While I agree with Nathaniel Zelinsky (“True to the core,” Sept. 13) in finding President Levin’s words at the Sept. 11 memorial service somewhat unsatisfactory, I disagree on why and want to add my own perspective on this multivalent issue.
This summer I had a discussion about the particular prescriptions of my religion that quickly evolved into my friends finding fault with any belief in an absolute or universal truth, painting those that held such beliefs as judgmental extremists. Unfortunately, and probably unfairly, my mind returned to this incident at the beautiful memorial service when President Levin seemed to make the same jump in his reasoning, positing as a significant root of violence and intolerance the holding of beliefs in “unique truth.”
My summer conversation took a detour, though, when I asked my friends whether they held some universal moral value or truth. Unsurprisingly, they did. Theirs, unlike mine, were not religious articles of faith such as “Jesus Christ is the savior of the world” but uncodified aphorisms such as “love should not be impeded” or “there is no right or wrong, only cultural difference.” Nevertheless, neither this nor their disavowals changed the fact that they believed in their brand of absolute truth quite firmly.
When Levin invited us “to weigh evidence and to develop independently [our] view of what is true and what is not,” we were being invited to nothing but a quest for a personal formulation of some absolute truths. However, if centuries of thought have anything to show us, it is that even if we “engage our reason, examine all points of view, [and] shape arguments,” there will still be intelligent people with whom we disagree about fundamental tenets. Zelinsky takes issue with this, assuming that humanity possesses an overarching, universal moral sense. Such an overriding conscience more easily allows us to condemn or commend what we perceive as Evil and Good, but culture, history, psychology and individual experience also shape us in subtle ways we cannot entirely comprehend or resolve, and which I feel could cloud that moral sense.
The challenge, then, is how to live in a world in which people will never relinquish their conflicting claims to “unique truths;” how to engage and negotiate between these differing claims in order to live together harmoniously. The value of “engag[ing] our reason, examin[ing] all points of view, [and] shap[ing] arguments,” lies less in the mythical, elusive consensus afterward, but in the fact that it allows us to see others as we see ourselves: as thinking, as struggling, as human, worthy of love and respect. If this was President Levin’s intended message, I apologize for my initial misinterpretation.
It is also a matter of recognizing that seldom, if ever, do we cast ourselves as evil. Those who committed the atrocities of Sept. 11 believed they were in the right — and we, like them, are naught but human. Zelinsky’s dismissal of these men’s complicated motivations by saying that they hate us for our supposedly universally self-evident freedom is trite, tired and ignorantly if not dangerously simplistic. He ignores the powerful and complex influences of geopolitics, colonialism, fundamentalism, nationalism, psychology, etc. that factored into this horrific act. This dismissal denies some fundamental aspects of their, and our, humanity: the capacity for undetected self-deception and the essential estrangement from the Other. He thus effectively writes off evil as some rare aberration that “we” probably don’t really have to worry about. Evil, though, is not limited to the most heinous acts of mass murder, nor are terrorists alone in being shaped by invisible forces.
It is recognizing humanity’s capacity for terrible errors of judgment and demonization that lead to unspeakable tragedy — and sorrow for the suffering that capacity causes — which brings me to tears each Sept. 11. Even as we honor the greatest examples of the Good in the human spirit that shone forth in spite of evil on that smoke-obscured morning, let us see its events as a warning sign on the edge of the precipice of human frailties. May we resolve to be ever more humane in our fallible humanity.
Michael Haycock is a senior in Branford College.