In the Aftermath of 9/11: Spiritually Transmitted Diseases

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We all know about sexually transmitted diseases. Too few of us are aware of spiritually transmitted diseases. Like their physical counterparts, these metaphysical maladies spread through passionate, intimate contact—but the engagement is hostile rather than erotic. They spread through the mutual embrace of rivalry, the intercourse of argument, the emotional clutch of conflict.

Simply put, whenever we engage opponents in conflict, we can unwittingly catch what they have.

If they insult us, we will be tempted to insult them back. If they use religious language to demonize us, we will be tempted to respond in kind. If they exaggerate or caricature or misrepresent us, if they bomb us or torture us or take hostages from among us, before we know it, we can become a mirror of that which we once found abhorrent and alien.

After a decade of engagement with violent forces in the aftermath of the attacks of 2001, we in the U.S. should not be so proud or naïve as to think a spiritually transmitted disease could never infect us—or that it hasn't already done so.

What characteristics would describe us over the last decade? Resilience, determination, vigilance, to be sure . . . but also militarization, willingness to engage in torture, demonization of enemies, use of religious identity to justify violent behavior, secret detention in secret prisons, us-them thinking. Are these not characteristic of those who attacked us?

Yet even the act of diagnosing this infection is fraught with danger. Diagnosis can quickly lead to blame—President Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, President Obama, fundamentalist Muslims, fundamentalist Christians, whomever. And in being quick to blame, we practice the same facile vilification that characterizes our attackers. We sink deeper into a syndrome of anger and hostility, and so the disease rages on.

So at this decadal anniversary of the terrorist attacks, I propose that we acknowledge not only our enemies on the other side of the world but also the enemy that can so easily infect our own body politic, our own national soul. The evil we have identified in "them" and "over there," it turns out, is highly infectious.

With the virulence of spiritually transmitted diseases in mind, I see some of the core teachings of Jesus in a new light. I'm aware that those teachings are seen even by many Christians as impractical and irrelevant in the context of international conflict. Turn the other cheek? Ridiculous. Do good to those who harm you? Suicidal. Love your enemies? Cute and laughable and immature.

But the danger of spiritually transmitted diseases reminds us that our enemy is not our only enemy. In responding to our enemy imitatively, in catching our enemy's hostile spirit, we can become an even worse enemy to ourselves. We can do ourselves more damage than the enemy ever could. In that light, suddenly Jesus' teachings seem strikingly realistic, and ignoring them seems to betray a far costlier idealism: that violence can defeat violence.

Consider the oft-misunderstood "other cheek" teaching. If you are struck, you have three obvious options: fight back, run away and hide, or submit and surrender. Assuming you can't run away and won't surrender, in fighting back, you increase the likelihood that you become more like your opponents. Even as you defeat them, they have in a sense converted you to become more like them, which is a kind of victory in itself.

But Jesus suggests a different way. In standing up courageously—and in refusing flight, submission, and retaliation—you become less like your opponent. Previously unimagined creative responses become possible. You don't submit to the game in order to win it: you change the game entirely.

Similarly, in doing good to the one who harms you, you seize the moral high ground and you thus break out of the cycle of reactivity—a cycle in which your opponent determines the terms of engagement, and thus has the upper hand.

In loving your enemies, you seek to understand them and you don't freeze them in their current aggressive identity.

Ten years ago, such responses would have been labeled silly if not unpatriotic. We weren't ready as a nation to even consider them. But perhaps, after ten years, we have moments of fatigue with the grim cycles of imitative violence. Perhaps we're sick of spiritually transmitted disease.

If that's the case, we are a little more ready to imagine a healthier agenda for the next ten years.