Our country is rejoicing at the death of Osama bin Laden. The vanquishing of the enemy is powerful stuff. Most cannot help but be overjoyed when a sworn enemy is killed.
But the actual enemy has not been vanquished. The true enemy is not, and never has been, an individual, but rather a combination of dangerous ideologies, destructive psychological propensities, and unjust, damaging systems. Unfortunately, these did not die on May Day.
Osama bin Laden, as al-Qaeda’s leader, was certainly an enemy of the United States. The 9/11 attacks were an unprecedented horror, and the fact of their carefully premeditated evil makes them stand out among a long list of atrocities, but the rejoicing may actually threaten the real work and the great challenges that lie ahead.
The sad truth is that we are no closer after the death of Osama bin Laden to a world populated by people who have learned how to live sustainably, peaceably and humanely.
Looking below the surface
Vanquishing the enemy means looking below the surface evil to the ways in which rage, hatred, sociopathy and brainwashing occur, and attempting to find root causes and root solutions.
While it may feel satisfying, and deeply so for those who lost loved ones on September 11, Osama bin Laden’s death represents no solution to hatred and bigotry; minds easily influenced; actions determined more by situations and systems than by careful thought, reflection and analysis. These are the real and powerful roots of evil.
As Dr. Phil Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971, revealed, normal, mentally healthy young men can become perpetrators of evil (or conversely, impotent victims) within 48 hours, acting in ways indistinguishable from what occurred at Abu Ghraib, simply because they are placed in a situation of power over (or under) others (as guards or prisoners) within a dangerously influential system (prison).
And, as Dr. Stanley Milgram’s 1960s experiments on obedience to authority revealed, normal, mentally healthy men and women will deliver what they think are highly dangerous and even fatal electric shocks to fellow participants in an experiment simply because a man in a white lab coat tells them to.
Reflexively following leaders
Perhaps even more telling, this propensity toward blindly, reflexively following leaders, authorities and influencers is part of who we are, present in children, and not simply the result of what we have learned. Jane Elliott’s brown eye/blue eye exercises, also conducted in the 1960s, demonstrate how quickly and readily third graders accept the irrational notion that eye color dictates intelligence, worthiness, and goodness and become perpetrators of prejudice, hatred, and cruelty, (as well as victims of self-loathing and self-doubt), unable to resist the influence of a teacher who effectively brainwashes them to hate and reject others who are different. Sound familiar? We are all at risk of evil. We are all the potential “enemy.”
What this means is that we have a much greater challenge to rooting out evil than finding Osama bin Laden in a compound and killing him. We all know this, of course, but the rejoicing at Osama’s death could eclipse this understanding of what we are truly up against: ourselves and our ability to be manipulated; led astray from our deepest values of compassion, integrity, honesty, generosity and wisdom; and turned into perpetrators of evil because we have failed to root out the real causes of destruction and harm, and have stopped far short of the great goal of creating a peaceable world in which we can all thrive and survive.
Start with the kids
There is a way to confront our biggest enemy, and it lies with children, just as Jane Elliott knew when she taught her students about prejudice and hatred in her unforgettable and unconventional classroom exercise. That way is through schooling that teaches critical and creative thinking and problem-solving and that fosters reverence, respect and a sense of responsibility.
It is, in fact, the only way to cultivate healthy roots so that each of us has the capacity to resist the effects of a destructive environment — whether that environment is political, cultural, economic or ecological — and then transform that environment into systems that are more just, sustainable and humane.
All children need to understand humanity’s capacity to blindly follow (a shadow side of our great capacity to cooperate), so that they can defy hatred, myopia, and simplistic either/ors when these threaten to dismantle their ability to think critically, innovatively and deeply to address systemic problems and solve them wisely.
They need their curricula to meet the complex demands of a complex world. I’ve offered a vision of what such schooling might look like through my TEDx talk and here at Care2, and I believe that this is where we must turn our wholehearted attention. If we do so, perhaps we will make real progress in vanquishing the real enemy.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), which offers graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, linking human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection. IHE also offers online programs, workshops, and other resources for teachers, parents, and change agents. Zoe is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner, Claude and Medea, about 7th graders who become clandestine activists in New York City. Zoe has given a TEDx talk on solutionary education and blogs at www.zoeweil.com. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of L. Marie via Creative Commons.