Justice and Trauma: Reflections on Terrorism and Empire
by Roger S. Gottlieb
Editor's Note: this is an expanded version of Roger Gottlieb's article in the January/February 2011 print edition of Tikkun.
Political struggles marked by long histories and extensive violence are founded along two dimensions: justice and trauma.
In the dimension of justice, we work to defeat the accumulated power of the oppressor and use concepts like comrade and enemy, our side against their side, winning and losing. We ask, "What must be done to overthrow the powerful in favor of their victims?" Here we are not concerned with the fate of the oppressor. If making society more just bothers corporations accustomed to polluting without penalty, third world dictators who shoot union leaders, or imperialists destroying native cultures, so much the worse for them.
In the second dimension we find mutual trauma: histories of collective antagonism, victimization, and deep loss without a clear division between oppressor and oppressed. In this dimension a too simple view of either side's moral standing usually engenders new injustice, with the traumas of violence reproduced from one generation to the next. Here we implore: "Tell me about your pain, and please listen to mine." We try to remember that people on both sides carry painful memories and urgent fears that distort their perception of themselves and others, and may lead to collective violence. Here we dare to hope that greater understanding of our common suffering might bring us together in a way that will allow us and our descendents to live without continuing carnage. We seek not victory but reconciliation -- and, possibly, forgiveness.
What does the idea of justice require? At the least, a universal model of human relations that defines what people are entitled to in their most abstract identities. This might involve theories of rights or norms of recognition (for example, the recognition of minorities as having a rightful presence in the wider culture). It may include concepts of metaphysical truth, selfhood, and health -- as in theories that support gay marriage or the necessary political equality of religions. Above all, it requires a willingness and ability to abstract from the particularities of human experience and aspiration. It is not what people feel or hope for that is crucial here, but what they do, and the social effects of their actions. It is not what people are as individuals, but what they do as members of social groups. Further, at least since the French revolution, justice may call to mind the idea of a systematic restructuring of social relationships. We are not only concerned, as the Bible is, with a single instance of a bribed judge or a scale that's been tampered with. Our demand for justice is a demand to fundamentally transform (to make "a revolution" of) the privileges, possessions, properties, powers, and status of groups defined by class, gender, race, religion, political power, or some other factor.
In order to have a concept of compassionate, reconciling response to mutual trauma, we must detach, if only for a time, from the historically determined collective identity of those we face. That is, we must forget how different they are from us and what they have done to us. We must be able to recognize a kind of universality of human experience, a universality which manifests itself in a similarity of emotions and concerns. For instance, the Mennonites, who have as a religious group supported hundreds of professional peacemakers who confront bloody conflicts around the world, teach that if reconciliation is possible, it is because we can recognize that we all desire happiness and are vulnerable to loss; experience grief, fear, anger and joy; and love our families and hope for a better world for our children. (We might extend this recognition of universality to the rest of nature, parts of which share common emotional forms with us, much of which shares the simple fact of life, and all of which shares the mystery of existence. But that's another story.)
If we ask what causes a conflict, what are the sources of so much collective suffering, we will find, I believe, that few political struggles are only about justice, and few are only about trauma. Even the Holocaust had some roots in Germany's terrible losses in WWI, the harsh terms imposed by the Allies, and the economic deprivations and social unrest that followed. Even the most violent misogynist probably carries within himself the emotional scars of a typical male upbringing: the repression of feeling, the haunting fear of failure, the hatred of all parts of himself perceived as "weak." Such experiences can never be used to excuse Nazism or misogyny. But they do help make the perpetrators less completely alien to those of us who resist them. If our understanding of injustice ignores trauma on either side of an issue, it may not be true to the actual situation we face.
Conversely, however appealing peacemaking values of reconciliation and forgiveness are because of the humanity, humility, and compassion they embody, they are by themselves insufficient. Long-standing collective social conflict is almost always structural as well as psychological. A spiritual perspective that fails to see how anger can be a sign of the need for social transformation will mistakenly reduce conflict to its emotional dimensions while ignoring its ethical ones. Deep-seated anger may be an overwhelming emotion that needs to be managed and healed, and at the very same time also a subjective indication that objective violations of rights and legitimate interests are occurring. This double-sidedness can be as true of what is labeled terrorism as of what is labeled anti-terrorism.
(Note that the label "terrorist" is a fluid and difficult one. As one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, so one will read on websites of groups like Hamas that Israel and the United States are "terrorists." Keep in mind that short of a collective armed conflict in which only uniformed personnel are targeted, modern warfare almost always involves violence designed to kill and terrify civilians as well as defeat an enemy army. However, if the evaluative implications are removed, one can still use "terrorist" as a conventional label for more informal networks that target civilians, and simply label as aggressive, imperialist, militarist, etc., the armies of nation-states.)
The failure to recognize the way both justice and trauma shape violent social conflict is reflected in many responses to terrorism that focus solely on the aggression of the terrorists or the history of American imperialism.
When this happens we may see only reasonless violence, perceiving terrorists as religious fanatics who kill innocents simply because of a maniacal hatred (as if fighters for al-Qaida or Hezbollah grew up without history), or perceiving U.S. actions as the soulless machinations of a Machiavellian American Empire whose foot soldiers could not really believe they are defending their country or feel truly threatened by the rise of Muslim hostility to the United States. In both cases we will have failed to take into account the irrationalities to which trauma can give rise -- traumas such as the psychological effects of a catastrophe like September 11, the ongoing presence of a foreign power on one's soil, or the looming threat of secret bombs on airplanes or the world's most powerful air force. The bureaucratic violence of empire may seem a stark contrast to the monstrosities of the fanatical terrorist. On deeper analysis, however, the pilot-less drones reflect the dialectics of trauma and justice no less than the suicide bomber's dynamite belt.
Ignoring the reality of trauma can lead us to wish simply to obliterate the evil ones: as if bombs and bullets can erase all those who threaten us; as if we could ever win a war on terror; as if September 11 (or Israel's bombing of Gaza, the latest suicide attack in Tel Aviv, or America's assault on Iraq) were the first killing of innocents -- without events that preceded them and made them possible; as if there is no grief beside our own; as if the commonplace dislocations of modernity -- life without soul, spirit, place, or authentic culture -- will not necessarily create some people who are incapable of moral connection; and -- perhaps most important -- as if understanding violence and having compassion even for the murderers is equivalent to condoning the murders or abandoning self-defense.
Yet too simplistic a trust in compassion and reconciliation has its own dangers. We might be told to trust in the power of love and care, told to forget that a history of trauma can create people who are compelled to reproduce the violence they have experienced. We might be tempted to believe that cynical opportunists, impervious to love, do not manipulate suffering into hatred on both sides; that compassion alone will overcome entrenched social power; that particular groups of people -- politicians, leaders of "resistance" groups, makers of weapons, and entrenched social elites who deflect social criticism "as long as there is a war on" -- do not benefit from perpetuating the conflict; or that the fundamental psycho-sexual structures of patriarchy do not often serve as a template for brutality and aggression.
Recognizing that true reconciliation requires the elimination or diminution of threat, we see that there is no peacemaking with slaveholders, fascist death squads, or CEO's who smilingly lie about the carcinogens their plants are discharging into the water supply. There is no reconciliation, that is, until the individual human beings who have taken on these social roles give them up. However, when conflict is national, religious, racial or ethnic -- between Israelis and Palestinians, Sunni and Shiite, Tamil and Shri Lankan, what we oppose cannot be eliminated without genocide. Enemies must kill until the last Other is dead -- or learn to reconcile.
This is true not just for times of extreme physical violence, but for everyday relationships in workplaces, families, and political movements. The Left, where I've functioned, has a history virtually overflowing with destructive internal strife. Examples include extreme antagonism between reformist and radical members of the Green Party, black ‘womanists' and white ‘feminists,' socialists and communists. On the Right, conservative types are seeing this in the now often vicious antagonism between the Tea Party and Republicans. Of course dissolving political differences in a warm bath of spiritual mush won't solve anything, but neither does the hard-hearted pursuit of differences. Recognizing the humanity of those we oppose would produce more cooperation, fewer destructive splits, more fluid alliances, and a much more humanly nourishing political culture. Again, it is often a history of trauma that provokes this extremely aggressive, antagonistic perception and behavior. We are in political organizations because we wish to save the world, end injustice, serve our country, and we are filled with fears -- fears often justified -- that we can't, that enemies are too strong, that failure will lead to continued oppression and the undermining of our treasured community or -- in the case of environmental politics -- the poisoning of the biosphere. Traumatic fears lead to a rigidity of view that sees all virtue on one side and all evil on the other. Thus a failure to confront the internal psychological dynamic of trauma leads to a distorted understanding of the external, public, social dynamic of justice and injustice.
Collective, immediately experienced or historically inherited trauma is marked by high levels of anxiety, grief, a sense of constant threat, hyper-arousal, disassociation, compassion fatigue, numbing, substance abuse, and -- most important -- in some contexts a compulsion to repeat the acts of violence immediately or secondarily experienced.
The most beneficial response to trauma is understanding and compassion, based both in knowledge of the Other's specific history and a self-awareness of our own traumatized history. Victims of trauma need to be listened to, given understanding, and provided a living context of safety. Compassion is not simply an emotional response, but a cognitive one as well. It requires empathy, which both provides and requires knowledge of another's emotional state; and imagination, which helps us put ourselves in the place of someone whose socially based suffering may be very different from our own. Overall, reconciliation after trauma requires a balance between mercy and justice, truth and peace. To privilege any of these over the others will likely undermine the entire process. Paradoxically, modernity has rendered the entire question of trauma both more complex and more universal. For whatever has happened to us as individuals, all who grow up in an era of Holocaust, the threat of nuclear war, and the increasing degradation of the environment are living in a traumatized condition of (in Katha Weingarten's telling phrase) "common shock." Trauma is now the common condition of humanity, differing only in degree.
And yet at times it is not so much mutual understanding that is needed, as a common resolve to keep the future from resembling the past. For instance, following ravaging violence in Nicaragua and Cambodia, former enemies, people on each side who had lost friends and family to the other side or been guilty of murders themselves, learned to cooperate. As some Cambodian villagers put it: "We work together for the sake of the children, so that civil war and violent repression will not ruin their lives as it has ours." The wish to prevent a recurrence, Mennonite professional peacemaker John Paul Lederach says, is perhaps the strongest desire of people who have suffered traumatic violence. At times this desire even supplants the hunger to tell their stories and have their suffering publicly acknowledged.
And yet, recognizing what we have in common with the Other -- love, children, a history of pain -- can have a reconciling, healing effect only if, once again, the threat the other poses has been removed or at least lessened. It will do no good for a Jew to recognize that an SS officer, just like himself, spends his evening playing with his children or enjoying Beethoven -- not until, that is, the officer gives up his day job of killing Jews.
And so as we seek to heal the wounds of trauma, we must still ask, from a perspective of justice (however broadly we might construe that term, perhaps adding elements of care and virtue to the more familiar Kantian-style universal laws), are there limits on what can be accepted? tolerated? forgiven? reconciled with? All ethnicities and racial groupings and most religions can fit into a multicultural, pluralistic society. But certain other social identities cannot. The suicide bomber and the violent racist -- to name but two -- create a daily climate of fear and insecurity that are at odds with a decent life for everyone else. More controversial, however, are the social identities that make up the empire. As an eco-socialist, I believe that capitalism is fundamentally at odds with justice: it has necessitated imperialism and imperialist wars, an environmentally and emotionally devastating consumerist culture, and in particular endless violence in pursuit of oil and other raw materials. How am I to reconcile with the capitalist? Let's put it another way, rooted in another social context: Given their poverty and limited range of choices, some of us might be able to forgive the Afghan farmers for growing opium. But if it is your child whose life has been broken by heroin addiction, forgiveness may be possible only after they plant something else. And in any case those who are getting rich from the drug trade may well be beyond our forgiveness until they stop.
This leaves us with the question: can we oppose the imperialists and suicide bombers, the drug peddlers and opium farmers, without hatred, contempt, or reasonless rage? Is it possible to confront Hamas or the West Bank settlers, al-Qaida or the marines in Afghanistan, without unnecessarily magnifying the differences between us?
Is this what spiritual social activists have been suggesting -- offering models of committed social action in which the striving for justice combines with a kind of personal or collective humility? Examples of this approach, however successful, show that it is at least possible, and can be found in Sant'Egidio, a lay Catholic body that has worked in peace and reconciliation efforts in Mozambique, Uganda, Burundi, Algeria, Kosovo, and Guatemala; and in Mennonite practice, which seeks to "reject coercion and violence" and offer a "benign engagement with others that emphasizes listening, care, and gentle patterns of interaction." These values have been practiced "militantly" by well over a thousand members of "Christian Peacemaker Teams" working in Haiti, Hebron, and other inflamed and personally dangerous hot spots.
Given the enormous toll of trauma in human history, a toll which according to the daily news seems only to be increasing despite all our vaunted technological progress, it might seem that there is no hope. Yet history also shows us that people yearn to reconcile even as they love to hate. Forgiveness promotes close ties among families, animal groups, and human communities, ties necessary for mutual support in the struggle for survival. Social psychologist Michael McCullough argues that the drive to forgive, no less than the drive to punish and kill, is part of our evolutionary inheritance. It can be found in Latin American fish and many of the higher primates. Structurally, the human brain has distinct locations for feelings of forgiveness as well as revenge.
Yet how much justice do we have to give up before we can reconcile ourselves and move beyond cycles of trauma? At what point does the toleration of injustice simply guarantee future trauma -- whether that takes the form of capitalist exploitation, militarist wars, patriarchal violence against women or homosexuals, or the suppression of some chosen minority?
How can empire and terrorism reconcile emotionally? First, there must arise a kind of fundamental revulsion at the process and effects of violence. The broken bodies, families, and communities to which these conflicts give rise must cease to be attractive. An essentially moral horror at the "fruits" of revenge must take precedence over the natural pleasure of getting even. Consider Judea Pearl, father of the brutally and Internet-publicly beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl, who became clear that "hate" killed his son and that it was hate -- not Muslims, fundamentalists, or even members of particular groups -- that he was opposing. Only after this kind of perceptual change can empathy arise -- a sense of commonality between our grief, frustration, and oppression and that of our enemies. Pearl said of Ahmed Akbar, a Muslim with whom he has joined in opposing all forms of reasonless violence, that, "Ahmed was the only Muslim author I read who had expressed empathy for the sense of siege Israelis feel. Empathy is the essence of understanding and the prerequisite to dialogue." On a larger, but still not nearly large enough, scale, there is the joint Israeli-Palestinian group Parents Circle-Families Forum, membership in which is reserved to those who have lost immediate family members slain by the other side in the conflict. Histories of trauma and victimization ranging from historic anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to colonialism and Israeli occupation are mutually recognized "to offer a breakthrough in people's frame of mind, to allow a change of perception, a chance to re-consider one's views and attitudes towards the other side."
In the broader framework of empire and terrorism, similar, perhaps even more complicated, steps are necessary. Each side might begin to soften its stance of implacable moral certainty. We might develop new skepticism of the empire's endless self-congratulation over democracy and technological power or of terrorism's un-Islamic militant spiritual arrogance. Each side could discover within its own tradition an openness to the other -- in scripture, law, philosophy, or the exemplary lives of unquestioned heroes such as Martin Luther King or Rumi. Each side can look very carefully at the sufferings of the other and develop an all too rare honesty about its own motivations: How much is self-defense and how much is oil and realpolitik? How much is legitimate national pride and religious fervor? And how much patriarchal violence and a terror of modernity?
How much are we motivated by a natural partiality for our own suffering? And how much by willful blindness and moral laziness? And finally, where do we draw the hard lines of rejecting injustice, no matter how traumatic the source?
In a sense we are left with a simple but often nearly impossible ideal: to recognize the world's pain, and our own, and to change the world so the pain is lessened. Every dream of a better world is a dream of a place where it is easier, if perhaps not easy, to be kind. But with so many people of power, attached in so many ways to social structures that are rife with cruelty, how much unkindness will be required to get to that point?
Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, contributing editor for Tikkun, and author of A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and our Planet's Future, and the (forthcoming) Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming.His articles in Tikkun include "Trauma in the Second Degree," March/April 2004; "The Others: How the Animals Made Us Human," November/December 1997; and "Engaged Buddhist Reader," January/February 1998.
Source Citation: Gottlieb, Roger S. 2011. Justice and Trauma: Reflections on Terrorism and Empire. Tikkun 26(1): 43