Syria: Groupthink or Grouppray?

With morbid fascination, I’m watching the leaders of the United States groupthink their way into a counterproductive use of American military force.  It’s disturbing to observe otherwise intelligent and well-motivated public servants drift into a bad decision.

If I’ve learned anything in my 60 years as a citizen of this country, it’s this:  I don’t assume that my nation’s leaders have more information or insight than I do about whether or not to America should go to war.  I’m a reasonably educated person who keeps close track of public affairs through multiple, reputable, in-depth journalistic sources.  It’s troubling to know that quite often, I appear to be better informed about certain events than are the President or members of Congress – though I’m no genius and no expert on these matters.  When the institutional momentum of the government rolled toward war in Iraq, I predicted to family and friends how the invasion would turn out.  I’d say that the accuracy of my prognostication was uncanny, except that the evidence pointing to disaster was there for any concerned citizen to see.  So we as voters need to take ourselves a lot more seriously, and not leave such decisions only to the big shots and the talking heads.  We need to take personal responsibility and exercise all the influence we can bring to bear.

I spent this morning with a delegation of Iraqi religious leaders, scholars, and journalists, several belonging to minority religious groups there.  They came to our office at USC to learn about religious diversity and interfaith relations in America.  It was heartbreaking to hear them tell of the persecution they are suffering.  “All since 2003,” said one woman scholar, with grief in her eyes.  During the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, religious minorities fared much better than they do today.  The same can be said of Syria:  religious minorities got along much better with each other under the tyranny of Bashar al Assad than they do now.

Bombing Syria won’t make things better. A “limited strike” against the Assad regime in Syria will result in more refugees leaving the country or being internally displaced. It will not dislodge Assad from power over the slice of the country he has any hope of controlling.  A US strike certainly won’t make him less desperate.  And it was desperation that led Assad, or his officers, to use chemical weapons in the first place.  A US strike may further destabilize an already dangerous part of the world.  It’s likely to result in more of the kind of suffering I heard about this morning from the Iraqis.

It makes no sense to keep one’s word when doing so leads to a worse outcome than breaking the promise.  To keep one’s word in such a situation is just maintaining a bad habit. The President makes a big deal about following through on his declaration that the use of weapons of mass destruction would be crossing a “red line”. He wants not just Syria but other countries to take him seriously. But is Iran really going to decide whether or not to build nuclear weapons based on whether or not America attacks Syria?  The Iranians are vehemently against the use of chemical weapons because Saddam Hussein used them against Iranian troops in the Iran-Iraq war. Yes, Assad crossed a red line. If he ever leaves what little is left of the Syria he controls, he’ll be subject to a war crimes tribunal. Let that be the consequence for his evil deed.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book in 1932 with a title that describes the sort of thing happening in Washington today: “Moral Man and Immoral Society”. I’d summarize the problem this way: quite nice, reasonable individuals can, as a collective, drift into groupthink leading to nasty consequences.  I’ve witnessed it, up close and personally: in local politics, in activist groups, and – yes – even in churches. The dynamics of a particular collection of well-intentioned people can hypnotize its constituents into disastrous collective actions. All too often, through groupthink, the group’s conclusion simply repeats its initial bad assumption: “This is what we must do because this is what we do.”

What’s happening in Washington right now is analogous to the way that a large crowd of people reacts to the victim of an accident. They walk past the victim because that’s what everybody else is doing.  No one person feels responsibility for the situation. Social psychologists recommend that if you are the victim in that situation, don’t cry out for help to the crowd. Instead, pick out just one person, look that person in the eye, and say, “You! Please help me now!” Suddenly that person is shaken out of the herd mentality and becomes an individual faced with the personal moral imperative to help his or her fellow human being.

Meditative prayer has the same effect.  It snaps us out of groupthink and makes us aware of our inner moral compass and our most basic values.  It makes us aware of the sources of the voices inside our heads – some worth following, and others that need to be acknowledged but rejected.

What’s needed in Washington today is not groupthink, but grouppray.  The rush to war against Syria might well stop if the President and Congress sat down in the Capitol together and meditated for an hour, silently, with eyes closed, about this: “Where do I stand, as an individual citizen of America and the world,on this question?”  Not where the herd stands, but where the person stands.  Otherwise they get lost in the implicit assumptions of the institution that surrounds them, as it rides a runaway train toward a war that cannot be won.

Silent contemplation can break the spell.  Join me in writing your senators and your members of Congress and the President, asking them to prayerfully take personal responsibility for their votes about Syriabrather than repeating the groupthink of the herd that surrounds them.

JIM BURKLO 
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM    Weblog: MUSINGS    Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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About Jim Burklo

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. An ordained United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of three books in print, OPEN CHRISTIANITY (2000), BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS (2008), and HITCH-HIKING TO ALASKA: THE WAY OF SOULFUL SERVICE (2013). See more about him at jimburklo.com .


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