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Archive for the ‘Social Change’ Category

Our hope is that the world’s religious leaders and the rulers thereof will unitedly arise for the reformation of this age and the rehabilitation of its fortunes. Let them, after meditating on its needs, take counsel together and, through anxious and full deliberation, administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth.

The Great Being saith: The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion. Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

Those words of Baha’u’llah were on my mind today as I read the news of and some reaction to the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s Peace Prize to President Obama. Baha’u’llah sets a lofty standard: “Let them, after meditating on its needs, take counsel together and, through anxious and full deliberation, administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth.”

In its press release, the committee focused only on Obama’s ability to get world leaders to “take counsel together,” commending him for the change he has wrought in the tone of international politics:

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations.

The committee made no mention of any movement among world leaders, sparked by Obama or not, to “administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth.” Many of the reactions I have been reading seem to have a similar bent.

Keeping that caveat in mind, I want to note that the Nobel Committee also focused specifically on the values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population:

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.

I know of no better expression of those shared values and attitudes than that found in the Writings of Baha’u’llah. Shoghi Effendi, cataloguing in God Passes By the prophecies for which Baha’u’llah is the fulfillment, writes, “To Him Isaiah, the greatest of the Jewish prophets, had alluded as the ‘Glory of the Lord,’ the ‘Everlasting Father,’ the ‘Prince of Peace,’…”.

I will end with quotations from that Prince of Peace, all of which are taken from a compilation on peace, which I heartily recommend to you, with the hope and the prayer that Baha’u’llah’s vision may be made real, through the efforts of all of us, whether we be President, Nobel Peace Prize winner, or otherwise.

O ye that dwell on earth! The distinguishing feature that marketh the preeminent character of this Supreme Revelation consisteth in that We have … laid down the essential prerequisites of concord, of understanding, of complete and enduring unity. Well is it with them that keep My statutes.

The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife. The religion of God and His divine law are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men. The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquillity of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God. Religion bestoweth upon man the most precious of all gifts, offereth the cup of prosperity, imparteth eternal life, and showereth imperishable benefits upon mankind. It behoveth the chiefs and rulers of the world, and in particular the Trustees of God’s House of Justice, to endeavour to the utmost of their power to safeguard its position, promote its interests and exalt its station in the eyes of the world. In like manner it is incumbent upon them to enquire into the conditions of their subjects and to acquaint themselves with the affairs and activities of the divers communities in their dominions. We call upon the manifestations of the power of God—the sovereigns and rulers on earth—to bestir themselves and do all in their power that haply they may banish discord from this world and illumine it with the light of concord.

The Great Being, wishing to reveal the prerequisites of the peace and tranquillity of the world and the advancement of its peoples, hath written: The time must come when the imperative necessity for the holding of a vast, an all-embracing assemblage of men will be universally realized. The rulers and kings of the earth must needs attend it, and, participating in its deliberations, must consider such ways and means as will lay the foundations of the world’s Great Peace amongst men. Such a peace demandeth that the Great Powers should resolve, for the sake of the tranquillity of the peoples of the earth, to be fully reconciled among themselves. Should any king take up arms against another, all should unitedly arise and prevent him. If this be done, the nations of the world will no longer require any armaments, except for the purpose of preserving the security of their realms and of maintaining internal order within their territories. This will ensure the peace and composure of every people, government and nation. We fain would hope that the kings and rulers of the earth, the mirrors of the gracious and almighty name of God, may attain unto this station, and shield mankind from the onslaught of tyranny. …The day is approaching when all the peoples of the world will have adopted one universal language and one common script. When this is achieved, to whatsoever city a man may journey, it shall be as if he were entering his own home. These things are obligatory and absolutely essential. It is incumbent upon every man of insight and understanding to strive to translate that which hath been written into reality and action…. That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race. The Great Being saith: Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. In another passage He hath proclaimed: It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.

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I ended Friday’s post with the point that, contrary to what John Cassidy and Barry Ritzholtz assume in their arguments, what is rational is not necessarily good. The blurring of the line between reason and goodness comes, ultimately, from the ascendancy of atheism and, hence, materialism among intellectuals. In place of fundamental and eternally-established goods present in a theistic worldview, materialism turns to reason as capable of determining what’s good. I don’t know where Cassidy and Ritzholtz stand on the existence of God, but they both argue from materialist assumptions. To illustrate the difficulty that causes in seeing how to deal with the sources of the financial crisis, let’s take a look at a few quotations from Cassidy’s arguments.

In explaining the problems with getting cooperative behavior in a prisoner’s dilemma, Cassidy writes:

Attempts to act responsibly and achieve a coöperative solution cannot be sustained, because they leave you vulnerable to exploitation by others. If Citigroup had sat out the credit boom while its rivals made huge profits, Prince would probably have been out of a job earlier. The same goes for individual traders at Wall Street firms. If a trader has one bad quarter, perhaps because he refused to participate in a bubble, the results can be career-threatening.

In these two examples, Cassidy assumes that, at base, the good is self-interest. He notes that Prince would have been out of a job if he did not lead Citigroup into the credit boom and that individual traders who do not participate in bubbles stand to lose their job or see their career prospects damaged. All of those things may be true, but we can see fairly easily that, although the decision of a trader to participate in a bubble may be rational if he has the end of keeping his trading job, it would be irrational if he has the goal of only earning a living through activity that did not lead to long-term harm to himself and others. Indeed, if he has the second goal, his behavior in participating in the bubble would be illogical.

Let’s take another example. Writing about the subprime mortgage boom, Cassidy notes that

…many mortgage companies extended home loans to low- and middle-income applicants who couldn’t afford to repay them. In hindsight, that looks like reckless lending. It didn’t at the time. In most cases, lenders had no intention of holding on to the mortgages they issued. After taking a generous fee for originating the loans, they planned to sell them to Wall Street banks, such as Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, which were in the business of pooling mortgages and using the monthly payments they generated to issue mortgage bonds. When a borrower whose home loan has been “securitized” in this way defaults on his payments, it is the buyer of the mortgage bond who suffers a loss, not the issuer of the mortgage.

Here, Cassidy gives the basic logic of companies giving home loans to people who cannot afford them. (For a first-person account of this logic in action, listen to This American Life, Episode #390, Return to the Giant Pool of Money. The whole episode, really the whole series of episodes about the economic crisis, is great, but the relevant section starts at about 17:05 on my podcast version.) Again, we can call the logic rational, but only if the goal of the mortgage company is to make money on a product that doesn’t have intrinsic value. If we assume that a mortgage company’s goal is to make money by providing loans to people who have a good likelihood of paying them back, then the mortgage companies Cassidy describes were acting completely irrationally.

So, if we cannot judge the goodness of an action by its rationality, we need to have another way of determining whether an action is good. This is where externally-established standards come into play. In a column in last Monday’s New York Times, David Brooks wrote about such standards and the role they have played in American national history. After quoting several statistics about ballooning personal and public debt in the U.S., Brooks makes the following observation and recommendation:

These may seem like dry numbers, mostly of concern to budget wonks. But these numbers are the outward sign of a values shift. If there is to be a correction, it will require a moral and cultural movement.

Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally.

If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.

In the broad strokes, Brooks is exactly right. We do need a “moral and cultural movement” to confront the shift in values away from discipline and rectitude, and it must be broadly-based. Whoever would like to be a part of that movement would do well to consider these two exhortations from The Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah:

O MY SERVANT! The basest of men are they that yield no fruit on earth. Such men are verily counted as among the dead, nay better are the dead in the sight of God than those idle and worthless souls.

O MY SERVANT! The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred for the love of God, the Lord of all worlds.

Only with such standards in mind can we use rationality to determine which actions are good and which are not.

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Leon Kass has an article in this month’s National Affairs (recently relaunched) in which he uses his own journey from study of science to study of humanities as a meditation on the role of humanities in life. In the piece, which is well worth reading, Kass approvingly cites Aristotle as a guide in how to live well:

We are today inclined to praise as excellent one or the other of two human types. Utilitarians esteem the shrewd and cunning man who knows how to get what he wants. Moralists praise the man of good will, the well-intentioned or good-hearted fellow bent on doing good. But these views, Aristotle shows us, are both inadequate. The highest human excellence in the realm of action requires both that one’s intentions be good and that one’s judgment be sound. Never a slave to abstract principles or rules of conduct, never a moral preener espousing “ideals” or doctrines, the prudent man knows that excellence really consists in finding and enacting the best thing to do here and now, always with a view to the good but always as seen in the light of the circumstances.

We would do well to consider Aristotle’s emphasis on combining moral intentions with the ability to make sound decisions and get things done. We have perhaps had too much emphasis on the extremes, which Kass characterizes as utilitarianism and moralism. Andrew Leonard expresses this in another way in a review at Salon of robert Skidelsky’s new book, Keynes. Considering the trends in ‘rich’ countries, Skidelsky makes an observation and poses a series of questions:

Although real incomes in rich countries have doubled in the last thirty years, the populations of these countries work harder than ever and are no happier. This raises the question of why they are still on the growth treadmill. Is it because capitalism needs constantly to expand markets, and ensnare by advertising more and more people into useless consumption? Is it because economists have ignored the fact that, as societies become wealthier, positional goods — goods which satisfy not our needs, but our longing for status — become more and more desirable? Is it because globalization has made affluence too insecure and too uneven in its spread for most people in wealthy societies to ease off work? Or is it because we lack any agreed idea of the good life in the name of which we can say “enough is enough”?

In last question Skidelsky parallels Kass. They both point to a lack of a commonly-agreed sense of what a good life is. In an age of unprecedented wealth on the earth, clearly our material advancement is not sufficient to constitute moral living. Moreover, following Aristotle, mere having the intention of living some other way is not sufficient, either. We must not be content with merely criticizing the materialist status quo. We must actively seek, promote, and try to live an alternative.

In that progression of logic lie the seeds of a life of faith.

‘Abdu’l-Baha has said, “By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.” But He goes further than this, as recorded in Paris Talks. Though it is a lengthy excerpt, I will quote it here in full.

All over the world one hears beautiful sayings extolled and noble precepts admired. All men say they love what is good, and hate everything that is evil! Sincerity is to be admired, whilst lying is despicable. Faith is a virtue, and treachery is a disgrace to humanity. It is a blessed thing to gladden the hearts of men, and wrong to be the cause of pain. To be kind and merciful is right, while to hate is sinful. Justice is a noble quality and injustice an iniquity. That it is one’s duty to be pitiful and harm no one, and to avoid jealousy and malice at all costs. Wisdom is the glory of man, not ignorance; light, not darkness! It is a good thing to turn one’s face toward God, and foolishness to ignore Him. That it is our duty to guide man upward, and not to mislead him and be the cause of his downfall. There are many more examples like unto these.
But all these sayings are but words and we see very few of them carried into the world of action. On the contrary, we perceive that men are carried away by passion and selfishness, each man thinking only of what will benefit himself even if it means the ruin of his brother. They are all anxious to make their fortune and care little or nothing for the welfare of others. They are concerned about their own peace and comfort, while the condition of their fellows troubles them not at all.
Unhappily this is the road most men tread.
But Bahá’ís must not be thus; they must rise above this condition. Actions must be more to them than words. By their actions they must be merciful and not merely by their words. They must on all occasions confirm by their actions what they proclaim in words. Their deeds must prove their fidelity, and their actions must show forth Divine light.
Let your actions cry aloud to the world that you are indeed Bahá’ís, for it is actions that speak to the world and are the cause of the progress of humanity.
If we are true Bahá’ís speech is not needed. Our actions will help on the world, will spread civilization, will help the progress of science, and cause the arts to develop. Without action nothing in the material world can be accomplished, neither can words unaided advance a man in the spiritual Kingdom. It is not through lip-service only that the elect of God have attained to holiness, but by patient lives of active service they have brought light into the world.
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!
This is the work of a true Bahá’í, and this is what is expected of him. If we strive to do all this, then are we true Bahá’ís, but if we neglect it, we are not followers of the Light, and we have no right to the name.
God, who sees all hearts, knows how far our lives are the fulfilment of our words.

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David Brooks dedicates his column in today’s New York Times to an encomium for Irving Kristol, a founder of the neoconservative movement and, as Brooks tells it, a participant in most of the important philosophical debates of the twentieth century. I don’t know enough about Kristol and his legacy to comment on the accuracy of Brooks’s description, though I do note that Glenn Greenwald has been less than laudatory of some of Kristol’s positions.

Still, two trends that Brooks cited struck my interest: (1) the purpose of liberty in the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment; (2) the tendency to think that moral and civic problems can be solved by economic means.

The leaders of the Scottish environment hoped that progress might come gradually and organically — if individuals were given the liberty to develop their own responsible habits and if they themselves built institutions to guide them on their way.

Kristol argued that this was the great seduction of modern politics — to believe that problems that were essentially moral and civic could be solved by economic means. They can’t. Political problems, even many economic problems, are, at heart, ethical and cultural problems. And improving the attitudes and virtues of a nation is, at best, a slow, halting process.

(In the first quotation, I assume that Brooks means Scottish enlightenment, rather than Scottish environment, as he has it.)

In its 1985 statement The Promise of World Peace, the Universal House of Justice addressed the issue of achieving peace on a global level.

The primary challenge in dealing with issues of peace is to raise the context to the level of principle, as distinct from pure pragmatism. For, in essence, peace stems from an inner state supported by a spiritual or moral attitude, and it is chiefly in evoking this attitude that the possibility of enduring solutions can be found.
There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.

The House of Justice here clarifies an underlying dynamic that Brooks touches on in focusing on individuals’ developing “responsible habits” and in noting that many political and economic problems are, “at heart, ethical and cultural problems.” Indeed, for society to flourish, it is necessary that individuals develop responsible habits, and as the House of Justice indicates, “peace stems from an inner state supported by a spiritual or moral attitude.” The House of Justice goes on to explain that the focus on and use of “spiritual principle” is necessary to resolve economic and political problems. Thus, Brooks (or at least his language) doesn’t go quite far enough in attributing political and economic problems to “ethical and cultural problems.”

If we are to make progress, we must imbue ourselves, our communities, and our institutions with spiritual principles, those moral values that will enable us to avoid disastrous pitfalls and to tackle seemingly intractable problems. If we are to have peace, the ultimate end of social progress, we must cultivate the inner state of peace in the soil of a spiritual attitude.

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In one of the best scenes in The Wire, from the middle of season three, Bunk confronts Omar, reminding him that they grew up together: “Rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Wasn’t nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter.” It hits home to Omar, too: just watch the last shot and see it all over his face.

I was reminded of that scene today reading Heather Havrilesky’s review at Salon of a new Sundance miniseries, Brick City, which examines the lives of a variety of people in Newark, New Jersey: Mayor Cory Booker, school principals, ex-gang members. As I neither live in the U.S. nor have a television, I won’t be able to watch it unless it makes it to international DVD distribution, but it sounds like a very useful meditation on community. Having described people who stay in Newark, despite having the ability to leave, Havrilesky makes the following observation:

Boys may always grow up without fathers and Newark may always be a tough place, but this city’s heroes give us all something to aspire to. As most of us struggle mightily to improve our own lives, these people fight every day to make the world a safer and better place for their neighbors. In revealing their trials and toils, Sundance’s “Brick City” makes our luxuries, from our comforting things to the comfort of our cynicism, look downright foolish by comparison. By resisting the urge to avert our eyes, we can glimpse the blinding beauty that lies in the humblest acts of optimism, generosity and hope.

That paragraph summarizes the change of heart that needs to suffuse our conception of life. We need to turn from thinking primarily about our own improvement to “fight every day to make the world a safer and better place for [our] neighbors.” That’s at the heart of the work the Universal House of Justice has called the Baha’i world to do over the next decade. I have written about the work of community-building elsewhere, but the House of Justice’s description of April 2008 offers a beautiful vision of the seeds of a new kind of community that is being built across the planet:

Thousands upon thousands, embracing the diversity of the entire human family, are engaged in systematic study of the Creative Word in an environment that is at once serious and uplifting. As they strive to apply through a process of action, reflection and consultation the insights thus gained, they see their capacity to serve the Cause rise to new levels. Responding to the inmost longing of every heart to commune with its Maker, they carry out acts of collective worship in diverse settings, uniting with others in prayer, awakening spiritual susceptibilities, and shaping a pattern of life distinguished for its devotional character. As they call on one another in their homes and pay visits to families, friends and acquaintances, they enter into purposeful discussion on themes of spiritual import, deepen their knowledge of the Faith, share Baha’u’llah’s message, and welcome increasing numbers to join them in a mighty spiritual enterprise. Aware of the aspirations of the children of the world and their need for spiritual education, they extend their efforts widely to involve ever-growing contingents of participants in classes that become centres of attraction for the young and strengthen the roots of the Faith in society. They assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization. And with the advantage of a greater abundance of human resources, an increasing number of them are able to express their faith through a rising tide of endeavours that address the needs of humanity in both their spiritual and material dimensions.

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In this op-ed, Jonathan Freedland at London’s Guardian newspaper links the current health care debate in the US to the world’s ability to tackle climate change. His basic premise is that if President Obama can’t get the Congress to enact meaningful health care reform, then he won’t be able to get it to agree to whatever targets emerge from the Copenhagen negotiations in November and December this year. (The Copenhagen negotiations will (or will not) establish the set of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that will be in force once the targets agreed on at Kyoto in 1997 expire in 2012.)

Last November, the sigh of relief among greens and diplomats could be heard around the world. While George Bush had ripped up Kyoto, Obama would surely lead the way to Copenhagen.

Now that early confidence is fading. Those same diplomats and negotiators have seen the president struggle to make what, to outsiders, look like pretty reasonable changes to US healthcare. They have seen a summer campaign demonise him as an amalgam of Stalin, Hitler and Big Brother, bent on sending America’s frail grannies to their deaths in the name of a new socialism. If that’s the response he gets when he suggests Americans should be covered even when they change jobs or get sick, imagine the monstering coming his way if he tells his compatriots they have to start cutting back on the 19 tonnes of CO2 each one of them emits per year (more than twice the amount belched out by the average Brit).

While Freedland is right that today’s national leaders will have a large impact on our planetary ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate their negative effects, he’s wrong to suggest that those leaders are the only people who matter, even in the Copenhagen-heavy short term.

As the Baha’i International Community has stated, the fundamental necessity in solving climate change is “that the principle of the oneness of humankind must become the ruling principle of international life.” The BIC also indicates that the people of the world will need to be engaged at three levels, only one of which is in the functioning of international institutions. The two other levels indicated by the BIC are as follows:

The Individual Level: Engaging children and youth. A fundamental component of resolving the climate change challenge will be the cultivation of values, attitudes and skills that give rise to just and sustainable patterns of human interaction with the environment. The engagement of children and youth will be particularly important as this population will be called upon to exercise leadership and address the dramatic and complex challenges of climate change in the decades to come. It is at a young age that new mindsets and habits can be most effectively cultivated.

The Community Level: Advancing gender equality and engaging religious communities. On the community rests the challenge of providing the setting in which decision-making can occur peacefully and individual capabilities can be channeled through collective action. One of the most pervasive social challenges besetting communities around the world is the marginalization of girls and women – a condition further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change…. It would be a mistake, however, to cast women as the victims or simply as under-resourced members of society; they represent perhaps the greatest source of untapped potential in the global effort to overcome the challenges of climate change. Their responsibilities in families, in communities, as farmers, and as stewards of natural resources make them uniquely positioned to develop strategies for adapting to changing environmental conditions. Women’s distinct knowledge and needs complement those of men, and must be duly considered in all arenas of community decision-making. In light of this reality, the United Nations must give more attention to the gender dimensions of climate change.

As well, religious communities and their leaders bear an inescapable and weighty role in the climate change arena, especially given their tremendous capacity to mobilize public opinion and their extensive reach in the most remote communities around the world…. This role, however, must now unfold in the context of an emerging conversation – a rapprochement – between the discourses of science and religion. The time has come for the entrenched dichotomy between these two systems of knowledge to be earnestly re-examined. Both are needed to mobilize and direct human energies to the resolution of the problem at hand: methods of science facilitate a more objective and systematic approach to problem solving while religion concerns itself with those moral inclinations that motivate action for the common good.

So, wherever you are, you can play a role in addressing climate change as an individual and within your community. Only when we begin to act do we truly demonstrate our consciousness of the oneness of humanity. That consciousness is essential to our survival.

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Last Friday marked the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. To reflect on those events and their place in the American consciousness, The Washington Post ran an article about a new high school curriculum designed to help students learn about the attacks. Apparently, many of them are too young to remember that day or to know the degree to which it influences American thought and politics today. Despite what that fact says about the level of our public discourse and our ability as a culture to engage young people with important events, I was most struck by the narrative about one student who, for extra credit in Michael Hutchinson’s social studies class in Vincennes, Indiana, interviewed her grandfather about his response that day.

JaLeah Hedrick, 18, had never learned about Sept. 11 in school until she entered Hutchison’s class this week, but consequences of that day surrounded her as she began her pursuit of extra credit. For Hedrick, Sept. 11 was the pledge of allegiance that Vincennes area schools had begun playing over loudspeakers every morning since late 2001. It was the “Threat Level Orange” that she heard each time she visited the Indianapolis airport. It was the way her grandfather, a World War II veteran, grimaced when he spoke of “those Muslims.” It was the USA T-shirt her dad wore when he picked her up from school in an aging Pontiac with a red-white-and-blue license plate inscribed with the phrase “In God We Trust.”

And now, it was homework — due to Hutchison by 1 p.m. Friday.

Hedrick wanted to interview her grandfather Ed Hedrick, because he is a veteran and, she said, “an American hero.” Other classmates were planning to interview fathers serving in Iraq or distant relatives who had worked at the Pentagon, but Ed Hedrick, 83, was the only person his granddaughter knew whose recollections of Sept. 11 might have the gravitas worthy of extra credit.

She rode a mile across town and sat across from her grandfather on his front porch. She pulled a blue notebook and a pink pen from her backpack and then looked at a class handout that provided a list of possible interview questions. “I have to ask you some of these for homework,” she told her grandfather, her eyes still fixed on the sheet. “Where were you when you first heard about the attack?”

“I was sitting in that red chair over there in the living room,” he said.

She nodded and then read the next question. “Did you continue to listen to the radio or watch TV?”

“Yes,” her grandfather said. “I barely moved all week. I couldn’t stop watching.”

“How did it affect you?” she asked.

“Severe anger, for days,” he said.

“What action did you want the government to take?” she asked.

“Well, I guess I wanted them to load up three or four of those H-bombs and send them over there. That’s how I felt at the time.”

Mr. Hedrick’s response struck me because his desire for vengeance mirrored so closely the reaction many of my students had on that clear fall day eight years ago. I remember very clearly my sixth period class. By the time they entered, we had been aware of the attacks for at least three hours. Most of us had watched the plane hit the second tower, had seen the towers collapse, had heard about the destruction at the Pentagon and the crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. We had had some time to process our emotions. Still, the faces of the juniors entering my class were dark.

We began to discuss their thoughts and feelings, and I was taken aback by the strength of their emotions. As I asked them to consider what they thought we ought to do, one student yelled, “Just go over there and blow ’em all up, just wipe the whole place out!” No matter that he couldn’t say who they were or where we should wipe out, he was hurt and wanted to express that hurt with the most destructive violence he could imagine. This lashing out, as a cursory reading of the news of any day will tell you, is a common response to violence against one’s own. Though it is a thirst for vengeance, it is also the root of the desire for justice, for an evening of the scales of rights done and wrongs inflicted. In her book Payback, transcribed from her Massey Lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Margaret Atwood fixes this pattern within the larger cultural pattern of debts, going back at least to the Code of Hammurabi in ancient Mesopotamia.

Another Washington Post article, this one from Saturday, documents an different response to the tragedy, more in keeping with hindsight and coolness of mind.

Obama designated Sept. 11 a national day of service and encouraged communities across the United States to participate. It was part of a national push to commemorate the attacks through good works.

The Obamas helped paint the living room in a Habitat for Humanity housing project in the Deanwood neighborhood of Northeast Washington. The president opted for a roller; the first lady used a brush.

About 200 volunteers with Greater DC Cares were at RFK Stadium, piecing together quilts to give to children who have parents serving overseas in the military. Douglas Cribbes smoothed an iron across a piece of cloth printed with a photograph of a newborn, whose tiny pink hand held his father’s finger. A team from Rolls-Royce North America of Reston cut, ironed and sewed scraps of fabric into a gift for the little boy.

Harper Holmes and Seven Bloom, both 19, turned up at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bethesda, helping about 45 other volunteers write postcards to service members overseas, sand doors, weed the yard or just clean up. The pair were sixth-graders when the towers fell, and now work with the National Civilian Community Corps, a public service program for young adults.

They’ve spent the past several months traveling across the country doing community service projects. “To see fear turned into a mass uprising of people working for others is amazing,” Bloom said.

Those who strive through these acts of service to transform fear and anger into development and advancement have perhaps a different notion of justice than Mr. Hedrick does. No doubt, theirs is easier to hold eight years after the tragedy than on that day of violence.

In a world where no one nation can claim authority over others or others’ citizens, where the interactions between nations are necessarily the interactions of peers, it is not easy to move away from the tit-for-tat pattern of justice. How is a nation to respond to aggression by another nation or by the citizens of other nations? With no higher authority for appeal, a nation must seemingly use its own power of deterrence. Unfortunately, that power of deterrence is often used out of anger rather than justice. Presidents, prime ministers and kings follow Mr. Hedrick’s feelings and “load up” some bombs.

Baha’u’llah in “Words of Paradise” makes the following exhortation to rulers:

A king who is not deterred by the vainglory of power and authority from observing justice, nor is deprived of the splendours of the day-star of equity by luxury, riches, glory or the marshalling of hosts and legions shall occupy a high rank and a sublime station amongst the Concourse on high. It is incumbent upon everyone to extend aid and to manifest kindness to so noble a soul. Well is it with the king who keepeth a tight hold on the reins of his passion, restraineth his anger and preferreth justice and fairness to injustice and tyranny.

In Tablet of Maqsud, He further commands:

Take heed, O concourse of the rulers of the world! There is no force on earth that can equal in its conquering power the force of justice and wisdom. I, verily, affirm that there is not, and hath never been, a host more mighty than that of justice and wisdom. Blessed is the king who marcheth with the ensign of wisdom unfurled before him, and the battalions of justice massed in his rear. He verily is the ornament that adorneth the brow of peace and the countenance of security.

Perhaps if the rulers of the world restrained their anger to act with justice and combined justice with wisdom in their actions, a new pattern of relations between states would emerge. Then we might imagine a world in which we are not still waging two wars in response to the actions of a small group of terrorists on one day eight years ago.

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