2011-05-09

Egoism, or: how many people are in the woodwork?

Quite often I find myself lulled into the belief that most people think like I do about social and political issues. This would probably happen to most people who---like me, recently---are open and vocal about their opinions, and who meet little ideological opposition on a daily basis. The vast majority of my friends and acquaintances are intelligent, rational, open-minded, considerate, and sympathetic individuals. It's hard to disagree with people like that.

Most people I know subscribe to science (as far as it takes us), and are generally religious agnostics or atheists, or are religious more out of tradition or symbolism than out of fundamentalist belief in the words of holy books. Most of them are compassionate towards other people, even people they don't know, and are tolerant of "alternative" sexualities, foreign cultures, and even of abortion in certain cases.

But then, every time I get comfortable with the fact that lots of people share my standpoints of patient reasoning, compassion, and measured action, there is an election or a major news event that jars me from my complacence.

Where are the people who vote to put religion or creationism in public school textbooks? Where are the people who oppose homosexual marriage? Where do I find any of the 1 in 2 registered Republicans who think that Barack Obama was not born in the United States? Or any of the 1 in 4 Austrians who voted for a nationalist party in the last general election? As loud as I talk, I rarely get a response from any of these guys. But then, at election time they come out of the woodwork in droves. The woodwork must be much larger than I expected, and there must be millions of people hidden in corners where I---and unbiased information---might never find them.

This phenomenon proved itself true again this past Monday. Some right-wingers would call me "anti-American" (whatever the hell that means), but the general reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden scared me. Of course, I first heard the news on the drainage sewer of all news media, Facebook, so I guess I should have been prepared for unadulterated knee-jerk reactions. I don't know why it occurred to me to go to Facebook before any of the real news sites; it was a poor choice, I admit, but that doesn't change the fact that I encountered an enormous number over-excited status updates claiming, among other things, "victory for the United States of America" and "we got him". I wasn't sure if any or all of the "USA! USA!" posts were intended as sarcasm, and likewise about the posts of the YouTube video of Toby Keith's opportunistic post-9/11 ode to the kicking of terrorist ass.

I was immediately reminded of the second half of September 2001, when American flags and country songs mentioning American flags were not only a dime-a-dozen, as they say, but were also crammed down our throats. Back then, it felt like a punishable crime to say that we, as a country, shouldn't jump to conclusions, and that we should calm down and think about this before we act. Lots of such thoughts were branded un- or even anti-American. "We're probably going to do something really stupid," I said to a friend as I was in New York City three weeks after the WTC towers fell. It was hard to see anything but patriotism anywhere I looked. I'll preach solidarity and community as much as the next guy, but patriotism is just an untarnished brand of blind nationalism.

I'll go out on a limb here and admit it: I don't love my country nearly as much as I love the people in it. Call me un-American if you like, but that doesn't change the fact that a country is created by its people, and is by design an extension thereof. A flag and a name are merely symbols, and I love neither. I care for the people directly.

That being said, is there something unique about the American people that makes me more concerned about them than the others? Yes; I happened to be born among them, but that's it. Otherwise, they are fundamentally the same as everyone else on Earth, even if history has put the U.S. in a position of power and privilege. Once that power and privilege fade---and it will, as they always do---it will be more obvious than ever to Americans that people are people no matter where they are, what language they speak, what religion (if any) they practice, and how much stuff they possess.

So, yes, while the killing of Osama bin Laden was a victory of sorts, it wasn't first and foremost a victory for the United States of America or even a victory for justice. It was, above all, a victory for the defense of our safety as human beings. We can be happy and relieved that the world has been rid of a man who was once the greatest known immediate threat to human life.

We, as humans---and particularly for Americans, due to the target on our backs---can be happy to have reduced the threat of violence in our future, but to smile with the satisfaction of revenge is to ignore all of the steps that brought us to the current circumstance. Killing people is wrong, and can be justified perhaps only by weighing one life against many. Unfortunately, it seems that many people are rejoicing in the death itself, and they have forgotten that the only morally justifiable purpose of national defense is to prevent death and violence, even if death and violence themselves are the means to that end.

To all of you out there celebrating the revenge, I ask: under these or other circumstances, if the greater good demands it, are you able to, in fact, "turn the other cheek", as the saying goes?