"If a man finds that his nature tends or is disposed to one of these extremes..., he should turn back and improve, so as to walk in the way of good people, which is the right way.
The right way is the mean in each group of dispositions common to humanity; namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes in its class, not being nearer to the one than to the other."
— Maimonides on The Golden Mean
Our battle against islamist aggression is made so much greater by the struggle it entails we engage in within ourselves; as the muslim moderates might put it, we undertake a "jihad", an "inner struggle" to resist the temptation to descend to the barbaric level of our opponents.
Thinking about the long future of our conflict with militant islam, surely the most frightening implications we face concern the brutal steps we might have to take to defend and preserve our values. The moral dilemma we struggle under, is that to sustain our values, we seem destined to forsake them, if we are to win through to absolute victory.
With every human shield, with every mother willing to use their children as ammunition, with every protest in our streets calling for the extermination of the jews, our ideological enemy raises the bar for our personal struggle not to become as savage as they are in our response to their savagery.
In reading Matthew the other day, I pondered long and hard over the admonition to turn the other cheek. Years ago it was one of the statements that turned me away from my faith; it seemed such a senseless piece of advice, not designed for "the real world". With the passing years, the know-it-all teenager became (hopefully) a bit more of a humbled man, as I got to spend a bit more time living in that real world; now I frequently find myself returning to this advice I had long found so challenging, and try to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Truth must be sensible, so where might be the sense in turning the other cheek to terrorists?
I guess understanding this passage comes down to understanding language itself. The advice is given in the language of man so that it can be clear to man, in the form of stories; like language itself, the advice is amorphous, designed to be followed in principle, not in rule, adaptable so that as circumstances change, we can change to meet them; we can measure it in long-term policy, not just short-term act. We don't literally "turn the other cheek", we figuratively search for a way to respond in a dignified manner. It's not about ignoring evil, or never resisting it's effect on us. It's about responding to evil in ways that are still dignified, civilized, and holy.
For our dignity to remain undiminished by our response, we need a brutal amount of honesty, because we desperately need clarity and truth in order to meet our obligations to do The Right Thing. The extreme of doing nothing to protect ourselves devalues our dignity, because it presumes that there is nothing to defend. That to me, it is even worse than doing too much, responding too heavy-handedly; at least we can atone for mistakes made through the latter approach, whereas the paralysis of the former surely dooms a correction as coming too little too late.
Finding a balanced response, a Golden Mean between the two extremes, of killing everybody and killing no one (the solution of the "peace-keeping" crowd), needs honesty. To arrive at our desired destination, we need moral clarity about the true point of departure. The stories of recent air passenger reactions to muslims on their flights shows us that the honest dialog we've been avoiding in our public arena, needs to be addressed, and lost time made up for... otherwise who can predict how far the pendulum will swing to the other extreme in a hastened attempt to redress grievances?
If we're to find the right balance, we'll need all the help we can get, so let's learn from the experience of those who have been traveling down this road long before we have.
India, for instance, has been under assault for ... well, when have they not been under assault by militant islam? The swinging pendulum of doing too much or too little is addressed in a recent editorial in India's Hindustan Times, brutally honest in order to find a more dignified response to brutality itself:
Blackening our conscience
Two things need to be said about the incident on board a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Bombay. One of them is self-evident and will, I think, meet with widespread agreement. The second is as self-evident but will, I suspect, be greeted with greater scepticism.
The first is that, no matter what spin the Dutch authorities and the US marshals on board who ordered the plane to be turned back give to the incident, what happened was clearly an instance of racism and religious prejudice.
It is all very well to say that the passengers suspected of terrorism were behaving suspiciously. But what did they actually do?
Judging by what the Dutch police are now saying the men changed seats, called out loudly to each other and attempted to speak on their mobile phones (though how they got a signal at that height is not explained).Such behaviour can be irritating. But is it suspicious enough to give rise to such paranoia? To have an entire aircraft turned around?
The real reason why the US marshals sprung into action was the ethnic and religious origin of the passengers. Firstly, they were brown. And secondly, they were Muslims.
Imagine for a moment that the passengers in question were white Americans ... would the US marshals have been as suspicious?
Forget about nationality. Suppose the 12 men who called out loudly to each other were white. Would there have been any panic? Would anyone have regarded them as potential terrorists? I think the answers are obvious.
It is the second point I want to make today that I suspect will be a little more controversial.
Imagine for a moment that there had been a terrorist alert on a train in India. Assume now that the police had been called in and had taken 12 Muslims into custody. What do you suppose would have happened next?
I’ll tell you. The Home Secretary of the state in question would have called a press conference to declare that a terrorist cell, possibly linked to the Lashkar or the Jaish, had been apprehended even as it was minutes away from blowing up the Rajdhani/Shatabdi Express.
The men would have been taken to the police station and placed in indefinite custody under one pretext or the other... Police teams would have fanned out all over India to raid their homes and their offices. Their neighbours would have been questioned. If they owned shops, these would have been shut down.
At some stage, when the interrogation yielded no concrete leads, the men would have been beaten up. Their families would have been threatened. At least one of them would have been broken so completely that he would have signed his name to any confession that the police had produced.
Do you think this is far-fetched? Am I being too harsh on the Indian system?All right. Just look at our recent history. Forget for a moment about the Islamic terrorist angle because that still provokes strong emotions. Think back instead to the Punjab agitation.
Do you remember a time when every Sikh who drove through Haryana on his way to Delhi was stopped and hassled by the police? When every Sikh who tried to board an aircraft was treated as a potential hijacker and forced to submit to the most humiliating searches?
And that’s just the people who could afford to buy plane tickets and drive their own cars. Poor Sikhs got an even worse deal.
Remember the detenues in Jodhpur jail? Remember the time when every Sikh pilgrim who was caught in the crossfire during the botched military operation that was Bluestar was treated as a potential terrorist and arrested? Remember how many of them protested that they were harmless pilgrims who had come to the Harminder Sahib not realising that the Indian army was on its way to blow up the Akal Takht?
Every family in every village in the Punjab had some story about police brutality during that era. Everybody knows somebody who was arrested falsely during those days. And everybody has heard of some innocent man who died during a police encounter and was later described as a ‘deadly terrorist’.
Fast forward now to the Bombay blasts in 1993. Nobody in his right mind can defend those terrorist acts. Nor can anyone deny that the police had a right to launch a comprehensive investigation into the people who assisted the bombers.
But speak to anybody who lives in Bhendi Bazaar or on Mohammad Ali Road. Listen to their stories of how the Bombay police — clearly communalised during that era — went from house to house dragging out the sons even as the mothers wept and wailed. Hear about the bribes that were extracted from innocent Muslims by corrupt policemen who threatened them with arrest unless they paid up.
Some of this went on under the TADA laws but many of those arrested were actually charged with crimes that they had never committed. Coolies who unloaded the explosives that were used for the Bombay blasts without knowing what was in the packages were picked up and thrown into jail. Hundreds of Muslims who may have had some nodding acquaintance with people who knew somebody who knew one of the bombers were arrested and charged with terrorism.
It is all very well to say that we are a society where the rule of law prevails. But just look at the progress of the Bombay blasts case — and this is before a special court so none of the usual arguments about judicial backlogs apply — where the verdict has still to be announced 13 years after the blasts themselves.
In the interim, witnesses have disappeared, some of the accused have died, whole families have been ruined and lives have been destroyed.
But at least the Bombay police didn’t go around shooting everybody — in those days. Consider how other police forces have handled so-called terrorist threats.
Who can forget the cold-blooded murder of two men in the parking lot of Ansal Plaza by the Delhi police? It is possible that the men were terrorists and I also grant that there is widespread public support for encounters as part of the fight against terrorism. But isn’t there something worrying about a society where policemen can drive two suspects into a public area, shoot them in front of witnesses and then claim they have foiled a terrorist plot to blow up Diwali shoppers?
So much for the rule of law.
I could go on. What about the five men who were described as the terrorists responsible for the Chattisinghpura massacre? When the bodies were exhumed after public pressure they were shown to have been innocent civilians who had been murdered by men in uniform.
So, let’s not get too self-righteous about the Dutch or about the US marshals. Yes, of course, they over-reacted. And, yes, there is no doubt that white people would not have been regarded with the same degree of suspicion.
But let’s also recognise that the West ... does function on the basis of the rule of law. The Indians who had been wrongly detained from the Northwest flight were set free. And it was made clear that they had no terrorist links. When the British police killed an innocent Brazilian on a tube train and tried to lie about the circumstances of the shooting, the media exposed the truth and the government ordered an inquiry, which uncovered the lies.
In India, alas, we are so terrified of terrorism and organised crime that we allow the police to do pretty much what they want. When the HT exposed the Ansal Plaza murders, we were called anti-national and it was suggested that we were on the side of the terrorists. Anybody who raises questions about the behaviour of the authorities in the battle against terrorism is regarded as unpatriotic. Can you think of a single democratic country where there would be no public outrage about the scandal that is the delayed trial in the Bombay blasts case? But in India we choose to gloss over it, claiming that all this is necessary to fight terror.
Only now, as we become victims of the anti-terror paranoia simply because we are brown, do we realise how great the injustice can be. What a shame then that we reserve our indignation for the West — and ignore the blood in our own backyard.