Mark Hanson Commentary: “Affirming Our Humanity”

The news is saturated with violence and our responses to it: the Boston bombings, school shootings, and the everyday violence around the world we take little notice of. We see the worst of what humanity is capable, and often in response, the best. The display of compassion for the Boston victims is inspirational. But is it also possible that we could be inspired to seek a less violent world? For the tragedy in violence lies not just with the victims, but also in the seeds that give rise to it and the vengeance that it drives.

Perhaps the place to start is recognizing that the fear violence generates becomes the enemy of one of the most important tasks we have, ethically, as human beings, which is not to deny the very humanity of those we fear. Doing so puts morality itself at risk. And it is not only among the first victims of violence, it is also among its primary causes.

A most egregious example of this was lost among last week’s headlines, namely, the findings of a nonpartisan, independent review of U.S. interrogation and detention policies since the 9/11 attacks. The review, conducted by the Constitution Project, concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that responsibility for the practice went to the nation’s top officials. Prisoners were subjected to techniques that the United States in the past has prosecuted as international war crimes. The prohibition of torture, and foundation of human rights, is rooted in the affirmation of the moral status of every human being, no matter who they are. This is a core principle of Western civilization.

The Obama administration has shown no interest in prosecuting those responsible. And despite a laudable change in policy that now prohibits torture, the president’s noble goal of closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay within the first hundred days of his first term has still not been met. On April 14th, the New York Times published a letter from a Guantanamo prisoner who has been held there for eleven years with no trial and no charges. He is being force fed along with several others, a practice the report calls abuse.

The knee-jerk reaction of some people after the Boston bombings was to call for the suspects to be tried as enemy combatants, moves that would deny rights of American citizens. Some congressmen called for restrictions on immigration. Even worse, New York State Senator Greg Ball, claiming to speak on behalf of many Americans, called for the surviving Boston bombing suspect to be tortured. How easy it becomes.

Affirming the humanity of an enemy in no way defends or justifies what they do. It does not sympathize with their causes or absolve them of responsibility. Nothing can justify the Boston bombings, or the 9/11 attacks. Outrage and calls for justice are appropriate and understandable responses, and I share them. But as ethical human beings, the hard thing to do is not to allow anything to prompt us to deny any person their humanity, however hard it is to find, because it is that commitment which keeps us wedded to the most central tenets of human rights. And, just as important, it may lessen the level of violence to which our world has escalated.

Violence relies on the denial of the humanity of the other. War is facilitated through this denial. It is easier to kill those people who don’t belong to your group.

Nonviolence, on the other hand, relies on affirming humanity. As Clemson University professor Todd May writes, “In all but the most extreme cases, nonviolence summons us to recognize that humanity even when it cannot serve as the basis for negotiation or resolution. It demands that we who act do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other. It demands the acknowledgment that we are all fragile beings, nexuses of hope and fear, children of some mother and perhaps parents to others: that is, no more and no less than fellow human beings in a world fraught with imponderables.”

Granted, strategies of nonviolence will not likely stop extremists such as the Boston bombers. But the important point is that we don’t allow even extreme cases to erode our most fundamental moral sensibilities, central to how we treat all those to whom we have ethical obligations, of various kinds. As professor May writes: “Those who come to our shores, whatever our policy toward them, must be seen as human beings seeking to stitch together a decent life rather than as mere parasites upon our riches. Those who are unhealthy must be seen as more than drains upon our taxes but instead as peers that, but for good fortune, might have been us.”

The fear generated by violence cannot be allowed to win. The perpetrators of awful violence ignored the humanity of their victims. As we seek justice and a less violent world, we must take care not to repeat their most grievous offense.

Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.

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