Op-ed: A choice between fear and compassion

by John J. Thatanamil

On the recent fifth anniversary of 9/11, Americans faced anew a choice between fear and compassion.

Five years have passed since that bright blue, cloudless, horrific morning. Since then it has become a truism to say that American life has changed unalterably. In the coming weeks, politicians and pundits will pontificate about how 9/11 changed American life. But a prior, more basic question will remain unasked: Why should that day change the very fabric of our common life? Should heightened security concerns corrode our national character? Must it lessen who we are?

That such decay has already taken place is incontestable. We have become a frightened people led by fearmongers. Those who hold office encourage us to be forever on the lookout for the unusual and the extraordinary. We are forewarned to be perpetually suspicious and constantly alert.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in times of far greater turmoil, famously declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” By contrast, our leaders do everything in their power to cultivate in us a dread of what might be.

Even when would-be attacks are foiled, the lesson we are offered, is not confidence about what can be accomplished by competent and intrepid investigation; instead we are lured again into near panic. One message is repeated constantly: Beware of terrorists, they lurk nearby.

As Senator Conrad Burns recently put it, “faceless” terrorists “drive taxicabs by day and kill at night.” And not a day passes without President Bush repeating some variation of the phrase, “People, we are under attack.”

This presidential mantra has become a pretext to justify the consolidation of executive power, a consolidation that threatens the structure of American democracy. Signing statements, a dubious theory of unitary executive power, and a wholly compliant Congress have further contributed to a steady erosion of our civil liberties.

The most disturbing consequence of American insecurity is the evisceration of our basic commitment to human rights. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, secret CIA detention programs, and extraordinary renditions—this is the poisoned fruit that fear has borne in us. Most grievously, manufactured fears of mushroom clouds were employed to drive the nation into an aggressive war of choice that has cost us over 2600 American lives and countless Iraqi dead.

That fear should lead to us to forget who we are and what we treasure is not surprising. The world’s great wisdom traditions point to the corrosive power of fear to constrict our capacities for imagination and compassion. They point also to faith as a form of courage that enables us to surmount fear. For Jews and Christians, the words of 23 rd Psalm are the very embodiment of such faithful courage: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

That our leaders should so boldly confess their faith in God and yet persistently appeal to fear as the driving factor that determines domestic and foreign policy is an obscene and cynical contradiction.

Life constrained by fear induces claustrophobia; it diminishes our availability and openness to the needs of others. Compassion, by contrast, enlarges us. It opens our mind’s eye to the truth that we are inseparable and interconnected. It helps us recognize the logical impossibility of securing our own welfare at the expense of others, even those whom we regard as our enemies.

Five years later, Americans face a stark alternative: Will we give into the politics of fear, or will we restore our faith in our core democratic and religious commitments? 9/11 may compel the nation to change its security infrastructure, but it does not obligate us to abandon our moral infrastructure. We would do well to be wary of those who employ the tragic events of that day to degrade our fundamental political, legal, and spiritual commitments in the name of safety and security.

After five years, the time has come to pose a critical question: How can we determine whether America has recovered from the injury we suffered on 9/11? The answer to that question is a matter of ethics not economics. The true measure of our nation’s resilience hinges on our capacity to refurbish and renew our frayed and tarnished character, compromised by fear. By that measure, America has yet to recover from September 11, 2001. Whether we ever will, remains to be seen.

John J. Thatanamil is assistant professor of theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. He is the author of “The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament. An East-West Conversation.”

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