"The latter era, of course," writes Noam
Chomsky, "opened on August 6, 1945, the first day of the countdown to what
may be the inglorious end of this strange species, which attained the
intelligence to discover the effective means to destroy itself, but - so the
evidence suggests - not the moral and intellectual capacity to control its worst
We're not even close. Or so it seems on a bad day. "Why are we violent but
not illiterate?" asked columnist Colman McCarthy. Well, for one thing, we don't
wrap illiteracy in a shroud of glory and call it war or self-defense or national
security; nor have we developed a multi-trillion-dollar industry called the
Illiteracy Industrial Complex (or maybe we have, and call it television). In any
case, the human race has a demonstrated ability to pull itself out of an
instinct-driven existence - but now finds itself at a suicidal impasse, unable,
or uncertain how, to commit to taking the next step upwards, beyond violent
conflict resolution and the mentality of "us vs. them," and into a fuller
connection with the universe.
This moment, as we straddle the anniversaries of the nuclear destruction of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is a time to reflect on what happens next. Violence -
disorganized and, of course, highly organized and extraordinarily sophisticated -
remains humanity's obsession, preoccupation and primary distraction. Despite the
ability we now possess to destroy ourselves and most life on this planet, we
have barely begun to question our reflexive violence. Doing so requires looking
If there's a guiding principle in this journey, perhaps it begins here:
". . . conflict escalates - that is, moves increasingly toward violence
- according to the degree of dehumanization in the situation," writes Stephanie
Van Hook, executive director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence,
summarizing the work of Michael Nagler, who wrote The Nonviolence Handbook: A
Guide for Practical Action. "Violence, in other words, doesn't occur without
This is simplicity itself, is it not? As long as we respect the person or
group with whom we're in conflict, both sides, eventually, win. It gets tricky,
however, when one side adamantly refuses to show respect, and even more so when
there's an imbalance of power involved - and when one's life is in danger. What
does "showing respect" even mean in such circumstances? It could mean "turning
the other cheek," but two millennia on, this concept remains misunderstood as
passive compliance and buried six feet deep in cynicism.
Gandhi re-energized the idea and called it "satyagraha": seize the truth.
That is to say, refuse either to dehumanize the other person or let the other
person do it to you. Stand with courage and change the world. But the popular
understanding of this idea is precarious. The media extol violent elimination of
conflict - poof! evil loses - and capitalism caters to every side in almost
every global feud. Ongoing dehumanization of one's enemy is a source of unending
profit, if not an economic necessity.
And this, I repeat, is the situation in a nuclear-armed world.
"Most urgently, why does such breathtaking audacity persist at a moment when
we should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our commitment
to abolish its most deadly manifestation?"
These are the words of Gen.
Lee Butler, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, keeper of the nation's
nuclear arsenal, who, post-retirement, became haunted by the work he did and
turned into a zealot for nuclear disarmament.
In his essay, "Death by Deterrence," Butler noted that, "from the earliest
days of the nuclear era, the risks and consequences of nuclear war have never
been properly weighed by those who brandished it."
The conclusion I draw from this observation, by a man who has stared into the
nuclear abyss, is that the temptation to dehumanize "the other" - whoever that
may be - and keep the world, as it were, safe for violence, surmounts the
rationality of survival. Continuing to develop nuclear weapons, generation after
generation, means that one day they will be used. And in a world festooned with
dehumanized people, such a day will be sooner rather than later.
It's easier to hate than to love. We can maintain hatred for "the other" and
remain certain of who we are. To love - especially beyond our obvious
self-interest - is no small feat. Every religion reaches toward this peak of
being in its teaching, but falls short of it in its practical application.
Indeed, sustaining hatred for an enemy creates group coherence. And violence
sustains the hatred, because without it, one would have to accept the blame for
every murder committed in the name of that hatred.
As Rabbi Michael
Lerner recently wrote: ". . . one of the primary victims of the war between
Israel and Hamas is the compassionate and love-oriented Judaism that has held
together for several thousand years."
I think we do have the moral and intellectual capacity to control our worst
instincts, but I don't know if we have the will, or the time, to rebuild our
lives, and our global civilization, around the best of who we are. Another
anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remind us that the clock
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound
(Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercwgmail.com or visit his website at
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