Friday, October 06, 2006

A Silver Lining In A Very Dark Moral Cloud

A shorter version of this essay appears in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Amish school shooting in Lancaster County is a tragedy beyond words. As a teacher of ethics, it is often difficult to face students' questions about horrific acts of this sort. In the face of such evil, there is nothing to say but to express dismay and sadness. But in the midst of such horror, sometimes it is possible to see a glimmer of the best part of humanity.

Immediately following the incident, mental health professionals were dispatched to help answer questions and tend to the needs of families and members of the close-knit community. In an interview with National Public Radio, one member of the team reported that the community expressed concern not only for the victims and their immediate families, but also for the family of the perpetrator,

"They were talking about how they could support and help his family. They were planning on sending a contingent over, perhaps bringing them some food. They had already gotten to the point of forgiveness."
In a time of shock of grief, these people were still able to keep themselves open to the pain of others, especially those who were related to the source of their own pain.

It is too easy when tragedy has befallen us to lapse into black and white thinking and condemn by association anything remotely connected with those who are guilty. Our long-nurtured tribal mentality displays its ugliness across the globe, whether it is the killing of relatives to protect the honor of the family in Asia and the Middle East, the bulldozing of the homes of the families of suicide bombers in the territories occupied by Israel, or the condemnation of Islam as a religion and all Muslims as we have heard from Christians in this country, including Franklin Graham who referred to Islam as "a very wicked and evil religion." It is all too easy when we are angry, hurt, or grieving to dehumanize others in an attempt to reconcile our baser craving for retribution with our more noble desire for justice.

But with the Amish families, we saw both terrible suffering and an authentic understanding that there were others in pain as well. Doing the right thing requires rational consideration. In the case of hard ethical dilemmas this thought can become very intricate and subtle. But the initial ethical impulse that forms the true basis for morality is empathy, the ability to understand and feel the anguish of someone else, the deep sense that other people are, in fact, people.

At a time when it would have been understandable, even forgivable, for those closest to the atrocious act to ignore the agony of the perpetrator's family, to lash out in an attempt to claim the space needed for them to work through their own grief, they instead opened their hearts to these fellow sufferers. This was truly an act of great ethical maturity.

I hope that we all can learn a lesson from them. In a world where we have begun a "war on terrorism" because we had become victims of the hatred of others, we need to learn to seek justice like these Amish families who were able to fully feel their own anger, grief, and despair while allowing everyone to retain their humanity. I solemnly hope that their wisdom and maturity in this time of great distress and sorrow may rub off on the rest of us.