True believer's moral certainty leads us astray

March 16, 2003|By Gordon Livingston

AS THE United States prepares to launch a pre-emptive war, it is worth looking at what is driving President Bush to ignore the reservations of most of our allies and at least half of the American people in pursuit of his obsession with Iraq.

The answer clearly lies in the combination of the myth of the Old West and Southern religion that informs his every action. The former evokes images of the lonely gunfighter as a force for good; the latter provides a moral justification for the constructive use of violence.

Deeply religious people are, by definition, certain that they are right about life's large questions. It is in the nature of religious belief to have complete confidence about the (unprovable) existence of a particular deity and assurance in a specific interpretation of some set of religious writings that purport to reveal God's will.

For some reason, perhaps the love of a good story, it also appears necessary to create a metaphysical adversary for our chosen divinity who, out of pure, unexplained corruption, competes for our allegiance and immortal souls. It is this cosmic conflict that gives rise to the two-alternative view of human events that has such destructive implications for relationships between people and nations in a diverse and ambiguous world.

Moral certainty is the reward of the true believer. The ambiguities that beset the rest of us do not weigh on those who are sure that they are right. There is great comfort in this, and the deeply religious among us think of themselves as "chosen." What is interesting is how much fundamentalists of dissimilar faiths resemble each other in their conviction that they have a monopoly on the truth and in their intolerance of those who believe differently.

This is, as much as anything, the lesson of 9/11: The defining belief of the suicide bombers was that they were engaged in a profoundly religious act, striking at the secular hearts of the infidels. Their degree of certitude cannot be doubted, and their last words almost certainly were "God is great."

Though he has attempted to separate the terrorists from their religion, Mr. Bush invokes his own faith in his call to "disarm" (the preferred euphemism for attack) Iraq. Having identified Saddam Hussein as evil, it only remains to remove him to achieve good. If this seems a simple-minded solution to a complex problem, it's because it is. That's the beauty of dividing the world into two camps: us and the evildoers. All ambiguity and moral qualms evaporate.

In words that echo Richard Nixon's call to arms in Vietnam, Mr. Bush says, "The price of doing nothing exceeds the price of taking action." As usual, we seem to have only two choices.

In 1993, just before running for governor of Texas, Mr. Bush told a Jewish reporter that only believers in Jesus go to heaven. Contained in that statement was a foreshadowing of the arrogance that now amazes (and frightens) much of the world as he prepares to impose a Pax Americana on an Arab country. The justification here is that we are bringing freedom to the Iraqi people - whether or not they have asked for it. This is, in the president's words, "God's gift to every human being in the world."

There is a story told of a man who is looking for something under a streetlight. A passer-by asks what he is looking for.

"My keys," says the man.

The passer-by helps him search for a while, then asks, "Are you sure this is where you dropped them?"

"Actually," the man replies, pointing, "I dropped them over there."

"Then why are you looking here?" asks the passer-by.

"Because this is where the light is," replies the man.

Why are we attacking Iraq and not the much more evidently dangerous and belligerent North Korea? Because we think we can defeat the Iraqis easily and at minimum expense in American lives.

We could be wrong, of course. The eventual cost of this adventure could exceed what we are willing to pay. But even to contemplate such a pre-emptive attack contravenes our historical reluctance to make war first and is a violation of the sense of fairness and proportionality that we consider to be bedrock American values. Former President Ronald Reagan defined the former Soviet Union as "the Evil Empire," but he did not attack it. We are all alive now as a result.

With the capture of an important al-Qaida suspect, we speculate about whether representatives of our government should torture him (or perhaps turn him over to another government that will). What's happening to us? Do we imagine that because we believe that God is on our side we have the right to do anything to anyone in the name of protecting ourselves? How much like our enemies do we have to become before we sacrifice those values that we are ostensibly defending?

Perhaps Mr. Bush should pay more attention to Mark 8:36: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran and Johns Hopkins-trained psychiatrist who practices in Columbia.

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