those who maintain that God mandates that we treat women as second-class persons, or that we root out and destroy infidels, etc., I can only reply: you are terribly mistaken.

The better side of human nature is capable of overcoming tribalism, of appreciating that They are no less human than We, and of cherishing the myriad differences among individuals and the myriad human achievements they make possible. We are fortunate to live in a society that, for all its faults, has evolved—gradually, raggedly, and still very, very imperfectly—towards a hospitable pluralism that embraces this sense of our common humanity and this appreciation of individual differences. Not that all traces of tribalism, or of religious fanaticism, have vanished—far from it; but our history makes it at least possible for us to see them for what they are: regressions to the darker side of human nature.

The military, strategic, and diplomatic challenges we face are great; and so too is the moral challenge. This challenge is implicit in arguments about racial profiling at airports or the treatment of Al Qaeda prisoners—how can we best defend ourselves without sacrificing what we most value? It becomes explicit when we realize that the terrorists, and those who condone, support, or rejoice in their horrors, express the very tribalism from which we have so painfully and partially liberated ourselves. How can we defend ourselves against their tribalism without resorting to a tribalism of our own?

Many times in the last year we have heard: “Our values are under threat.” They are; and we should—we must—defend them. But not because they are ours; for that really would be a regression to the dark side of human nature. If we take this thought to heart, we shall not, as we should not, fear that in defending them we may be guilty of a kind of cultural imperialism. And we will appreciate that, in the deepest sense, the values at stake are not “ours”—not peculiarly American, English, French, or even Western, but human: values, that is, with the capacity to enhance human flourishing, and to appeal emotionally to humans everywhere.

Today we will hold in our minds images of the extraordinary courage of “our” heroes of 9/11—the firefighters, the police officers, the passengers and crew of Flight 93. It would serve humanity well if we were to dwell, also, on images of the surge of the human spirit after the liberation of Kabul—of the young women, their faces now visible and visibly eager, as they returned to their decayed and damaged but now-functioning schools and to the possibility of full human lives; and of the brave artist cleaning off the safer images he had painted over cultural treasures to protect them from destruction by the zealots of the Taliban.

Copyright 2002 Susan Haack.  


Susan Haack is Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences, professor of philosophy, and professor of law at the University of Miami (Florida). Her reflections were presented at a campuswide Day of Commemoration held at the University of Miami on September 11, 2002.


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