The moral off switch

Published : 25 July 2011, 12:10 PM
Updated : 25 July 2011, 12:10 PM

I remember the exact instant I realised that my morality had an "off" switch. I was an administrator at a night school, which was in a dangerous neighbourhood. I stepped outside to take my break and enjoy the evening air. As I leaned against a wall, a man in his 30s approached me, and demanded money. His gun was inside a Burger King bag. My assailant pulled it out briefly to ascertain its existence. He waved it menacingly, and hid it again inside the bag. The only emotion in my heart was…

Joy? Freedom? The sensation of exhilaration blocked any other thought in my head. I started instinctively marching toward him, knowing that if I killed him, I would be morally and legally justified. But was flashed in my brain was more a feeling than a thought: I could kill this man. Strangely, though I was unarmed and he had the gun, he panicked and ran away.

Believe it or not, I have had guns aimed at me three times in my life. Each time, I have experienced the same sensation. The first two times, I wasn't overly analytical. But this time, the receptionist at the night school, an acute observer of human behaviour, looked at me after I'd chased the guy off, and laughed. Without thinking, I had run into the building, grabbed a wooden classroom yardstick, and started running back outside.

"What are you going to do," the receptionist laughed, "measure him? You look like you're enjoying this."

And then it struck me. The whole scene was ridiculous. It defied logic, but I yearned to go back out there. I wanted to confront the man. To my own horror, I realised that what I'd felt in the moments after I'd seen the gun was the same strange emotion I'd felt on those other occasions: A sense of freedom, a strange joyful feeling that this man had released me from the social contract which bound us. In self-defence, I would be justified to do whatever I wanted to the man. It felt liberating, empowering. It horrified me that I was capable of such emotions, which could feel as addicting as a drug.

Later, I expressed my feelings to a former Navy Seal. He had served several tours of duty in Vietnam. "You know," he said, "You're allowed to say almost anything you want to about the experience, except the truth. And the truth was, I enjoyed it."

Humankind entered into a social contract, agreed not to kill one another. We sacrificed that bit of awful freedom in order to be able to function as a society. Throughout history, we have engineered many twists and intellectual contortions that make us feel that we are absolved of our obligations toward God's fundamental commandments, or even the rule of law. Like drugs, alcohol or gambling, the feeling of euphoria in a life-threatening situation is addictive. Like many addicts, a person can easily seek justification to murder simply to experience the rush. Sadly, religious philosophy is one of the most oft-abused justifications for the breaking of laws that no religious man would deny come from God in the first place.

This week, when a Christian fundamentalist committed the worst act of terrorism on Norwegian soil since World War II, I contend that he did so knowing in his heart of hearts that what he did was wrong. He killed innocent people in a premeditated and carefully planned way, blogging every step. It took him over one thousand five hundred pages of manifesto, a political sojourn, and the illusion of powerlessness, but ultimately, what he was going for was the rush.

A week ago, when I wrote about Rais Bhuyan, the man who tried to stay the execution of his would-be killer, one of my readers took me to task for the comment I made at the beginning of the article on capital punishment: "Good riddance", I said of the execution of the man who, besides assaulting Bhuyan, had killed two other men simply for looking "Arab".

A reader named "Lalon" took me to task:

"Thankfully, Bhuiyan's religious values give him a more current understanding of justice and thankfully they give him the understanding of how wrong the death penalty is. From a religious point of view one might argue that it is only God's place to take or give life. However, from the view of a secular judicial system, the death penalty is wrong, because one does not lose one's basic human rights because one denies someone else their rights: A thief is not deprived of his right to property and the rapist is not denied his right to freedom from sexual violence. A killer should not be denied his right to life."

One thing I love about writing for is that many of my readers are smarter than I am, and they don't hesitate to offer their opinions in eloquent ways that help me to evolve my own way of thinking.

Y'all, my dear readers, gave me much food for thought this week. I am beginning to understand the consistency of your logic. Several articles ago, I commented on the philosophy of George Washington, who believed that the same rights we espouse for our citizens should be granted even for prisoners of war. He believed that aside from immediate self-defence, society cannot justify the breaking of the social contract. In this, his beliefs are inconsistent with current political thought in America.

The difference between terrorists like Osama Bin Laden, Anders Behring and those governments who would justify the deaths of innocent people as "collateral damage", is often simply a matter of who the author of a particular manifesto happens to be. Killings, whether they be the unfortunate consequences of drone attacks, shootings at border crossings, or murder at the hands of an angry mob, are symptoms of the same disease that prompts a madman to kill.

I'm not saying that such breeches have not sometimes resulted in a better life for the victors, and sometimes, even for the vanquished. I am happy we fought our Revolution, defended our sovereignty in the War of 1812, and the Civil War did free the slaves. You fought your own necessary battles for independence. I think, however, that a majority of military actions were really fought for the rush of politicians seeking public support. National leaders, like this lone madman, have often needed their own 1500 page manifestos to justify slaughter.

Here, in the United States, our military actions have sometimes been at odds with the principals of the same Constitution that our soldiers swear to protect and defend. George Washington would have been horrified.

In examining the political climate under which such horrendous travesties as the Norway killings become possible, we notice a pattern. Throughout Europe, anti-Islamic behaviour has been sanctioned by law, from Switzerland's ban on minarets, to bans on Burqa in Barcelona, France, and Belgium.

Since September 11, Anti-Islam sentiment has increased throughout Europe, a continent that never has had much respect for religious freedom. Unbalanced reporting, which often depicts Islam as an "enemy within", has escalated. The media, both on the left and on the right, has worked to legitimise bigotry. As early as 2005, a report by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), warned that such bigotry could encourage extremism.

My initial thought, when I discovered the identity of the perpetrator, took me back to the summer when the Son of Sam, a mass murderer, was finally caught on the streets of New York City. I remember one dark-skinned woman's comment (Director Spike Lee captured this scene in one of his best movies, The Summer of Sam): "All I have to say is thank God he didn't turn out to be black. It would have set the cause of civil rights back thirty years." I have to admit I had a moment where I said, "Thank God this man wasn't Muslim."

If one good thing can come out of all this, perhaps it is that Europeans (and Americans) will begin to see that any extremist can use the name of God, or Marx, or whomever, to break the fundamental principals of the social contract. Maybe the average European will finally understand that religious extremists most often target their own people, and that if some Christian congregation wishes to build a church close to Ground Zero in Norway, it won't be considered insensitive simply because the terrorist was a fundamentalist Christian.

What can we do in the wake of such tragedies? All we can do is re-dedicate ourselves to non-violence, the same way that after a tragic road accident all we can do is re-dedicate ourselves to conducting ourselves more safely on the highways. We must understand that a basic tenet of any of the great religions is the idea that God simply would not sanction killing in His name. We are instructed to forgive. Anyone who would perpetuate such killings ultimately lacks faith in God's own power.

Being born a Christian, I can only speak for Christianity. As much as I ponder the history of my religion, I cannot come up with an example of a single battle that was justified by the teachings of Christ. In fact, Christianity won most of its strongest converts while it was being persecuted, and the courage of its martyrs inspired masses of spiritually bankrupt Romans to convert despite "dungeon, fire and sword".

The root of human violence is the belief that an individual has been released from the constraints of the social contract. The more often governmental actions sanction violence, or promote bigotry, the more likely people, either as a group or as individuals, are to believe that they are no longer bound by the social contract.

Following the night when that man waved the gun at me, I made a conscious decision never to use violence again, except in direct defence of the lives of my loved ones. Nineteen years have passed, and this resolution of mine is yet to be tested. My son reached the same conclusion at 13 as I did at 30, and is a complete pacifist. Meanwhile, my daughter has signed up to train to be an officer in the Air Force. I believe it is a testimony to my ambivalence on these matters that I am equally proud of both of them. I hope I have taught my daughter enough about the compassionate nature of God that she will always pray for a peaceful solution, just as I hope my son understands that his own life is worth defending.

My heart goes out to the families of all the victims, especially the parents of those many young people who were killed. If I were the parent of one of the victims, I think I would try as hard as I can to follow the example that your fellow countryman Rais Bhuiyan set for me last week, and that was supported by your words. I wouldn't let this act of terrorism trigger the "off switch" of my morality. The appropriate reaction of a "true fundamentalist", whether he be Muslim or Christian, would be to forgive. Forgiveness may not bring us that rush of adrenaline that comes from the power of violence, but perhaps it is the only way anyone who calls himself religious can truly claim to support God's will.

Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called "You Think What You Think And I'll Think What I Know." He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, "Learning Little Hawk's Way of Storytelling", is scheduled to be released by Findhorn Press in May of 2011.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher