Moral Reflections on Terrorism and Wealth; Bob Greenwell

I am working on an Ethics of Wealth. It is one of my primary passions. Money is the air we live and breathe in. People work for it, fight for it, scheme for it, dream about it, feel enormous stress about it. Work hours dominate our lives. Without an ethic of wealth, our ethic is woefully incomplete. My talk was originally titled Moral Reflections on Wealth. But the terrorist attack intervened, and I found I could not emotionally pick up where I left off in my preparations. Still, in these times of heightened nerves and questioning, there is perhaps more of a chance to glimpse a vision of something new. So, with this hope, I offer you these reflections on terrorism and wealth.

How close we have been to death these past weeks. How quickly a life can be snuffed out, thousands of lives.

But how close we have been to life in these past weeks as well — to the preciousness of living.

In our closeness to death we have experienced a deep commonality with each other. Minor differences vanished. Differences that we felt were major in our everyday lives became minor. In our closeness to death and heightened awareness of life, we knew everyone as our brother and sister. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that the terrorist attacks may have been God’s punishment for the sins committed by liberals, gays, feminists, and secular America. The spontaneous community in New York City in response to the attack put the lie to this. Liberals, gays, immigrants, secularists, rich, poor — all these distinctions became meaningless as New Yorkers gave blood, consoled victims’ families, and volunteered to dig in the burning rubble. Together, as compatriots, we wept and mourned the dead in candlelight vigils and interfaith services. We experienced the community that is generated when each one’s entire interest and focus coincides with the focus and interest of every other. This experience of community we should not forget.

But how were we to understand the terrorist attack? In the media from all over the world, we have heard three different explanations. One, the terrorists are insane. Case closed. Exterminate the infestation. Two, the terrorists represent a fundamentalist hatred of freedom, democracy, and religious pluralism. We have to rally ourselves to fight for liberty once again. Three, the terrorists are retaliating against our oppression against them. We have to clean up our own act. These three views are vitriolically at odds with one another. Yet there is a thread of connection among them that is crucial to grasp. Grasping it will give us a better chance of finding an ethical response.

One view is that the terrorist acts were the work of madmen, literally mad. Mamoun Fandy, scholar and author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, was interviewed on NPR this past week. He spent two years in Saudi Arabia, 1994-1996, interviewing dissident clerics and analyzing their sermons. Fundamentalism first emerged in Saudi Arabia in the 1970’s, but they were reformers, not terrorists. The Saudi government, like Egypt, used harsh measures to silence their voice, to keep it from influencing the general population, and to maintain a more open and secular society. Then the Saudi and the U.S. government gave the nod to support the holy war in Afghanistan against the Russian occupation. Here was a chance to openly fight for Islam. So the dissidents, including Osama bin Laden, went to fight the evil empire of Russia. They expected a rousing hero’s welcome when they returned to Saudi Arabia, but found a cool reception. The Gulf War was going on. Bin Laden went to the royal family and offered his Afghan men (the mujahadeen) to help fight against Saddam Hussein. The ruling family refused! Rebuffed and furious, bin Laden went to Sudan and started his jihad against Saudi Arabia and its global patron, the U.S. Bin Laden took this rebuff as proof that Saudi Arabia was no longer redeemable. His expectation of glory turned to hatred of those who had scorned him. In the meantime, he had acquired a taste for violence in Afghanistan. And he felt invincible, as though he had a special calling from God because of his victory against Russia. He could hardly wait to take on the remaining superpower, the United States, the leader of the capitalist system.

Mamoun Fandy recounts vividly that when interviewing bin Laden’s second-in-command and others, it was plain in their manner of conversation, look in their eye, and offhand remarks, that there is a “dance of death,” a “killing for air time,” not for Allah and the tribe, but to see themselves as global heroes. There’s a convergence between pop stardom and criminality. The movement acquired a logic of its own, unrelated to its original ideology. Their talk about Osama bin Laden was as if they were talking about Mick Jagger. They blur TV picture and reality. They exhibit a mental aberration with antiseptic talk about violence and blood and tactics in the game of destruction. The important thing is the image. Were they directing a movie in which the climactic scene would be the twin towers exploding and burning, or were they plotting to kill real people? It was one and the same. Fandy said, “I interviewed these people in pursuit of social science, but I came away asking myself, ‘Is it worth it?’, when the interviews make me feel so disturbed.”

In this view, the terrorist network is a disease, and the appropriate response is to go in and eradicate every cell of it, before it does more violence — and that will be the end of it. In this view, those who are full of this rabid hatred are out of touch with reality, and therefore we can totally discount anything they say about us.

Unfortunately, we cannot rest with this view. Hatred does not pop up out of nowhere. It arises from a large pool of anger. One of the most chilling reports I’ve read is by an Italian journalist, Elisabetta Burba, published in the Wall Street Journal. She was on vacation in Beirut, Lebanon.

Where were you on Sept. 11? I was at the National Museum with my husband. This tour of past splendor only magnified the shock I received later when I heard the news and saw the reactions all around me. Walking downtown, I realized that the offspring of this great civilization were celebrating a terrorist outrage. And I am not talking about destitute people. Those who were cheering belonged to the elite of the Paris of the Middle East: professionals wearing double-breasted suits, charming blond ladies, pretty teenagers in tailored jeans. Trying to find our bearings, my husband and I went into an American-style cafe in the Hamra district, near Rue Verdun, one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world. Here the cognitive dissonance was immediate, and direct. The cafe’s sophisticated clientele was celebrating, laughing, cheering, and making jokes, as waiters served hamburgers and Diet Pepsi. Nobody looked shocked, or moved. They were excited, very excited. An hour later, at a little market near the U.S. Embassy, a thrilled shop assistant showed us, using his hands, how the plane had crashed into the twin towers. He, too, was laughing. Once back at the house where we were staying, we started scanning the international channels. Soon came reports of Palestinians celebrating. The BBC reporter in Jerusalem said it was only a tiny minority. Astonished, we asked some moderate Arabs if that was the case. “Nonsense,” they said. “Ninety percent of the Arab world believes that Americans got what they deserved.”

Well, we know that the vast majority of Muslims condemn this terrorist attack. But in some places, a spontaneous cheer erupted, almost in spite of themselves, in spite of their own better sensibilities — like someone who professes to not like football but when his home team scores he notices himself cheering.

How many are there who are angry? There would be many more who are angry than the number who have succumbed to hate. There are reported to be 5,000 soldiers in bin Laden’s army. Let’s assume these 5,000 are all infected with rabid hatred. This kind of hatred is a far cry from anger. Anger is commonplace. Anger is an everyday experience. Hardly a day can pass, hardly an hour actually, without a flash or rill of anger. Anger is normal. It ranges from irritation over trivial matters to rage over important matters.

When anger at the same thing is repeated over and over again, it becomes chronic anger, resentment. And when chronic anger is fed and reinforced in certain ways, it can become hatred. Out of a million people who have chronic anger, how many will develop the condition of rabid hatred? An educated guess is that about one in 25,000 people with chronic anger will develop rabid hatred. (The real number might be 1 in a 1000, or 1 in 100,000; the point is to stretch our minds to working with large numbers like these.) To produce 5,000 terrorists in bin Laden’s network with rabid hatred toward the United States, there would then have to be 125 million people with chronic anger and resentment toward us. This would be 10% of the total adherents of Islam, and this strikes me as about right. If this 10% figure holds up, and we apply to the entire world’s population, there would be about 600 million people angry at us. At any rate, there are a lot of people who are angry at us, and we can’t simply write them off as insane. And for every 5,000 who have crossed the line to insane hatred, there are another 5,000 on the brink of crossing the line. Each time we kill a terrorist, we add to the anger of those on the brink. For every terrorist down, a new one or two or three will appear.

So much for the view that the terrorist network is simply an irrational disease we can kill off. We have to deal with a much more widespread anger. In the media I have found two basic answers to the question, Why are they angry at us? One answer is: They are angry at democracy and freedom. Serge Schmemann wrote in the NY Times: “The terrorists who organized and carried out the attack on Tuesday … issued no demands, no ultimatums. They did it solely out of grievance and hatred — hatred for the values cherished in the West as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism, and universal suffrage, but abhorred by religious fundamentalists (and not only Muslim fundamentalists) as licentiousness, corruption, greed, and apostasy. The attack in Manhattan was not only against a nation or government, but against a symbol — the twin towers of Sodom and Mammon.” (9/16/2001) George Bush adopted this same view in his war speech to the Joint Session of Congress September 20: “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

The other basic answer says that they are angry at us because we have attacked them, oppressed them, and impoverished them, all to increase our own wealth and power. Robert Fisk wrote in The Nation shortly after the attack: “This is not really the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about US missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia — paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally — hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.”

Seumas Milne wrote in The Guardian in London: “Since George Bush’s father inaugurated his new world order a decade ago, the US, supported by its British ally, bestrides the world like a colossus. Unconstrained by any superpower rival or system of global governance, the US giant has rewritten the global financial and trading system in its own interest; ripped up a string of treaties it finds inconvenient; sent troops to every corner of the globe; bombed Afghanistan, Sudan, Yugoslavia and Iraq without troubling the United Nations; maintained a string of murderous embargoes against recalcitrant regimes; and recklessly thrown its weight behind Israel’s 34-year illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as the Palestinian intifada rages…. It is this record of unabashed national egotism and arrogance that drives anti-Americanism among swaths of the world’s population, for whom there is little democracy in the current distribution of global wealth and power.”

Well before the attack, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington said that in the eyes of most of the world the US is seen as “THE rogue superpower,” considered “THE single greatest threat to their societies.” [quoted by Doug Morris in CounterPunch, 9/20/2001]

Not easy to take. Our ethical response is to engage in an honest self-examination and a taking of responsibility for what our country does abroad. Beyond this, the point that I want to make is that there is an important connection between the two explanations of why they are angry at us. Is it because they are religious fundamentalists? Or is because they feel oppressed by our wealth and power? My claim is this: religious fundamentalism is always itself a response to feeling oppressed by wealth and power. Fundamentalism is always prone to arise among people who feel left out of the good life. The two answers reduce finally to the same: People are angry because they feel oppressed by us, feel that there is an oppressive inequality of wealth and power. When people feel systematically cut off from material prosperity and personal dignity, they can air their grievance, they can deny their own feelings, they can look for ways to distract themselves from their feelings. Or, one of the most ingenious things they can do, and a certain number will use this strategy, is to invert their feeling into its opposite and proclaim triumphantly, “I didn’t want those things anyway because those things are bad. I repudiate those things, and I cling to my new faith in a God who condemns those things and who will reward me in the end.” This is a psychological, self-protective mechanism. Twist the feeling of non-self-worth into its opposite. Fundamentalism is not belief in God. Fundamentalism is a use of the belief in God to overcome feelings of indignity stemming from inequity of wealth, rights, and power.

So here are the two expressions of the world’s anger at us. The direct expression: “We have grievances against you; we want our fair share of prosperity, of political rights, and of personal dignity.” The indirect expression: “We do not want any of the things you value; we repudiate them; we will fight to keep from becoming contaminated by them.” The two expressions share the same source: Inequality of wealth, rights, and sense of dignity. A solution to this broad inequality would by the same stroke address the anger of those who state their grievances and remove the material condition upon which fundamentalism grows.

Karen Armstrong, in her scholarly study of the fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, The Battle For God (2000), writes: “One of the most startling developments of the late 20th century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as ‘fundamentalism.’ Its manifestations are sometimes shocking [and violent]…. But even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing, because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state…. In the middle years of the twentieth century, it was generally taken for granted that secularism was an irreversible trend and that faith would never again play a major part in world events…. But in the late 1970’s, fundamentalists began to rebel against this secularist hegemony and started to wrest religion out of its marginal position and back to center stage.” [pp. xi-xii]

Why the late 1970’s? This date leaped out at me because of another writer, an economist, who wrote that 1970 was the watershed year in American economic history. It was the year that the U.S. government instituted policies that reversed the equalizing prosperity of the 50’s and 60’s and began the long journey toward steep inequalities of wealth in our country today. The same general pattern prevailed throughout the world, with rising multinational companies gaining greater influence over government policies. For example, Karen Armstrong writes of Egypt: “[In 1973] Sadat announced a new policy designed to bring Egypt into the capitalist world market. He called it ‘Open Door’… Open Door benefited a small percentage of the rising bourgeoisie, and a few Egyptians made a great deal of money. But the vast majority suffered. The ostentatious consumerism of the elite aroused intense disgust and discontent.” [pp. 288-289] Into this environment of inequality came a new religious fundamentalism, the Sunni, and in 1981 Sadat was assassinated by one of them. To Sadat’s funeral came no Arab leaders, and no crowds lined the streets.

It would take a long treatise to validate my claim that fundamentalism arises from conditions of felt inequality. But inequality has other pernicious effects as well. James Galbraith sums up his book, Created Unequal (1998), this way: “Since 1970 the pay gap between good and bad jobs in America has grown. It is now so wide that it threatens, as it did in the Great Depression, the social stability of the country. It has come to undermine our sense of ourselves as a nation of equals…. A high degree of inequality causes the comfortable to disavow the needy. It increases the psychological distance separating these groups, making it easier to imagine that defects of character or differences of culture, rather than an unpleasant turn in the larger schemes of economic history, lie behind the separation. High inequality has in this way caused our dreadful political condition. It has caused the bitter and unending struggle over the transfer state, the ugly battles over welfare, affirmative action, healthcare, Social Security, and the even more ugly preoccupation in some circles with the alleged relationship between race, intelligence and earnings. The ‘end of welfare as we know it’, to take just one example, became possible only as rising inequality insured that those who ended welfare did not know it, that they were detached from the life experiences of those on the receiving end.” [article in The Nation 9/7/98, p. 24]

These evils stem from the inequality itself. It largely doesn’t matter if the poorest in a country are actually well off; if there is a large gap between them and the richest, it poisons the possibility of community. But what caused the rise in inequality? Most Americans would say that inequality is just one of the costs of having our wonderful free-market system of capitalism. But here is a crucial point. There is no such thing as capitalism. There are only sets of agreements about trade that are in operation at any given time, and these vary widely, even if all are called capitalism. What caused the sharp rise in inequality since 1970 was particular economic policies that were put into place at that time. We can reverse the trend by influencing our legislators to adopt those policies which have proven to build toward more equality of wealth.

To greatly abbreviate Galbraith’s recommendations, he says that liberals are not wrong to agitate for progressive taxation and for generous public assistance programs, including Social Security. But in the long run this kind of redistribution is insufficient. As society grows increasingly unequal and increasingly unfriendly, the compensating transfers from the rich to the poor become odious and intolerable to everyone. Instead, we need to primarily focus on policies that promote patterns of wage equality, reducing the amount of redistribution needed to a minor percentage of economic activity. To do this, we need two things: (1) A return to policies of sustained full employment, which was given up in 1970, and (2) instead of trying to control inflation with high interest rates, as the Fed has done since 1970, establish low and stable interest rates. Galbraith has much more to say, but if you remember these two points, you will have the core of his program to restore greater equality among us.

Finally, I want to take Galbraith one step further, and add a note of ethics. I want to talk about community in its down-to-earth sense of people in a network of relationships resting on a foundation of friendly regard ranging from genuine interest to full caring. I’m talking about the kind of community we want the Ethical Society to be, and the kind of community we have in mind when we strive to create ethical culture.

There’s an ingredient of community that has been missed, probably because no one has wanted to say it. Community can flourish only when there is an underpinning of basic wealth equality among all the members of the community. I propose this as a fundamental ethical principle. Here’s what’s at stake.

Human beings seek community. Since community can flourish only when there is an underpinning of basic wealth equality among all the members of the community, human beings therefore seek to congregate with people who are closer rather than farther from themselves in terms of material prosperity.

Research has shown clearly that the happiness of people and of whole classes of people is not dependent on absolute wealth or poverty, but is dependent on relative wealth or poverty. A basic happiness, a basic contentment, a basic dignity of life, can be had in the direst of circumstances, barring starvation. But a basic sense of dignity is difficult to maintain when there is broad inequality among the members of your community. What the rich call jealousy on the part of the have-nots is most of the time just a simple recognition on the part of the poor of the strain in human community that offends the moral conscience.

A humanly significant, mutually sharing conversation cannot be engaged in by two people with widely divergent lifestyles based on wealth. I know about these things because I was a waiter for many years, surviving just above the poverty line, and on the one hand had to carry on conversations with customers of great wealth, and on the other hand be cordial with dishwashers who lived below the poverty line. If I find it very interesting to talk about the details of bus schedules, the different bus drivers, the particular people who get on and off at distinct bus stops, the kinks in the system of transfers, tips for mastering the whole process of getting to where you want to go, and you have zero experience of this world and no prospect of experiencing it, these details of which I speak will be meaningless to you, and there will be no conveyance of human regard between the two of us. Meanwhile, the details that get your attention are stock portfolios, interest rates, insider tips, or on the other hand, ways to save money on luxury cars, etc., I may listen with politeness, but no authentic interest. There’s a strain between us. An extra emotional reaction interferes with the simple communitarian exchange. I know about these things because I have one daughter who is much richer than I am, and one daughter who is much poorer than I am. If I’m the wealthier of the two of us, I will feel something about the discrepancy in wealth between us. I might feel sorry — sorry that you’re not about as well off as me — and this sentiment will entrain others that interfere with the simple exchange of human interest. I will feel triggered to ask myself, “Should I do something to offset the discrepancy? Should I give this person something? Money? Advice?”

Or I may not feel sorry. I may feel contempt — contempt that this person has not planned hard enough or worked hard enough to bring himself up to the level of wealth I enjoy.

Or I may feel neither sorry nor contempt, but a numbness. A self-induced numbness or a studied indifference in order to not feel sadness or contempt. Or I may feel angry, because being with you makes me start to feel sad or contemptuous or numb.

If I am the poorer of the two, I will likely feel sorry that we seem unable to share stories with each other. Some emotion will address the discrepancy. Awkwardness is the feeling of being out of joint with each other in our sharing of our stories. My feelings may run from self-contempt for being poor and being ignorant of the details of your stories, to anger at you for flaunting your lifestyle.

In our culture, individuality is prized over community. Community is always sought, but always as subsidiary to individuality. What happens when someone rises from the ranks of the poor to the ranks of the rich? Does he take his newly acquired fortune and subdivide it equally among all members of the personal community to which he belonged before he became rich? That would be putting community first, keeping it intact by arranging an equal material substrate for all involved. But that is not what happens. The newly rich person keeps his wealth — or most of it — securely attached to himself as an individual or to his marriage unit, a concession to community, and he finds himself a new community — a new community of people whose wealth per person is roughly equivalent to his own.

For these simple common sense reasons, a basic equality of wealth is necessary for community. Since community is a moral imperative, basic equality of wealth is a moral imperative. There’s a thought to consider. Objections about the impracticality of such a proposal or the dogma that self-interest and desire for ever-increasing personal wealth is what drives the energy of capitalism toward creative innovation, will have to answered. I am utterly confident that such objections can be answered, and answered easily, once we get the right angle on them, because my faith is that what is ethically mandatory is practically possible. In some future year, the federal government will have a new cabinet-level office: the Department of Ethical Economic Design, or D.E.E.D., the Department of Deed for short. Centuries from now, if we make it that far, we’ll still be calling it capitalism, but what a different set of policies and regulations and agreements and priorities will be in place!