One has only to consider the sectarian strife in
Ireland, and the events in
the Middle East over the past two decades, to be acutely aware of the wisdom
of separating church and state in national governments.
Yet as individuals, when confronted by a crisis that affects
our nation, most of us search for answers, by looking within ourselves, and
also by consulting others, including the teachings of our respective
religions. For as the later Zoroastrian texts remind us, wisdom is both
innate, and acquired by the ear.
September 11, 2001 and its
aftermath was a crisis by any standards. It was a defining moment in the
history of terrorism. Not because it happened to us in our country –
indeed, the people who were killed were from countries around the world –
but because of the sheer magnitude of the terrorists' disregard for human
life and suffering, without being motivated by self defense.
In my struggle to come to terms with this tragedy, I have
wondered how we should respond to terrorism within the framework of
According to Zarathushtra, we have an obligation to actively
fight what is wrong, wherever we find it – in the small day to day events of
our lives, and also in the great events that affect nations and our world.
We all believe in the freedom to hold differing points of
view. We all believe in the freedom to speak and act. But, as Mr. Justice
Holmes pointed out so many years ago, there is a difference between freedom
and license. True freedom requires responsibility. No one has the right to
incinerate thousands of people in the absence of self defense, simply to
make a statement, or worse yet, deliberately to cause harm. Clearly, that
is evil by any standard of decency. As Zarathushtrians, we have an
obligation to actively oppose and fight it. The question that arises is:
How? How do we fight it?
According to Zarathushtra, the most powerful weapon we have
for fighting evil, starts with good thinking, vohu mano, reason and
intelligence committed to goodness. But good thinking alone is not enough.
It has to be translated into action.
Few would quarrel with the expression of these ideals. The
difficulty, as always, arises in trying to implement our ideals. What
actions should a good thinking mind take to fight this kind of evil?
Obviously, our immediate need is to stop terrorists from
continuing to wreck death and destruction. Our government has embarked on a
comprehensive worldwide effort that includes a broad network of initiatives
– including law enforcement, economic, diplomatic, and military initiatives
– all targeted against these terrorists as well as the governments that
support them, so as to deprive them of the ability to continue to wreck
death and destruction. Our government has also made it clear that it is the
terrorists and their supporters that we will target, and not any race or
religion or the civilians of any country, who themselves have suffered so
cruelly from these same terrorists. To me, this wise, balanced, and
restrained approach is an expression of vohu mano, of intelligence
committed to goodness. It recognizes the need to use force, in a manner
that minimizes harm to innocent civilians. It's purpose is to neutralize
the terrorists' ability to harm, and not to wreck wanton retaliation in an
indiscriminate manner to satisfy feelings of vengeance. I hope and pray
that we are equally wise in implementing these plans.
If we use force, will there be civilian casualties?
Undoubtedly there will be. But if we fail to destroy terrorists and those
who support them, the alternative will be many more civilian casualties, as
they continue to wreck death and destruction with impunity. That is not a
I realize that any military option, with its attendant loss
of life, is not an easy alternative. Most of us admire the successful
non-violent strategies of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Unfortunately, non-violence only works when you have a decent adversary. An
adversary who finds it repugnant to attack and kill unarmed people who are
acting in a non-violent way to achieve basic human rights. Terrorists are
not so constrained. Nor do they care about human rights. And recent
history makes it clear that economic sanctions alone cannot stop terrorists
or the governments that support them.
But what of Zarathushtra? Does he mandate non-violence in
such circumstances? It is a basic teaching of Zarathushtra that material
things are not, in and of themselves, evil. It is how we use them that
creates good or evil. If military power is used to oppress, that use is
evil. If it is used to protect or defend, that use is good. But in either
event, the implements of war, in and of themselves, are neither good nor
All things considered, I believe that the response proposed
by our government, including carefully targeted military action, is a good
way to oppose terrorism, consistent with our values, on an immediate,
But as long as individuals are motivated to commit acts of
terrorism, such initiatives alone will not be enough to eliminate such
acts. Good thinking requires that we understand and address the causes that
According to Zarathushtra, the ultimate way to defeat evil or
what is wrong, is to change minds, so that people will stop choosing it,
stop giving it life and substance with their actions. The truth of his
teaching was brought home to me when I heard on the news that hundreds of
people in certain countries were demonstrating in support of the acts of
terrorism that took thousands of innocent lives on September 11, 2001. "How
could this be?" I wondered. "Fanatics are one thing. But how could
average people, living every-day lives, support such inhumanity?"
We might never be able to change the minds of some fanatics.
With some people, we just have to make sure we render them incapable of
harming, and leave the changing of their minds to God and the law of
consequences. However, there are many thousands of ordinary people who are
not fanatics, but who have been influenced by fanatics. If we are ever to
succeed in eliminating terrorism, we need to change the minds of these
thousands of ordinary people. Because if we fail, such people will continue
to be the resource pool from which fanatics will recruit succeeding
generations of terrorists. That is the burning issue of our times.
How do we do this? How do we increase understanding – ours
and theirs? How do we change hatred into friendship? How do we change
prejudice into tolerance? How do we deliver deceit into the hands of
truth? With vohu mano, good thinking, reason and intelligence
committed to goodness.
We need to understand the reasons that enable fanatics to
recruit ordinary people into terrorists, and then act to eliminate these
reasons on all fronts. Such actions might include stopping oppression and
injustice – both fertile breeding grounds for terrorism. Such actions might
include making accurate information available to people, so that they are
not misled, or conditioned, into believing the misinformation of
terrorists. Such actions might include building the kind of market forces
that give these people a chance at life, instead of having nothing to lose.
Such actions may involve encouraging governments to stop misusing religion
to justify oppressive policies. Effective actions can only be determined
after we have a clear understanding of the causes. But unless we understand
and act to eliminate the causes that enable terrorists to recruit ordinary
people, our diplomatic, economic, law enforcement and military initiatives
will not bring about a lasting solution.
I would like to close with a few words from Zarathushtra
himself. Zarathushtra’s name for divinity is
the Wise Lord, or Wisdom. Zarathushtra lived in an age of great cruelty and
oppression. When asking for the Wise Lord's help, he did not ask for a
magical, ready-made solution. He understood that we ourselves have to find
the solutions to our problems, with Wisdom's help and with the help of each
other. So he asks the Wise Lord for the ideas, for the good thinking, to
help him find solutions.
Confronted by cruelty and oppression, he says to the Wise
"…I lament to
Thee. Take notice of it Lord,
offering the support
which a friend should grant to a friend.
Let me see the power of good thinking allied with truth." Y46.2.
through good thinking, (the course) of my direction..." Y50.6.
the Creator of existence shall promote
the true realization
of what is most healing
according to our wish." Y50.11
In concluding, I join in Zarathushtra's own wish and prayer
that we may translate good thinking into actions.
we be those who shall heal this world." Y 30.9.
come in the company of truth across the earth!" Y 50.5.
1. From the translation by Professor Insler in The
Gathas of Zarathushtra (Brill, 1975).