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First they came for the communists, but I was not a communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the socialists and the trade unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.
– Pastor Martin Niemoeller.

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Standing Shoulder to Shoulder - Thursday, October 07, 2010 at 00:01

 

Standing Shoulder to Shoulder

Even While We Argue Politics

David C. Stolinsky, MD
Oct. 7, 2010

 

http://www.donnapartow.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/muskox.jpg

Calls to come together as Americans usually follow elections. The winners mean, “Let’s get together on our terms.” The losers mean, “Can’t we all just get along?” But as an opinion columnist − not to say opinionated − I feel the need to say something now, even before the election.

We conservatives have deep political and philosophical differences with liberals. But if we can’t find common ground, it really won’t matter who wins in November. Whoever wins, we will continue nasty, partisan squabbling among ourselves, while our enemies grow stronger.

I am reminded of a nature show I saw on TV. The subject was animals of the arctic. Most impressive were musk oxen, which resemble long-haired, long-horned bison. But what impressed me was not that they looked like hairy cows.

What I found admirable about musk oxen was their behavior. When threatened by wolves, their only natural enemy, the herd forms a circle. On the outside are the long-horned adults, which stand shoulder-to-shoulder with lowered heads. Inside the circle are the young. No wolf would dare attack that solid wall of horns.

Domestic cattle descend from wild cattle that may have behaved similarly. Their herd instincts allowed them to survive the dangers of the prehistoric world, from cave bears to saber-tooth cats. That is, they survived until they encountered prehistoric humans, who bred them for more docile behavior, shorter horns − and more tender meat.

Domestic cattle no longer can protect themselves effectively, except by running away. They have forgotten how to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their comrades, and they do little to protect their young. But we care for them, and we have eliminated most of the predators that preyed on them. From the cows’ limited point of view, their lack of protective instincts no longer matters.

Domestic cattle are peaceful, useful animals. But they make really poor role models. Musk oxen are much better for that purpose. So why is it that so many people who call themselves “civilized” appear to have selected cows to emulate?

I recall reading that a 10-year-old boy was kidnapped at knifepoint while playing near his home. Neighbors and police searched for 16 days, when his naked body was found in a field, his limbs bound with duct tape. The townspeople turned the search for the boy into a search for the murderer, but they were urged by the victim’s mother to avoid anger and get on with their lives.

Many pop psychologists and even religious leaders echo this advice, but is it good advice? Surely relatives and friends of the victim should do whatever lessens their pain.  If avoiding anger at the criminal, or even forgiving him and praying for him, helps to relieve their suffering, of course they should do so.

But what about the rest of us, who didn’t know the victim? Should we avoid anger and just get on with our lives? The key question is this: What is the proper response of civilized people to violent crime or terrorism?

Those who advise us not to express anger at the guilty may be inadvertently encouraging us to express it at the innocent. This is true in personal life, where the man who had a bad day at work comes home and takes it out on his family. It is also true in political life.

Some Muslim leaders encourage their people to blame 9/11 on “the Americans” and “the Jews.” Iranian “President” Ahmadinejad is a notorious example. Rather than blaming their own corrupt, bungling, tyrannical governments for their poverty, technological backwardness and lack of human rights, Middle Eastern people are encouraged to blame “the others” for all their problems.

Anger can be destructive, especially in the family. But anger can also be constructive, if it is properly aimed.

● Anger directed at kidnappers and child molesters can lead to stricter laws and more awareness − and thus to increased safety for children.

● Anger directed at greedy, corrupt politicians can lead to the election of more honest candidates.

● Anger directed at egomaniacal despots can lead to democratic reforms.

● Anger directed at terrorists who kill innocent civilians can lead to greater vigilance at home − and swifter retribution abroad.

Compassion is a virtue, but it also must be directed at those who deserve it. Compassion for victims is appropriate, of course. But compassion alone is unlikely to lead to anything but more victims, who will need more compassion.

We are told by critics that we have caused “many thousands” of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. This figure is probably exaggerated, and many of the casualties were caused by the Taliban. But no war ever was fought without innocent deaths. These deaths should be blamed on those who started the war, not on those who are doing their best to end it.

There were millions of civilian casualties in World War II, but the German and Japanese leaders were to blame for having started an aggressive war in the first place. Should we have left the Nazi and Japanese imperialist regimes in power? Would that have shown our compassion − or our cold indifference?

We are told by critics that we should “see the point of view” of terrorists, and that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Fortunately, during World War II we were not told that we should “see the point of view” of Nazis, or that “one man’s concentration-camp guard is another man’s freedom fighter.”

In the absence of anger at criminals, compassion tends to be felt for both victims and criminals, thus blocking effective action against criminals. Compassion for “everyone” really amounts to compassion for no one − and insensitivity to the pain of victims. Apathy and cowardice are cloaked in the mantle of kindness.

What, after all, is a civilized person? I believe it is one who is not only saddened by the tragic, but also angered by the infuriating, disgusted by the revolting, and outraged by the atrocious. Some would claim that a civilized person is one who remains calm in the face of the infuriating, revolting and atrocious. But this description fits a cow better than a human being.

If we want an animal role model, the musk ox is far preferable to the cow. Musk oxen feel solidarity with their own, but they have absolutely no desire to “see the point of view” of wolves. No musk ox ever confused a wolf with a freedom fighter. Musk oxen stand shoulder-to-shoulder to protect one another, and especially their young, from predators. Domestic cattle have lost this ability, though they do make a more tender meal.

Group cohesion seems at first glance to reduce individual freedom. But when predators are roaming nearby, lack of cohesion easily degenerates into chaos, allowing the predators to pick us off one by one. Of course, cows are unable to recognize this fact. They graze contentedly, oblivious to the wolves circling in the shadows.

The world of musk oxen is dangerous. So is ours. We would do well to emulate their ability to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. We would do well to keep this in mind while we engage in our periodic political disputes. The wolves would like nothing better than to see the cattle preoccupied with squabbling among themselves over a choice patch of grass, while the pack prepares to enjoy beef tartare.

There are many crucial issues that divide conservatives and liberals. No one should minimize these differences. But we must also remember the ties that bind us together − the Judeo-Christian and American values that conservatives share with many (but by no means all) liberals. There are people who vote Democratic out of habit, or because of media propaganda, but who share many conservative values. Conservatives need to reach out to these people.

Without those values, we won’t survive as a nation or a civilization. But it won’t matter, because won’t deserve to survive. All those who share those values need to stand shoulder to shoulder, regardless of their political labels.

Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: dstol@prodigy.net.

www.stolinsky.com