Over the past year I have been feeling a deeper and deeper sense of revulsion as I watch and read the news reports of the increasing fury with which the Israelis and Palestinians are injuring and punishing one another. What hope can there be for the world if these two groups of bright people cannot find their way out of the maelstrom of violence? And added to this, recently, has been my horror at the current rush to go to war against Iraq, a war I fear will be catastrophic for the Iraqi people, regardless of what happens to Saddam Hussein.
Recently, all these feelings formed them-selves into a very clear message in my mind: No country worth living in can ever be built or defended by killing someone's children, neither an Israeli state, nor a Palestinian state, neither America nor any other country. To whomever tells me that they must slaughter innocents to achieve their noble goals, I say, heaven have mercy upon your tragically confused soul. If you live, you will live to regret what you have done. And if you die, your life will have been given in vain, for of all forms of violence, the killing of non-combatants generates an absolute imperative for revenge. Each side says, with perfect justification, "we will never forget." And so the conflict continues.
It is as though my soul wants to shout at the people fighting, to interrupt them from their tragedy. And so I offer these reflections, not knowing how they will make their way through the mind of the world, but knowing that I cannot remain silent.
This moment in history cries out for the Gandhian wisdom that our ends are only as noble as our means. Let us pray with all our strength for those whom desperation has driven out of their reason, and let us work to open new avenues of dialogue and forgiveness, however wildly unrealistic this may seem. Once many people start to believe that noble ends can be served by murder, there is no limit to how bad things can get.
There must be an alternative to this logic of mutual destruction. And in this time of terrible anguish, I will speak of one possible alternative because we must all, whatever our station, give our effort to finding a way out of the growing violence around the world.
I propose that we focus on the love of children and the fate of children as the central element of the desperately needed Gestalt shift. In my view, the fate of children, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and around the world, may be the only moral imperative strong enough to allow adults to honorably relinquish revenge. However perfectly justified each side may feel in hating the people on the other side, wars of all sorts are hell for everybody's children. By focusing on a better life for everyone's children, it is possible that the adults in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could relinquish their perfectly justified race toward mutual doom.
From this perspective of focusing on the children, the Israeli plan to build islands of middle-class comfort in a sea of West Bank Palestinian poverty was delusional, displaying a hardness of heart toward the children of the other that would only evoke a hardness of heart in response. And from this perspective the Palestinian strategy to kill the settlers and the settler's children to make the remaining settlers go away is also delusional, displaying a hardness of heart that would only evoke a hardness of heart in response. There seem to be many layers of irrationality at work here on all sides. For example, many Palestinian children have died in this armed conflict. And yet the Palestinians themselves have not gone away, they have not abandoned the land they love. The question then arises, why should the Palestinians expect the Israelis to respond to violence by leaving? Violence begets violence; intransigence begets intransigence. At some point it ceases to matter "who started it."
What is needed here is a completely new way of looking at the situation, a perspective so radically different that it might open up some new possibilities. I propose that one such perspective might be to look at the populations in conflict clustered by age rather than by nationality. That is, to look at the Middle-East, or the world, for that matter, as composed of children and adults, rather than Israelis and Palestinians, Americans and Iraqis, and so on. When I look through this lens, it seems clear to me that all the adults, taken together, in their drive for dominance and their competition for land and power, have failed all the children, taken together.
Although this view casts the current adults in an unfavorable light, it offers a framework of values that would allow the combatants on both sides to withdraw with at least some honor. For the sake of all the children, one could argue with dignity, it is better to have an immediate truce than some distant victory.
This could set the stage for repentance and starting over. After all, all adults make mistakes. That is part of being human. Most people have had the experience of feeling perfectly justified in some situation, and then making serious errors of judgment and behavior. There has been so much suffering in the histories of the Israelis and the Palestinians. If fate had tested our virtue as severely as it has tested theirs, who among us can say for sure that he or she would have acted with more restraint? And let us remember that World War One is now viewed by many historians as a giant bureaucratic blunder on the part of the Great Powers, who stumbled via diplomatic ineptness into a war that had no real justification and brought nothing to any of the participants. The painful truth is that all the millions of men, women and children who died in World War One died for absolutely nothing. All the adults, on all sides, failed all the children, on all sides.
So, fortified with the knowledge of our own miserable failure, we could reach out to the Israelis and the Palestinians and all our own enemies around the world, and say "There is no cause as noble as caring for the children. Let us sacrifice our pride and our ideology, rather than sacrificing our children to this ongoing conflict. Let us confess, as adults, that we have failed to find our way out of this deepening spiral of attack and counter attack. Let the welfare of all the children, taken together, be the measure of every proposal. Let us all repent and forgive one another for using our religions for narrow political ends, when all our religions teach mercy, patience and forgiveness, and these parts we ignore. All the children need us to be heroes of humility, generosity, reason and creative problem-solving rather than heroes of force. The heroes of force have gotten us into this mess and their only response to their failure is to shout "More force!" All the children need us to start over, however inconvenient that might be to our egos, our careers or our weapons industries."
In terms of raw biology, if the children are dying, the adults are failing at one of their most fundamental tasks, to build a world in which life can flourish. This is true no matter what honors or titles the adults give themselves, what authorities they quote, or what be-ribboned uniforms or robes they wear. If the children are dying, the adults are failing, whether it is in Palestine or Israel or Afghanistan or Colombia or East LA. Building a world in which life can flourish now means inventing a way of handling conflicts that does not require the blowing up of cities or buses or countries or the people across the street.
Out of the acknowledgement of this world-wide failure, leading to repentance and forgiveness, a new day might dawn. I believe that one of the most central, and difficult, lessons involved in becoming an adult is this: only by facing my mistakes, failures and shortcomings honestly and directly can I be freed from the need to endlessly repeat them. Not blaming others, not looking for loopholes that will excuse me. I admire the courage of those who go into armed combat, but there is a greater courage that life requires of us, and many of the strongest among us wilt in the face of its demands. It is the courage to face one's own blunders. Such is the human ego that many would rather die. It takes an extremely powerful emotional point of reference to sustain a person through that process of facing failure. And I am proposing the love of children, a universal human capacity, as that point of reference, an impulse in us so beautiful that it is worth striving for even though we will never realize it to degree we would wish. Violent conflicts seem to cast people into an almost hypnotic trance, a trance in which people do many things they will later regret, and many things that are not in their own interest. What might break the spell?
The New York Times recently (6/21/02) reported that "...the weekend magazine of Haaretz recounted the visit of Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer to a jailed failed suicide bomber, Arien Ahmed, in which he tried to seek out her motives. Reflecting on their conversation, the defense minister says, referring to the Israeli Defense Forces: [I.D.F.]
"But unfortunately, while the I.D.F. is carrying out these necessary actions, the operations themselves become a hothouse that produces more and more new suicide bombers. The military actions kindle the frustration, hatred and despair and are the incubator for the terror to come. The religious and political environment immediately exploits this effect and dispatches the new suicide bombers, and the pattern is repeated."
There are parallel stories coming out of Palestine of outrages committed against Palestinians by grief-stricken and enraged Israeli soldiers and settlers. The Israeli escalation of force brings new attacks upon the Israelis. The Palestinian escalation of force brings new attacks upon the Palestinians. Each side feels totally justified in trying to punish the other side, but the situation continues to spiral downward. This is the point where someone needs to "think outside the box."
Within the current logic of force and counter-force, popular around the world, there is nothing to keep the world from becoming a giant Rwanda. President Bush has recently announced that the United States will preemptively kill anyone on the planet who is believed to be plotting to kill Americans. Rather than deterring plots against the U.S., however, this challenge may actually drive would-be plotters into a frenzy of new activity, since we are, by our policy, affirming the rule of force alone and failing to articulate any other basis on which people who do not like Americans might find a reason for relating to them in a peaceful way.
An ever smaller world, armed to the teeth with ever more powerful weapons, needs a new vision, a new logic of relatedness that would allow us to inch back from the abyss. The old logic of grab all you can get won't work in a world where everybody can burn everybody else's house down. For, example, in the decades since 1940, the United States has spent approximately six TRILLION dollars (in current dollars) on nuclear weapons and the ships, planes and systems to deliver them. That is about a thousand dollars for every man, woman and child now living on Planet Earth, and about twenty thousand dollars for every U.S. citizen. And yet we are not safe. We are more vulnerable than ever before. At some point it starts to look as though having a bigger bomb than everyone else was not a good basis on which to build our relations with other countries.
What other things would the six trillion dollars have bought? Perhaps a world not so tormented with poverty and hatred. I can't help wondering how much defense the Israelis are getting out of their nine billion dollar defense budget. What would it cost to send all those Palestinian teenagers to college? What values would allow someone to imagine that as a solution to the current problem?
Against all that I have proposed in this essay stands the enormous fact that the love of children is a capacity of human beings that does not always develop. That an appalling number of adults are cruel and even murderous toward children means that we can not take the love of children as a simple resource that we can mobilize in favor of peacemaking and reconciliation. And beyond the question of emotionally disabled individuals, there are also bureaucratic cruelties at work in the world, such as the economic sanctions against Iraq, and the manufacturing of landmines, that injure large numbers of children with the tacit consent or deliberate ignorance of the countries supporting those policies and activities.
What we can say about the love of children is that it is at least a capacity of people, something that develops often enough for us to know that it is a real possibility. And that is no small thing when people are spiraling down into a tangle of genocide and suicide, fortified with narrowly rational arguments. What could give the Israelis and the Palestinians the strength to say no to those arguments? ... to remember a different way? And these arguments and justifications reach out to implicate us, to enlist us in supporting one side or the other in conflicts where everyone is losing, invite us to support new wars and more landmines. How will we find the strength to say no?
We are at the end of an era, challenged to make a new world. Technology is making our conflicts more and more violent, and feeding the dream, on every side, of ultimate victory. What deeply-felt value could give us a reason for thriving together rather than obliterating one another? To that question I answer, the love of children, all the children. May the Israelis treat all Palestinian children as their own. May the Palestinians treat all Israeli children as their own. May the Americans treat all Iraqi children as their own. May the Taliban (so many of them orphans) become nurturers instead of punishers. May the United States stop producing the land mines that, planted decades ago, continue to blow off the legs of children in Vietnam. May all adult humans realize their glorious destiny of being nurturers of unfolding life, assisting the creative activity of God. The love of children may hold the salvation of the world.
Dennis Rivers lives, writes and teaches communication skills in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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