WHEN I BOARDED THE MIDWEST EXPRESS TO WASHINGTON,
D.C., ON SEPTEMBER 11
by Daniel C. Maguire
The absence of pity is the root of all evil. . . .
Can we sit now in our First World comfort at a table with a view of
the golf course, and ignore starvation in the Third World?
DANIEL MAGUIRE specializes in Christian ethics at Marquette
University and has published articles in CrossCurrents,
Commonweal, Linacre Quarterly, Hastings Center Report, and Theological
Studies. He is also the author of seven books.
When I boarded the Midwest Express to Washington, D.C., on
September 11, 2001, at 8:00 a.m. (Central Time), I had no
idea that the definition of power on planet earth would be rewritten
within the hour. I read the paper, enjoyed a nice breakfast, and felt
quite secure. Why not! I was a citizen of the "world's last
remaining superpower." This "superpower" was pouring
into its "Defense" budget some thirty million dollars an
hour, nine thousand dollars a second to keep me safe. As we neared
Washington, the pilot announced that Reagan National airport was
closed and we would be heading back to Milwaukee. Within minutes he
reported that the airport in Milwaukee was also closed and we were to
land at the closest airport, Columbus, Ohio.
Cell phones and television at the Columbus airport told us the
news, that our superpower status was a myth. In a superpower, the
president would not have to hide out in Louisiana and Nebraska because
of "credible evidence" that he could not return to the
Capital; the congress would not be running from the Capitol Building;
schools and businesses throughout a superpower could not be forced
shut; I would not suddenly be looking up into a sky where no airplane
would dare fly. These were the facts of this new world order. The
Defense Department could not defend us -- or its main temple, the
Pentagon -- from a hatred and a mode of power that we had never known
It was not Pearl Harbor revisited. The bombers had left no return
address. The instinct to retaliate with bombing is an anachronism.
Fewer than twenty men had brought us to our national knees and raised
the biggest question facing us in the twenty-first century, posed by a
little girl and reported in the press: "Why are they killing
themselves and killing all those people?"
The Guilt Gap
The government's answer was that we are good and love freedom and
these people are bad and hate it. That vapid answer came from an
arrogant national culture that has lost its talent for healthy guilt.
The hatred that could so easily paralyze our nation has a history, and
as Teilhard de Chardin said, "nothing is intelligible outside of
Why do the deprived of the world hate us so?
To give an honest answer to the little girl's question, to start
some meaningful reflection and move out of the morass of American
jingoism, I look to some thoughtful witnesses and diagnosticians of
humankind. The first is J. Glenn Gray, an intelligence officer
with the army in World War II. In his book The Warriors,
Gray wrote: "If guilt is not experienced deeply enough to cut
into us, our future may well be lost."
Frances Moore Lappe is our next witness: "Historically people
have tried to deny their own culpability for mass human suffering by
assigning responsibility to external forces beyond their
And next I dare turn to words I wrote in 1993: "The absence of
pity is the root of all evil." I continued:
Can we sit now in our First World comfort at a table with a view
of the golf course, and ignore starvation in the Third World and
joblessness and homelessness in our cities? The prophets of Israel
would answer "no." In Jeremiah's words, there is no hiding
from the effects of guilt and morally malignant neglect: "Do
you think that you can be exempt? No, you cannot be exempt" (Jer.
25). Injustice will come home to roost, whether in wars of
redistribution (the most likely military threat of the future), or
in crime and terrorism, or in far-reaching economic shockwaves. The
planet will not forever endure our insults. If the prophets' law is
correct -- and the facts of history endorse it -- we will not be
And finally, Count Cavour of Italy said that if we did for
ourselves what we allow our country to do in our name, we would be
jailed and hung as scoundrels.
These were not the voices heard in the National Cathedral on
September 14. Jeremiah was not invited to say to the leaders of
"the most powerful nation in the world": "Acknowledge
your guilt!" (Jer. 3:12)
Our Guilt and This Stunning Hatred
Affluence and comfort dull the optic nerve. The poor world sees us
differently. Draw a circle and cut me out of it and I will see sharply
what goes on there. The attackers pinpointed the reasons for their
outrage. They struck at what they saw as the twin towers of our
indifference and at our haughty military heart. They see our nation as
an arrogant, spoiled five-hundred-pound gorilla that pollutes and then
scorns treaties to end pollution, that was built on slavery and
practices racism and yet shuns the United Nations conference on racism
in Durban, South Africa. They noticed that the genocide of black
people in Rwanda did not stir us to action. They believe we would have
acted differently if Swedes or Irish were having their throats cut.
Those outside the affluent circle are stunned at our ability to lock
into caricatures of others. We don't say that Timothy McVeigh
represented Irish Catholics but the Taliban and bin Laden somehow
symbolize Islam. When they see us getting ready to repeat the Soviet
madness in Afghanistan, a writer from that land agrees that bin Laden
is properly compared to Adolf Hitler and the Taliban are well compared
to Nazis, but the people of Afghanistan, with a huge proportion of
widowed women are best compared to the Jews in concentration camps.
They would love to be free of that tyranny. Those outside our world
hate us for ignoring this and threatening slaughter, to be masked as
Very relevant to September 11, many Muslims see us as
incapable of an even-handed policy in the Middle East, a policy that
would defend with equal vigor and equal financial aid, the existence
of a safe and secure Israeli state and an equally safe and secure
Palestinian state, each with territorial integrity. There is no other
solution, but those who hate us see that our leaders do not
The Muslim world has a nation-transcending unity that we little
understand. The UMMAH, the community of believing Muslims, melts
borders between races and nations. That is why so many African
Americans were drawn to Islam. All Muslims feel the pain of the
reported half million innocent children dead in Iraq due to our
sanctions. I see it as the surest principle in all of ethics that what
is good for kids is good and what is bad for kids is ungodly. They
grieve over those children -- sacrificed to what end? -- as we grieve
over our dead in New York and Washington. They marvel at our ability
to kill as many as a quarter million young Iraqi soldiers in the Gulf
War -- young people like the students I teach at Marquette University
-- while leaving our announced target in control. (Surely "the
mob" would have been more kind and effective. If Saddam were the
problem, they would have "whacked" him rather than slaughter
Our hubris shines through our imperfectly disguised attitudes
toward Islam, attitudes that befoul our policies in the Middle East.
It is asked: "How can we deal with these people?" As
professor Huston Smith wrote: "During Europe's Dark Ages, Muslim
philosophers and scientists kept the lamp of learning bright, ready to
spark the Western mind when it roused from its long sleep."
Muslims like Avicenna taught medicine to the backward Europeans. Arab
states like Jordan and Egypt have shown the possibility of peaceful
progress in the Middle East. These are not savages who can be calmed
only by occupation. The solution is much simpler and it is found in
the prophets of Israel. As Isaiah saw it, it is only if you plant
justice that you will have peace (Isa. 32). And occupation of another
people is not justice.
The problem goes beyond Islam. The poor of the world see an absence
of pity in our economic policies. There are 1.3 billion in absolute
poverty, 70 percent of those being women. Forty million people die
yearly from hunger and hunger-related causes. This is like 320 jumbo
jet planes crashing every day with half the passengers being children,
as Clive Ponting points out in his monumental book A Green History
of the World. The poor of the world are not dumb. They notice, as
the United Nations points out, that 82.7 percent of the world's income
goes to the top 20 percent, leaving 17.3 percent for the rest of
humanity. The poor notice that this does not engage U.S. politics or
economics. We are the biggest actor on the world scene at the moment
and they note a cold absence of pity, and they hate us for all
George Kennan once compared large nations to dinosaurs with brains
the size of a pea. When struck they thrash out, destroying much and
helping little. The Bush Administration seems intent on living out
this image. Bombing the victims of the Taliban will do no more good
than bombing the children of Iraq who had been forced into the army.
Building a new Maginot line of missile defense is tragically comedic.
Tightening security at the airports as we should have done years ago
is as late as it is inadequate. (Biological, chemical, and small
atomic weapons are probably already in preparation.) All these are
efforts to plug the faucet. What is needed is to turn off the faucet.
The faucet is perceived injustice in the Middle East, the need for
separate states for Israel and for the Palestinians. The faucet is the
disastrous maldistribution of wealth in the world and the
proliferation of starvation.
Solving this maldistribution is not beyond our fiscal reach though
it seems to be beyond our moral grasp. James Tobin, the Nobel
Prize-winning economist, suggested a 0.5 percent tax on all spot
transactions in foreign exchange, including futures contracts and
options. As economist David Kortin says, "The 0.5 percent Tobin
tax on foreign exchange transactions would help dampen speculative
international financial movements but would be too small to deter
commodity trade or serious international investment commitments."
The money could be used to retire those debts of poor countries that
cannot be easily forgiven and it could finance the efforts of the
United Nations and other agencies and non-governmental organizations
to bring education, soil conservation, water purification, micro-loans
for cottage industries, family planning, and improved communications
throughout the world.
The religions of the world need to rise to the occasion -- they
have not done so thus far. Religion is a powerful motivator. John
Henry Cardinal Newman said that people will die for a dogma who will
not stir for a conclusion. Nothing stirs the will as the tincture of
the sacred. Religions so far in this exploding crisis have mainly
fulfilled their Prozac function of soothing the pain. This is good and
all religions are into the purveying of comfort and hope. But the
challenge of prophetic religion in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and
increasingly in "engaged" Buddhism and Hinduism is to
"speak truth to power," to "conscientize" power,
and to discomfort power. This they have not done.
We can pretend that we are purely innocent and that their hatred of
us is "unfathomable." But the fact remains that the solution
to the problems of poor, enslaved, or occupied people is not nuclear
physics. All that is needed is the moral and political will. The
poetic author of Deuteronomy put this exasperated plea into the mouth
of God. "I have set before you life and I have set before you
death, and I have begged you to choose life for the sake of your
children." We can't seem to do it. The hope now is that with our
military power embarrassed and our vulnerability terrifyingly clear,
fear might be the penumbra of wisdom.