Monday, February 05, 2007

Are all hatreds alike?--becoming "just like them"

Recently I rented the movie "United 93." The edition I watched included an addendum to the film, interviews with families of some of the passengers on Flight 93 who'd been featured in it.

This was almost as interesting as the rest of the movie--hearing the differing ways people have coped with the almost unimaginably wrenching and violent loss of a loved one at the hands of international mass murderers dedicated to a political cause, occurring (literally) out of the blue on a bright and beautiful day in September.

One of the interviewees was the husband of a woman who died on that airplane. He seems a wonderful man, and loved his wife very much. He was still deeply grieving at the time of the interview, some years after 9/11.

This post isn't about him, though, not really; I mean no disrespect to his feelings, nor to his way of dealing with his dreadful loss. It's a particular thought he expressed that gives me pause, a remark that struck me as representative of a kind of thinking that always brings me up short when I encounter it. It's an example of one possible way people have of coping with grief, and it stems from a genuinely wonderful impulse: forgiveness, compassion, reluctance to rush to judgment, and the banishment of hatred from the heart.

This is the statement, as best I can recall it:

I don't hate Bin Laden; I've never met him. That's their mindset--to hate innocent people they've never met and want to kill them. If I hated him I'd be like them.

Would he? Are all hatreds equal, and all equally abhorrent? And what is the definition of "innocence?"

I've heard this sort of thing from people of intelligence, kindness, and thoughtfulness too often to consider it a singular statement from one man in particular. No, it's a trend of thought that seems to emerge sometimes from a religious sensibility that emphasizes the necessity for forgiveness and love, sometimes from the influence of various psychotherapies and their focus on the healthfulness of forgiveness and the destructive power of hatred for the individual, and sometimes from postmodern pronouncements that right and wrong are mere concepts in an ever-changing narrative.

But unfortunately there's a problem: those who espouse the sort of viewpoints quoted here, in their well-meaning and heartfelt flight from emotions deemed destructive to self and others, may lose sight of the basis for and the ability to make necessary making moral judgments.

And that can be dangerous; as the old Talmudic saying goes: Those who are kind to the cruel end up being cruel to the kind.

In what sense can Osama bin Laden be regarded as "innocent?" My guess--and it's only a hunch--is that the statement relies at least partly on the legal rule of "innocent until proven guilty." That's all very well and good for a court of law. The rule is a protection against certain actions that might follow from an improper judgment of guilt in a court case: the incarceration of an innocent person, the rush to judgment of an individual without a mountain of well-documented evidence. It's a check against sullying the name of a blameless person and restraining his/her freedom merely through the force of rumor and accusation.

That has nothing to do with making a mental moral judgment about the acts of a world figure bent on the mass murder of truly innocent people--random civilians--and even claiming credit for it. A trial isn't necessary in this case to establish a standard of guilt that's high enough to make a moral judgment--and a moral judgment is required, I'm afraid, in order to fight effectively against such things.

But what about the well-known words of Jesus, "Judge not that ye not be judged?" Well, if one looks closely at the context, it seems that the subject was the need to discourage making hypocritical judgments concerning others, jumping to conclusions about their shortcomings without looking at one's own:

Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.

This hardly seems to apply to making a judgment about mass murderers who purposely target the innocent.

But what of hatred? The emotion of hatred has gotten a bad press lately, for the aforementioned reasons. Here, however, is a defense of the need to feel hatred in the appropriate circumstances. After all, as the article points out, if we're looking for a religious base for things, Ecclesiastes 3 says:

For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven. A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.

Both Judaism and Christianity share the "hate the sin but not the sinner" maxim, which originates in a respect for all human life, and the need to keep open the possibility of repentance (take a look at the linked article for a fuller discussion). But Judaism seems to make more allowance than certain strains of Christianity for a vigorous emotional response one might call "hate" towards a person who has moved beyond "ordinary" criminal acts and into the realm of mass murder and power and true evil: a Hitler, a Stalin, a Bin Laden (who, granted, does not rival the first two in terms of numbers, but nevertheless follows the same nihilistic impulses). It is especially appropriate for an unrepetant evildoer.

We can call the emotional response to such acts "hatred," which has earned a bad rep lately. Or. we could rename it "outrage," which might make it more acceptable. Although such an emotion is not the same as "love" for the sinner, it does, in a seeming paradox, stem from love: love for humanity, the need to be "kind to the kind" by not being "kind to the cruel."

Some consider hatred of evildoers to be wrong because they see it as synonymous with the desire for revenge. Not necessarily. Hatred of evil, and of the perpetrators of evil, is one of the emotions fueling the pursuit of justice, which is different from revenge (and also is not limited to the justice of the courtroom). Hatred shouldn't get out of control or it does become counterproductive, both for the psyche of the hater and for the effectiveness of any campaign against evil. But to expunge it entirely from the picture can easily lead to a paralysis of the will to fight evil and a tolerance for it that perpetrators only see as weak, and which empowers their cause.

It would be wonderful if the example of love and forgiveness could lead to the transformation of evil into its opposite. That's the hope. And in same cases I do believe that love and forgiveness can work wonders--but only with those who have not crossed a certain line, only with those who share certain underlying values and assumptions. We need to recognize those who are far beyond its reaches; just as a psychiatrist needs to recognize when he/she is dealing with a sociopath, and all the love and understanding in the world is not enough.

Another problem with the sort of thinking evidenced in the quote about Bin Laden is the idea of becoming "just like" the enemy. Even for those who do believe that it's wrong to feel hatred against someone like Bin Laden, is it really true that an ounce of hatred for a murderous psychopath is the exact equivalent of the evil done by such people and their supporters? Is there no sense of proportion here? Are all hatreds alike, including the one that is harbored in the heart as compared to the one that results in acts of murder? The one that is against the murderer as compared to the one that is against the victim?

This is a good example of a tendency I've noticed in our postmodern world: that the part is the equivalent of the whole. Comparisons of degree seem to be impossible for many people who are making judgments. Bush is Hitler, the Patriot Act is the end of liberty in America--or, as an erudite gentlemen serenely stated at a lecture I attended recently--the US is now a theocracy. This man, like certain other champions of so-called "nuance," seemed unable to make a "nuanced" judgment of relative fault and degree.

Degree matters. Context matters. Not all hatreds are alike. A President whose policies on stem cells is in accord with his religious beliefs does not a theocracy make--ask the Iranians. And hating Bin Laden doesn't make one like him. I wouldn't have thought these things needed to be stated, or would be the least bit controversial. But apparently they do, and apparently they are.

Powered by Blogger