The Language of War (Encore) genre: Just Jihad

The history of the World is a cacophony of war. We live in a growing time of conflict. This includes war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, war in the West Bank, war in the Sudan, and war in Chechnya. There is also a war being fought within America. Some would argue that my characterization of war in America is extreme, but read on before jumping to that conclusion. By definitional standards, I acknowledge America is not internally in the grips of “war”, especially if the comparison is to our own Civil War. However, wars rarely happen overnight and they are often declared long after the battles have begun. At the precipice of every war are the battles going on within and between individuals that eventually become its promoters and its combatants. In these early battles, words become the first foot soldiers.

The Origins of War

War is often viewed and discussed in broad strokes with minimal regard for the motivations of each individual. That's not to say that individual wartime stories haven't been told. However, they are typically about exceptional people who often acted outside the norm. While their stories are compelling, they aren't necessarily representative of the general mindset that underscored any particular war. Too often, the real reasons for wars are ignored as the carnage and imagery understandably overtakes any present examination of the underlying issues. Once wars end, there seems to be an unspoken moratorium on significant analysis, at least for a number of years into the future. Periods of silence serve to segregate the events from their immediate reality in order to make the consequences palatable and the conscience tolerable. To understand this, look no further than the scars left by the Civil War.

Words are an integral part of all wars. They are arguably the most powerful weapon in this war in America. The word conscience is closely related to the word conscious and between them we begin to approach a comprehensive understanding of war. Wars are fought to validate or refute the torments and conflicts that permeate the minds of individuals. Simply stated, victory is equated with the validation and vindication of the thoughts, beliefs, and principles of the individual person, the state, the country, the empire, or any other entity. This is complicated by the individual entities degree of conscious awareness and the associated unconsciousness...or simply the notion of the subconscious. While one could digress into the many theoretical aspects of psychology, I prefer a simple and practical observational analysis. Understanding what we see and what we hear, that being behavior, is sufficient to make the necessary points.

War cannot be understood without knowing what motivates the opponents. Too often neither side really knows what the other side wants nor have they actually thought through their own positions to reasoned points of conclusion. The polarity becomes the focus which leads to extreme labeling and absolutist assertions and proclamations. The middle ground is lost. The notion of throwing the baby out with the bathwater seems to apply. I'm reminded of the words of a wise friend who once told me...to always make sure my intentions matched their impact. Such is the power of words. Sometimes it's best to say nothing at all.

Points of Reference

In my own life, I recall a situation explained to me by my father that has always instructed me to seek clarity in my intentions, assertions, and accusations before acting or speaking. My father is one of eight first generation Italian American children. His mother died of Leukemia at an early age after an extended period of time. During her decline, my uncle was planning to be married and as fate would have it, he got married on the day his mother died which in Italian culture borders on unforgivable. My dad tells about my grandfather advising my uncle to go ahead and get married. As is often the case, other Italians in the community questioned my grandfather's judgment. After numerous confrontations, my dad recalls his father telling one of his doubters something closely approximating the following, "Someone dying is a tragedy and it's not possible to foresee when it's going to happen. I wish my son wouldn't have had the misfortune to get married on that day as he will always remember his wedding day as the day his mother died. That's also a tragedy. What is it you would have me do differently? Should I take my son and his wife outside and kill them for getting married on the day of his mother's death? They were unlucky people, not bad people." What I learned from this was the necessity to think through ones judgments, feelings, and opinions before sharing them or taking action. Striking out is not in and of itself a solution unless you have gauged your preparedness to pursue your direction to its extreme. It's not difficult to understand this phenomenon. One can merely look at the number of spouses that are murdered by their partner in a moment of anger. It's more than coincidence that Hitler's plan for the Jews was called the "Final Solution". In fact, it proves the point that when extremist thought or fanatical dogma goes unchecked and unchallenged, a holocaust may be on the horizon.

I don't see myself as an alarmist. At the same time, just as an alarm is prudent to insure that one will wake up in time for work, it is also necessary to have voices of alarm to awaken society. While I think America is still a great distance from rampant extremism, today's divisive climate presents one of our closest corollaries to the Civil War mindset. We have had other divisive periods, most recently notable are the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's and the Vietnam War, but neither had the degree of irreversible and irrefutable absolutism. Of the two periods mentioned, the Civil Rights era has the most similarity to today's divide. Some might even argue that this period never actually ended and that the current issues are in fact a continuation and a culmination of that foment. I would understand the argument although I wouldn't necessarily agree with the conclusion.

The resolution of today's issues of equality in our judicial system are less frequently discussed as a process of constitutional interpretation and more often framed as acts of "judicial activism". This distinction is of great significance and the points of departure are of great consequence. The current methodical undermining of the judicial branch strikes at the very Constitution our three branch system is structured to preserve and protect. When elected officials opine that the courts aren't honoring the will of the majority, they impeach the integrity of the judicial oath established to uphold the Constitution. When those in the elected branch of government invalidate the legitimacy of the judicial branch, absolutism has emerged. Throughout history, absurd laws have been passed and upheld...we read about them in the papers all the time. Fortunately, over time they are reversed and the system purges its failures and perfects its successes. Time has always brought a more enlightened perspective because pioneers and visionaries were allowed to champion what wasn't popular or accepted by the majority without having their jurisprudence, their patriotism or their personal integrity and morality called into question. This subtle version of calumny is akin to the notion that "A plus B" must equal "C" without ever having uttered "C". That's a dangerous calculation.

Religion & Politics

Further widening the divide is the hyperbole of religion. For me this is perhaps the most puzzling and troubling irony. The founding premise of this country was based upon religious freedom. This meant government wouldn't impose religious beliefs, people would be allowed to worship as they saw fit and the government would treat each citizen fairly and equitably regardless of their religious principles. This is the reasoned concept of separation of church and state. The founding fathers wrote a Bill of Rights and a Constitution to institutionalize this structure. Today in America, all too often politicians assert that God's law should take precedent over these founding documents. They contend that our predecessors wrote these documents contemplating and incorporating the superiority of God's law into the documents. I don't disagree that most of the founding fathers would acknowledge their own underlying religious principles. However, I believe they would immediately follow that acknowledgment with the statement that the documents they wrote were mindful of religious beliefs and principles in their broadest sense but that they were written to primarily avoid a narrow and imposed set of religious beliefs. Their conscious act of omitting religion is both an admission and an appreciation of intention and impact. To construe this any differently is intellectually dishonest and an attempt to rewrite history. Any such reinterpretation of the intentions of our founding fathers is far more deserving of being labeled unpatriotic.

During this current war with words we have heard President Bush chastise the Democrats for blocking an "up or down" vote on his judicial appointees. During the Bush presidency the Democrats have used procedural measures to block a handful of Bush appointees. During the Clinton presidency, the Republican Party used the same procedural measures to block far more appointments. The 'up or down' vote inference is part of the language that is used to depict the Democrats as the minority party preventing the majority party from implementing the "will of the people". Ironically, this call for an 'up or down' vote was abandoned with respect to Harriet Meyers by its very proponents. The problem is that the public is being misled and misguided and more importantly manipulated. The procedures used by both parties have long been a part of our government structure. Many of these procedures were intentionally included to insure that the system would prevent simple majority rule.

The design of our system is not unlike preventing the mob mentality that might have lead to hanging the wrong person in the old west... sometimes the majority makes bad choices. Our government system of checks and balances is mindful of that. When the use of long established procedures is portrayed as preventing the "will of the people", the system is being called unfair and wrong and the public perception is being poisoned. People begin to believe that someone is cheating. This is not a "bad" system and to characterize it as such is wrong. The procedure for approving appointments could be changed by a vote and forever more the party in power could pass all their appointees whenever they had a majority of the votes. The group of fourteen is all that currently stands between the established procedures of the past and a move to a simple majority rule. Much of what is being spoken is unacceptable and it feeds the growing storm of what I would characterize as a war mentality. There is nothing wrong with bias...everyone has it and it will never be eliminated. In the corporate world it's called a "conflict of interest". Hence civilized people plan for it by establishing systems with built-in measures to limit the unchecked influence of majority bias. In that regard, the Constitution is a success. This should be celebrated, not dismantled. Today's politically expedient rhetoric simply undermines its integrity.

Today the Republicans have the upper hand and while it's easy to criticize their abuse of power, by no means do I believe the Democrats would act any differently if they were the majority party. Further, the President is entitled to express his displeasure with the blocking of his appointees. It's the words he uses that are not acceptable. What's at risk is that the American public, ever more susceptible to the latest sound bite or spin, grows increasingly uninformed such that they aren't even mindful that each President routinely seeks to put like minded individuals with similar bias' in positions of influence. The fact that some are blocked is to be expected and is not a circumventing of the system by the opposing party. The public, were they engaged, would realize that there are numerous individuals who can be appointed...who might be less biased and more balanced than the choices made by any sitting President. If the citizenry understand that the system is well designed to prevent a President from putting through all of his like-minded appointees, we might be better able to find some middle ground. The American public fails the system when they don't understand it and thus become susceptible to clever word manipulations. At the same time, politicians have an obligation to clarify rather than convolute.

There are other topics that are part of the rhetoric of this polarizing and ever more absolutist ideology. The list includes the burning of the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, the reference to God on American currency, the Ten Commandments displayed in public buildings, prayer in schools, and nativity scenes at Christmas time. Americans are never going to agree on all issues. Historically, the hallmark of our society has been the willingness to be inclusive and tolerant and I believe there is a reasonable silent majority that remains so. However, the combatants in this war, primarily extremists on both sides, seek to frame each debate the same. The "left" contends the "right" wants to impose God by creating a theocracy in America. The "right" contends the "left" wants to ban god and religion altogether to establish a secular socialist state. Sadly, there are some one each side who actually have these agendas. The problem is that when we allow absolute ideologues to frame the debate, the voice of reason and moderation is being muffled and ignored.

There is an organization called "The Club for Growth" that has exerted pressure on moderate Republicans to recant and move further to the right. Christie Todd Whitman, who was appointed by President Bush to head the Environmental Protection Agency and subsequently resigned, has said that this and other far right organizations wants to rid the Republican Party of moderates. It appears she is correct. Pat Toomey, the current President of the club, ran for the senate seat in Pennsylvania held by Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican. During the campaign, Toomey demonstrated this absolutist rhetoric. This strict ideological framing of the issues represents the dangers of this war with words. It is neither right nor wrong, good or bad, to be a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, secular or religious, Christian or atheist, white or black, male or female, under the founding principles of this country. Women and blacks achieved inclusion because the passage of time brought further reasoned and necessary interpretation. It is each individual's right to be any one of these and to be so with equal opportunity, equal rights, equal voice, and equal dignity. One is not lesser than the other and yet many extreme groups, including talk radio celebrities and pundits incite their supporters to attack, belittle, and denigrate those on the opposing side. It's wrong, it's dangerous, and it's the obligation of the silent majority to demand a reasonable debate with reasonable solutions. If we fail to uphold these principles we can no longer call ourselves Americans because we will no longer be the America created by our forefathers.

Other less obvious example underscores the problem of absolute thinking. In Iraq, no one can disagree that the people were mistreated under Saddam Hussein and that his ouster offers the potential for a better existence in the region. In projecting forward to the establishment of an independent Iraqi government, it is possible that the new government will be one we perceive to be made up of religious extremists. Much of that doctrine is in disagreement with Western culture and it actually promotes the notion that America represents decadence and the decline of civilization. The parallel that can be drawn to the banter that now occurs in America about ideology is fascinating in light of our intent to spread democracy. What we seek to overcome in Iraq is what many seek to impose in America. In simple terms...all religions think they are right and that they know God best and that this knowledge is absolute. For Christians, the Bible provides the support. For Muslims it's the Koran and so it goes with each religion. The notion of religious tolerance becomes an unyielding oxymoron. Religious intolerance often underlies most world conflicts. Given the absolute thinking, conflict becomes inevitable and perpetual.

I believe our forefathers were fully mindful of this conundrum when crafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They got it right when they designed a government that was separate from, and absent of, the oversight of religion. Yet today we face challenges to this concept both at home and abroad. One must wonder if we have the right to impose our democratic structure in countries that would otherwise be theocracies. At home, we're in a similar struggle to define the lines of separation in interpreting, preserving, and applying the system and structure established at our inception. With both situations, it's hard to imagine it can be resolved amidst widely varying and absolute religious beliefs.

Sex & Abortion

Perhaps the two most volatile topics in this war with words are abortion and sex. I believe this country hasn't had an honest discussion about abortion in over thirty years. I also believe this country has yet to have an honest discussion about sex. With both topics, there are two very distinct and polarized lines of argument equipped with carefully crafted words. Unless the discourse changes, everything will remain the same. Change must begin with the simple admission that people are going to have sex and women are going to get pregnant. There are those who advocate abstinence which is a worthwhile campaign and it's understandable that parents want their children to abstain from sex. At the same time, reality says about as many of them will abstain as did in prior generations. The other side approaches the argument with the same fervor...they favor educating children about sex and providing birth control methods while being critical of spending money on abstinence programs. Both sides miss the point. Sex is nothing new but if we don't change the rigid dynamic, the issues will remain unresolved.

Sex is inevitable...it was for each parent and it will eventually be for each child. There are a limited number of choices once we accept this premise but they all have merit. Sex promulgates life but it's also enjoyable and desirable...even when people aren't doing it to create offspring. What children need is an understanding of the merits of sex as a component of love. They should be encouraged to appreciate that sex is good and natural. They should receive good education about sexual issues, and they should be given a full understanding of its negative consequences. The debate is so polarized by the 'yes or no' mentality that children can't get past the right or wrong structure to equate sex with healthy and meaningful relationships. Sex and love are not simple yes or no concepts. Inundating children with such messages handicaps their ability to have successful relationships. It's time parent's start thinking about their children's welfare and well-being instead of clinging to their own antiquated and ingrained fears and obstacles.

If we really want to understand what threatens the institution of marriage, individuals need to explore their own dark places. Sex is here to stay. Making modern culture, the liberal media, or homosexuality the scapegoats for family and marital failure will never wash. While untold energy was spent condemning Janet Jackson's exposed breast, parent's were cheating on their spouses and sending their children to school unprepared for the realities of life. Passing laws to restrict programming or amendments to ban gay marriage in order to promote and protect marriage and the family is akin to banning ice in order to insure underage children don't consume alcohol. Until parents can overcome their own conflicted issues with relationships and sexuality, they will remain unable to provide their children the necessary nurturing and mentoring.

For the purposes of example, suppose a teenager makes the decision to have sex (and that does happen despite the best of parenting)...and suppose his school and parents taught only abstinence...should a parent feel more comfortable knowing their teenager may have unprotected sex because they have been taught that having sex is wrong and a failing...which will likely lead to such guilt that they therefore make hasty and risky decisions...or would you prefer...again assuming that some teenagers are going to have sex...that they have been taught both the reasons and benefits of abstinence and safe sex methods from a positive perception of sex...which will increase the likelihood that the teenager will be prepared and will therefore act rationally and thoughtfully?

Unfortunately, many parents are more comfortable living in denial. That is unfortunate because it's the children who suffer the consequences. There are really only a few choices...parents can believe they can stop their child from ever doing anything that they oppose...or parents can gamble and hope it won't happen to their child and be prepared for the consequences...or parents can empower their children with confidence and knowledge and then trust them to make the best decisions regardless of the situation. Anything but the latter is at best fantasy and more likely Russian roulette. We need to focus on what will help children grow up to have happy, rich, and fulfilling lives.

When there's sex, abortion can't be far behind. To frame the discussion, I like to start with the extremes and work back from there. To that end, one can argue that religions that oppose contraception and parents that fail to teach their children about contraception are responsible for the "murder" of any subsequently aborted child. Extreme...yes, but also thought provoking. Further, in such instances, accusing the abortion doctor of wrongdoing is avoidance since the doctor only enters the picture after the unwanted pregnancy has been allowed to happen. The point is that, through words, its not difficult to shift primary responsibility to parents who knowingly allow a young adult to get pregnant because of their failure to accept reality and a refusal to properly educate their child about contraception. The statement is harsh but no different in tone than what we often hear when the subject is abortion. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that words make for quick assertions and accusations while doing nothing to address the real issues. The path to reasonable solutions rarely travels the road of extremist thought.

Extremism has been taken even further. During the Taliban's tenure in Afghanistan, and to this day in a number of countries, women are put to death if they are found to have committed adultery. The Taliban made a sporting event of such executions. Americans were horrified and summarily condemned the practice as barbaric and extreme. At the same time, there are those who seek to overturn Roe v. Wade and make abortions illegal and criminal. I doubt we would convert football stadiums into execution arenas but are we going to send people to prison and for how long? The problem is that those in favor of making abortion illegal never put forth the proposed punishment for the woman or the doctor involved in an abortion. I think I know why. If a mother of four, who has led an exemplary life, has an unexpected autumn pregnancy and decides to have an abortion, will we take her from her family and send her to prison? If a beautiful college age daughter finds she is pregnant because her contraception failed and dies while having an unsafe abortion in Mexico, will having made abortion illegal seem reasonable to those that loved her? These are the real issues. Before we argue one side or the other, we must think through our actions to their potential conclusions. Stepping back, I believe most people agree we should try to avoid abortions and that more needs to do more in that regard. However, until we stop the extreme rhetoric, the issue will remain an all or nothing battle waged by absolute ideologues. The lack of any substantive or meaningful dialogue makes the battle over the legality and criminalization of abortion premature and absurd.

The Extreme

Recently, I watched a very saddening program on television. It demonstrated the negative consequences of extremism and absolute thinking. During the program, the moderator spoke with a mother of two bright adolescent sons. She spoke about her strong religious beliefs and her obvious displeasure with the state of the country and society as a whole. While I disagreed with her on any number of topics, I believed her to be speaking with sincerity and I accept that she is entitled to her beliefs and concerns. She began to share her thoughts about the coming "rapture" (the end of the world when God reveals himself or what is otherwise known as judgment day). I was shaken when she said she prayed daily for the rapture to arrive and that she wanted the world to end because it was evil and she saw nothing hopeful or redeemable. Setting her own wishes aside, what troubled me the most was the impact her thinking would have upon her children. How can a parent say such a thing knowing that she has two adolescent children who are just beginning their lives and learning about the world? Perhaps the rapture will come and her children will be resolved to meet the end of the world peacefully with their mother. On the other hand, if the rapture doesn't come soon, what are two young adults to see in a world their mother has already written off as unacceptable? I don't believe any god condones hopelessness. Instead of writing the world off, shouldn't people of conviction seek to change it? While I understand that this woman's ideas have religious origins and are perhaps acceptable dogma, it crossed my mind that under slightly different circumstances one could make the argument that she was suicidal and a danger to her children's welfare. The world isn't perfect but it also isn't absolutely imperfect. This is why absolute thinking and its consequences are so dangerous.

Shouldn't a parent's primary responsibility be to teach their children about life and love and to live an exemplary loving life? What is it this woman's children are to do with their lives while they wait with their mother for the rapture? A child can be led to believe anything but who has the right to convince them the world is unacceptable and that they should pray for it to end? No god has asked us to cease living while we wait for his return. Countless people live good, moral and blessed lives regardless of their negative impressions of the state of the world. They also do so with hope while engaging others in a dialogue to find solutions. Children are truly blank slates and taking for granted a parent's right to carelessly color upon that slate...to fill their minds with negative and absolute words and thoughts is, from my viewpoint, unconscionable.

Conclusions

No one has all the answers. It's clear there are numerous questions. Isn't it time for genuine discussion? We live in a flawed world filled with imperfect people that will eventually come to an end. Throughout history there have been those who believe our actions will bring the world to its end. Today is no different. Recent events like the tsunami and Katrina have brought a whole new round of prognostications. I think it's safe to conclude that no man will decide when the end arrives and that we are best when we focus on the living. I hear it said that God will judge each of us on judgment day. I hear it said that we are all sinners in the eyes of the Lord. I also hear it said by far too many people that they know when judgment day will arrive, that they know what will happen on judgment day, that they know who the sinners are, that they can judge others for God, and that they should be able to do so by writing into law their god's beliefs. Perhaps God has a hierarchy of sins and perhaps some believe they can ascertain that hierarchy. More likely...as it has also been said countless times...only God can judge what's in a person's heart and only God will. God's relationship with each individual is a private matter. I'm comfortable with that. As my grandfather's example demonstrated years ago, at some point when people follow the path of absolute thinking and certainty, the only question remaining is should we kill someone? It's a question best not asked and certainly left unanswered. We need to step back from this precipice. If we don't, this war with words will become fatal. While we await the answers to these and millions of other questions, shouldn't we find a few better, kinder words?

Daniel DiRito | April 12, 2006 | 9:14 AM
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