All But Dissertation
No dissertation--none of the time!

Monday, April 28, 2003  

Paul Berman, author of the hot new book Terror and Liberalism (on my teetering pile of books to read) writes a review of Jean Bethke Elshtain's Just War Against Terror . Elshtain, if you haven't heard of her, is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent scholars working today. She's Lutheran, I believe, but is quite Catholic in sensibility and has been questioned repeatedly about why she has not yet converted.

Elshtain, a Christian ethicist at the University of Chicago, was disturbed by the reactions of many people after September 11 and

now she has drawn up a catalog of the precise errors of logic and language that have led so many people to respond so foolishly and glibly to the terrorist attacks. She notes an inability to make the right distinctions -- between, for instance, martyrs and murderers, or between justice and revenge, or between terror and legitimate war. She notes an inability to distinguish between intended deaths (the victims of the terrorist attacks) and unintended deaths (the victims of American military errors). She notes a sloppy attitude toward facts -- for instance, a willingness to assume that vast numbers of civilians were killed in Afghanistan, when the actual numbers, according to The Los Angeles Times, were a little over a thousand by midsummer 2002, large enough but not vast.

She notes an inability to listen. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda have openly expressed their hatred of Christians, Jews and Americans, and their desire for random murder. And yet, in her estimation, all too many people in the universities and in the pulpits profess to be in the dark about Al Qaeda's true intentions, or pretend to know the real reason behind the attack -- some modest, real-world complaint about American or Israeli policies.

Therefore she sees that there is a "modern reluctance to discuss or even to think about religious motivations. This reluctance, she figures, has made it nearly impossible for many people to take bin Laden and his comrades at their word."

There are many deficiencies in many areas in American education: too many children don't know how to read, or to read well; mathematical education is a disgrace, and our best American students lag far behind those in India and the Far East; our children know nothing of history or economics. But there is also a lack of knowledge in an area that most people don't think about much: religion. The lack of religion in the public square in our country is a mixed blessing. It enables people of all faiths to live together peacefully almost all the time. But it also means that the average American citizen has absolutely no conception of intense religious feeling and how that feeling is acted upon in other parts of the world. Certainly some of this feeling has something to do with ethnic or racial issues, too, but people who try to reduce it to that are just that, reductionistic. Religious differences have played and do play a huge role in many important events in history, and we're not preparing our citizens well to understand them.

A famous case in point is President Bush's comment soon after 9-11 that we were on a "crusade" against terrorism (or something to that effect. If anyone would like to cite the exact comment, please do.) What a breath-takingly serious error! To Muslims of a certain ilk, Americans and their Western allies are simply crusaders, those who make war on the holy places of Islam. This statement played right into the hands of bin Ladin and confirmed him and his followers in their prejudices. Bush didn't mean "crusaders" in the sense that they understand it, and certainly most of the people in the country wouldn't have done any better, put in Bush's position. Bush is an extremely educated man, not a stupid one as his detractors would have it. But he, like most people in the country, may lack a minimal knowledge of certain key concepts in religion and politics. At least he did in this case.

Educators at all levels, and especially the administrators that encourage or constrain what they may teach, need to do better in this area.

posted by Lady of Shalott | 11:34 AM
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