The Ethics of Terrorists, The Virtues of Heroes

We are now confronted, as clearly as ever before in human history, with two starkly different approaches to life in this world.

Picture to yourself a small group of individuals seated on a plane, wielding knives and box cutters, rising from their seats on a pleasant morning flight, and suddenly slashing the throats of men and women they've never seen before, travelers who were just reading their papers, talking to their children, or gazing out the window at a beautiful blue sky seconds before. Imagine the chaos of terror and panic these men create as they take control of the plane and aim it at a tall building, intent on killing thousands, and even tens of thousands if they can.

Now let your mind's eye see hundreds of police and firefighters running toward a building in flames, determined to save lives. Imagine them carrying heavy equipment, trudging up smoke filled stairways that panicked people are rushing down. Now picture a conflagration of hell on earth, with the tallest buildings in America collapsing in on themselves, sending steel, glass, concrete, smoke, and shock waves exploding down the streets of New York, killing and maiming anyone who happens to be too close by. And, finally, envision as vividly as you can many hundreds of brave people working tirelessly to find survivors, digging in the rubble, risking their own lives, fighting futility, pushing themselves to the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion, and then far beyond, unwilling to quit, in a determined effort to get to anyone who might still be alive and in need of help.

A day after the recent terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, I was asked a surprising question by a friend in the media whose wife covers violence around the world for the Associated Press. He said she'd be doing a special report on the events and wanted to know what I thought about "the ethics of terrorism." My first thought was how exceedingly odd that phrase sounded. Can terrorism be said to have any "ethics" at all?

A terrorist wants to hijack a commercial airplane and fly it into a tall building. He chooses a flight with a relatively small number of passengers on board. Why? Because he wants to minimize the number of people killed? Of course not. He is concerned only that no one get in his way. The fewer passengers on board, the fewer obstacles to his success. He is ultimately out to kill as many people as he possibly can. Human beings mean nothing to him. They are targets, or obstacles, or, at best, tools for his destructive intentions.

The world view that undergirds any terrorist activity is as far removed from any ethical philosophy of life as can possibly be imagined. It involves treating people as mere means to extrinsic ends and not as in any way ends themselves. It ascribes at most only instrumental value to people, and absolutely no intrinsic value. On this view, the only good of a human being is how he can be used to forward a terrorist's aims. How very ironic that the terrorist mind ever purports to have any form of liberation as its goal. It imprisons its own within ironclad illusions, and shackles any life it confronts to the exigencies of its agenda. It violates all the foundational principles of the world's great religions as well as those of any enlightened philosophical system of values.

Terrorism has of course been long used as a political tool by desperate people operating in small groups. We now see it manifested in wider ranging, loosely knit organizations that span dozens of countries. But organized terrorism is an inherently unstable phenomenon. It is based in a completely manipulative approach to the treatment of people, and that includes the terrorists' colleagues themselves. How could anyone ever trust another person in any regard who is willing at any time, in the most extreme way, to sacrifice human life to abstract principles and political ends, not to mention his own imagined goals? How could terrorists ever trust each other enough to work together, if they thought for a moment about how any other human being is viewed by their fellow extremists?

The answer isn't actually all that surprising. Terrorists tend to maintain working relationships with each other only by the psychological strategy of deflecting attention away from the inherent untrustworthiness of their basic attitudes, and whipping up emotional allegiances supported by cosmic claims misleadingly and selectively lifted from the scriptures of their indigenous religious traditions. This simple strategy is consistently used. A little thought can be a dangerous thing. It could completely unravel the fabric of terrorist collaboration. So reflective thought is assiduously avoided, in favor of frenzied feeling and empty promises of eternal reward.

Many ancient philosophers are known to have pledged their allegiance as "citizens of the world," understanding that unity is a fundamental ethical and spiritual principle that begins with the home but then extends out as comprehensively as possible, encompassing other nationalities, ethnicities and races, and ultimately all human beings, even as it goes farther still and sees the entirety of nature as falling within the sphere of the moral domain. Every human being has a need for a sense of unity with something greater than the self. Terrorists prey on this deep spiritual need, and cut it off at the level of local geography, ethnicity, or sect, treating all others who fall outside that circle as "enemies of God." But any of their own could become enemies of the cause at any moment that their continued existence became inconvenient at all, and so the restricted "unity" the terrorist heralds ends up not being any real form of unity whatsoever, just as their "ethics" ends up not being any real form of ethics either.

The "ethics" of terrorism is nothing more than the ultimate version of "the end justifying the means." People who work from within the resources of real ethical traditions have a long history of analyzing the morally permissible uses of force or violence for the purpose of restraining evil and greater violence. Terrorists intentionally - not carelessly, or incidentally, but intentionally and viciously - target innocent non-combatants, the one group that all genuinely ethical people try most to protect from violence under any scenario for the use of force. But terrorists are not about to be constrained by anything remotely resembling traditional ethics. In their hearts, vice becomes virtue, and the most grotesque immorality becomes duty. Their "ethics" is a heartless counterfeit that passes as moral currency only among those whose true sensibilities have been so distorted as to nearly forfeit their claim to humanity at all.

Contrast with this for a moment the approach to life and the dedication to other people that we've witnessed in the actions of firefighters, police, and other ordinary people suddenly unmasked as real heroes in the aftermath of September 11. These were people willing to put aside their own safety to save others, people who put an extraordinarily high value on any human life, men and women willing to work tirelessly to rescue strangers under the most difficult and dangerous conditions imaginable. These were people living the Golden Rule, doing for others what they would want others to do for them, but not with any reciprocation in view at all. They did what they believed was right, not because it forwarded some political or social agenda, but because other human beings needed their help. And hundreds of them gave their lives trying to provide that help.

This showed a mindset as far removed from the terrorist worldview as you could possibly want. People matter. And nothing matters more. Ethics is, ultimately, action guided by love. And in this instance, it's completely clear that love is no sentimental emotion, but is a fundamental commitment to the good of another person that transcends any narrow concerns of self-interest. The firefighters and police, the sanitation workers and volunteers, all the people in lower Manhattan who showed that ultimate love in action were acting for and giving to people they mostly didn't know, and never would get to know. They were living what ethics is all about, in its highest possible form.

The "ethics" of the terrorists or the virtues of those heroes? Which will we human beings choose? I hope the watching world eventually comes to understand that this is what we are all being asked. And I hope it has no hesitation about making the right choice.

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