Understanding and Acting

There are many on the right who complain whenever someone tries to understand evildoers, or to explain the reason for their actions. They assume, not always incorrectly, that the person who is explaining also intends to excuse, that finding a reason, other than that certain people are evil, must remove any justification for reprisal or punishment.

On the other hand, there are those who justify just such an attitude by believing that somehow an explanation is also a solution. A murderer comes before the court, and either in the trial of the facts or during the sentencing phase provides an explanation, perhaps a very difficult childhood with abuse, or deprivation as an adult. The jury or the judge is supposed to accept the explanation as, in some sense, a solution.

Now those on either side can accuse me of expressing the extreme views here. Conservatives are not opposed to explanations in principle, nor are liberals satisfied with only an explanation. But it often appears that way. What are we to do with the murderer who was mistreated by his parents or guardians? Perhaps his plight can arouse our sympathy, but does it allow us to increase the threat to others? An explanation, to be valuable in this case, needs to lead us to a course of action that is effective, and better than existing options.

What about terrorism? I think I do understand, to some extent, the reasons why terrorists become terrorists. It is not simply that they were born evil and wanted to kill lots of people. They and their people have real problems to solve. But that’s only part of the explanation. They also have goals that are incompatible with ours. Muslim extremists, for example, are frustrated by the success of our lifestyle, which to them is morally bankrupt and should fail. There is a great deal of anger that can result when your high moral values don’t produce their equivalent in material resources.

Timothy McVeigh was frustrated because the American people repeatedly didn’t vote for the type of policies he wanted. He saw–correctly I might note–that his vision for America would never come about in the normal course of events. So he blew up a building. An additional cause here, I believe, was that he really wasn’t all that smart. So there’s an explanation. That explanation, however, leads up to one point, the point at which hundreds of people had to pay with their lives for McVeigh’s frustration. Does the explanation help us deal with the action? Not that much.

Now we have some people who are annoyed whenever anyone suggests that terrorists might have reasons for what they do. Of course they have reasons. Some of them are even good reasons–to do something, not to blow people up. And why are we the target? Because we’re the largest roadblock to their plans. I don’t want to minimize the provocation of bad behavior as a nation. An inconsistent foreign policy encourages others to believe they can get by with treating Americans badly. An arrogant attitude on our part makes Americans unpopular in some places. But most people respond by overcharging American tourists or saying nasty things.

The problem with terrorism by Muslim extremists is that part of the explanation for their anger with us is simply who we are. They don’t want us to exist. They don’t like our freedom and what appears to them as our decadence. They do want a world that is dominated by their particular view of Islam. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been mistreated, but it’s not just by the United States. The UK and France had a good part in creating the current mess as well. But we are the ones in the center of the target because we are the biggest roadblock.

Recognizing both legitimate and illegitimate grievances should not be either our license to give up on the grounds that we really have been the bad guys many times in our past, nor should it be our excuse to hate indiscriminately. It should be the occasion for us to defend ourselves appropriately and in a reasoned manner, and at the same time for us to correct those elements of our behavior (inconsistency and arrogance come to mind) that are legitimate grievances. It is naive to assume, however, that because we correct legitimate offenses, that suddenly peace and friendship will break out.

What understanding does give us is an opportunity to decide how to act without the level of hatred and anger, to use a measured response (not a weak response) to produce just the result we want.

Explanations provide the pattern for effective action, not the excuse for inaction.

Similar Posts