In the grip of the grief, rage, and fear that were evoked by the September 11 attack on the United States, many people turned to God. Churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques were filled with worshipers seeking comfort and meaning in the wake of the tragedy. Seeking God in moments of extreme distress may be a healthy instinct, but such behavior has a dark side.
By invoking the name of God to enroll the nation in a war against terrorists, our leaders may be obscuring an unpleasant reality: they are using the same strategy as the Muslim extremists. Our leaders want religious support in the war against terrorism for the acceptance of “casualties” among our armed forces. They want to use established religions in the effort to convince the voters that our young people should be suicidal in their defense of the nation’s political and economic security.
Our leaders are also following the path taken by Muslim extremists when they ask people of faith to accept the “collateral damage” our country may inflict, that is to acquiesce in the slaughter of non-combatants. When the hijackers killed American non-combatants who had no way of defending themselves, they were fulfilling a duty imposed by their faith. Our leaders condemned the recent attacks on civilians, but they are preparing to take similar action in Afghanistan.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, some of our country’s leaders said that the hijackers who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were guilty of a “cowardly” act. The act may have been vicious or criminal or insane, even evil, but I cannot picture the perpetrators as cowards.
Ordinarily, people use “cowardly” to mean desperate attempts at self preservation while being driven by excessive fear. In order to use the word appropriately, no one has to know that the origin of the word is a Latin term evoking the image of a dog with its tail between its legs. All the evidence available so far suggests that far from being cowardly, the hijackers were fearless. For at least five years they planned to sacrifice their lives in order to further the goals of their religious leaders. At the end, they did not flinch. They died in order to inflict a terrible blow on the people they believed to be their enemy.
Most of us have been taught that the highest form of altruism is to give your life in the service of God and your country. Usually the two, God and country, are carefully linked. As Jared Diamond wrote, “Institutionalized religion . . gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others. At the cost of a few society members who die as soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies.” (Guns, Germs, And Steel, W. W. Norton, 1997)
Once we can get past the notion that those who sacrificed their lives in the attack on our country were cowardly, we might be in a better position to face reality. The enemy of the world today is not a small group of Muslim extremists who are well-organized and well-financed. The enemy is religious extremism in every religious tradition, including Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists. Any group that convinces young people to be suicidal in combating enemies real and imagined is a threat to us all. Any group that assents to the killing of defenseless people is a threat to us all.
Progressive religious leaders need support – both from within their institutions and from the general public – in helping their faith traditions mature beyond their historic role of supporting altruistic suicide and heroic murder in the name of God. Progressive religious leaders of all faith traditions need support in encapsulating the extremists in their midst so that the people of the world might have a chance at developing a sane and effective means for curbing terrorism.