The story being celebrated by Christians this season is that a long time ago a baby was born to a poor carpenter and his young wife.  The lived in a small town in the area of the Mideast known as Galilee.  The couple were traveling at the time, and, there being no space left in any inn, the baby was born in a barn, surrounded by farm animals.  The baby would grow to shake his world with a message which was the very essence of the Judaic religion into which he had been born but which, oddly enough, drove the institutional leaders of that religion to see him and his message as a threat so serious that they would ultimately seek to have him killed.


The man was not a revolutionary.  He was, rather, what might truly be called a fundamentalist.  He insisted that the core message of the religion into which he was born must be served above all, and that everything else, all the rules and rites and institutional trappings of that religion, made sense only insofar as they served that core message.


As it turns out, the message was not just at the heart of that great religion, Judaism, but was also the core message of all the great religious figures of human history.  The message is exceedingly simple:  Love one another.  By that, the man meant that all our meaning, all our value, all our significance, all our worth lies in being responsible for every human being we encounter.


What an odd message to be killed for.  And yet that death has been repeated around the world for all these thousands of years.  There remains in the world that same fear, and perhaps even hatred, of that simple message, a fear and hatred so strong that the murderers pervert the very message and so kill even in the name of that very man whose birth the Christians celebrate.


Here is a thought and a hope and a dream.  Suppose that everyone followed that simple message.  Suppose that all human beings sought only to make sure that they were  doing as much as possible to see that the others in their lives were honored and served.  There would indeed be joy, and that joy would be in this very world.


It is a dream, of course, and we will wake up to a world that does its best to drain us of that joy.  Just for this moment, I give myself the hope that all humans would hear this message that all humans know is where their real meaning lies.  I give myself that hope, and I send that wish to all of you.  I wish you real joy, real peace, real meaning.


American citizens are justifiably concerned about the threat of terrorist violence in the United States.  From 2001 to 2013, over 3000 people have been killed in the United States by terrorists.  The recitation, and the memories, are gruesome, from the twin towers to San Bernardino.  Those monstrous crimes have pushed American voters to list terrorism among their greatest concerns, and it is clearly affecting their choice of candidate for the presidency.  Likely Republican voters have listed terrorism as America’s number one problem.


We are all deeply concerned, as we should be, because innocent people are being killed by terrorists.  In 2004 alone, 74 people were killed by terrorists in the U.S., and in 2013, 20 people were killed by terrorists.


So we should be deeply concerned about deaths in such numbers.  Here, then, are some other numbers.  In the same period, 2001 to 2013, over 400,000 people were killed by guns in the United States, and in 2013 alone, over 13,000 people were murdered in the United States.  Yet crime is not a major issue for the voters, and gun control is actually denounced by a large part of the population.  Why is that?


I am going to hazard a guess.  Think about the instances of terrorism.  The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The attack at the Boston Marathon.  The attack at Fort Hood.  The attack at a center to help the disabled in San Bernardino.  There is a common thread here.  All of these attacks happened at places where we would least expect to see violence of any kind.


So, if we shudder at the 3000 deaths that happened in these places, why do we pay so little attention to the more than 400,000 people who died from guns in the same period?  If we face this honestly, do we have to admit that, to put it bluntly, we don’t care?  Are we saying that those violent deaths don’t matter because they don’t really affect us?  Are we assuming that those deaths are in “bad areas”, and, since we don’t live there, it is not our problem?  13,000 people are murdered, and we hardly spare a sigh, and in the same period 20 people are killed by terrorists and we are ready to throw away our most precious civil rights in our effort to avoid further terrorism?


Terrorism is a real and undeniable threat.  So are crimes like murder, rape, and the various financial crimes that strip our citizens of billions of dollars a year.  There is, however, a far greater threat, a threat that could destroy the very fiber of this nation.  The real threat is our growing commitment to the ideology of self-interest.


America was founded on an idea of responsibility for others.  We hold the indubitable truth that every human being — every human being — is born equal and born with inalienable rights.  That is a clear announcement of, and a clear commitment to, the fundamental view that our value comes, not from pursuing our own selfish interests, but from honoring and protecting the rights of all around us.  It is why we honor those who have dedicated, and in many cases surrendered, their lives to protect and defend others.  We don’t honor anyone just for amassing great wealth or seizing great power.  Think of your list of true heroes.  Think of those to whom we give the medal of honor or the medal of freedom.  You will not find Donald Trump or Carl Icahn there.  You will, however, find Rosa Parks and Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Gandhi.  These are not great because of what they gained for themselves but precisely for what they have done and what they have given for others.


We do have problems in America.  We should worry about the economy and the crime rate and terrorism.  Before we can even begin to solve these problems, however, we need to look to ourselves.  If we do, we might just run into the inconvenient truth so neatly put by Al Capp:  we have met the enemy, and he is us.





A wise mentor of mine, instructing me on the art of teaching, once gave me a rule that has applications far beyond the classroom.  He said that I should remember that, if one student fails to get my point, it is the student’s fault, but if many students fail to get the point, it is my fault.


If some lone, crazed individual decides to wreak havoc on us, the blame for that lies with that individual.  If, however, a whole group of people espouse some wild view that is damaging to society, we need to ask another question:  what is it that leads these people to commit themselves to such bizarre and destructive movements?


In the case of those who commit themselves to the monstrously perverse worldview of ISIS, the answer is no doubt complex.  It must, however, be addressed if we are ever to rid ourselves of the horror of this societal cancer.


David Brooks, in his December 8 New York Times Editorial, “How Radicals Are Made,” appeals to the analysis made many decades ago by Eric Hoffer.  People, says Brooks sacrifice themselves in the name of a larger cause, like ISIS, out of frustration:  “Their personal ambitions are not fulfilled.  They have lost faith in their own abilities to realize their dreams.”  Their commitment to a destructive cause, says Brooks, can only happen “when a once sturdy structure is in a state of decay or disintegration.”


I am not sure that Hoffer’s observations, directed toward the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, are altogether applicable to the evils of ISIS.  More importantly, however, and with all due respect to Mr. Brooks, we need to ask a far more difficult question:  what is it about us that contributes to people like the man and woman in San Bernardino committing to the heinous slaughter of completely defenseless and innocent people?


At the very least, we have to ask ourselves if we as a society fit the description of “a once sturdy structure in a state of decay or disintegration.”  History teaches us that the decay of any civilization does not appear evident until it is about to collapse.  To detect the signs of decay, I suggest that we need to see if our national and local conduct has wandered from accord with our founding ideals.  For Americans, those ideals are that all humans are created equal and that each human is endowed by her or his creator with certain inalienable rights.  As I read that ideal, it means that our society is grounded on responsibility for others.  Recent events, and recent political discourse, makes clear that a large part of our society places self-interest above that responsibility.  Left unchecked, the worldview of self-interest must necessarily contribute to the decay of our society.


The second and far more difficult question is why so many young people born and raised in America would find it appealing to either leave this country for the misery and savagery of the monstrous world of ISIS, or would decide that their meaning, their “salvation” if you will, lay in destruction and mass murder.


Frankly, I have no clue as to how to answer that question.  I only know this:  we must ask it and we must seek an answer that will help us to reduce or eliminate the desire in these young people to seek such a disastrous course of action.  The fact that it happens, the fact of such people as the couple in San Bernardino, is certainly a calamity.  It is also an opportunity for self-examination, an opportunity to make sure that we are being faithful to the ideal that has made the United States a beacon for the world.


A friend of mine, a dear and good friend, made the following statement:  “Obama is stupid.”  I found the statement stunning.  President Obama is a graduate of Harvard Law School, was editor of the Harvard Law Review, and was widely lauded for his performance as a professor of constitutional law at a prestigious law school.  Whatever one may think of his performance as president, “stupid” is a most unlikely adjective to describe him.


So why would my dear friend, a good and generous and hard-working man, call this President “stupid”?  The answer is simple:  prejudice.  Not prejudice based on race.  That is far too easy an explanation.  It is rather that my friend, an otherwise quite rational and observant person, has been thoroughly and expertly brainwashed by political propaganda structured to ignore reason and promote decisions based on anything other than reason.  Why would someone spend a king’s ransom on such propaganda?  Clearly because reasoned political discourse would not serve the user’s purpose, and because, if that purpose were clearly stated, people like my friend would reject it out of hand.


When a significant percentage of the population can be made to believe things that are patently untrue, whether that untruth favors the left or the right in the American political debate, the entire political arena is damaged.  What we need more than anything is honest debate, and that requires two things.  First, we need to know what we are seeking, and, second, we need to know, and genuinely respect, the views of those who oppose our own.


What are we seeking?  If we are Americans, we seek to protect and promote the American ideal that all humans are created equal and that every human being is endowed by her or his creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We are, in other words, committed to responsibility for others.  If our ultimate goal is our own private interests, then we stand against the American ideal.


Opposing views, in such a debate, are not about ideals.  They are rather about the best means of achieving our common ideals.  To choose those means we deem best, we must know the alternatives.  So, if you are what people call a liberal, then you cannot make a reasoned decision about even your own positions, without understanding and respecting the views of those whom people call conservative.


So what is a conservative?  In general, a conservative is one who believes that the American ideal is best achieved by limiting the role of government in the pursuit of those ideals.  To put that more positively, government plays a role only when it is clear that there is a community need that can best be served by having government involved.  So, for instance, we have a need as a nation for a military force to protect the nation’s interests.  A rational conservative would say that the entire nation should pay for a military capable of protecting us against any likely attack.  In the present world, that seems to be primarily a vigorous intelligence agency and a military equipped to attack imbedded terrorist groups.


A conservative generally concludes from experience that government expenditure on social welfare programs can, and often does, actually hinder the beneficiaries from improving their circumstances, and that, if anything, government should install programs encouraging people to be more active in improving their own circumstances.  So, for instance, welfare programs for the poor should be geared toward rewarding the recipient for working and discouraging those who would merely take advantage of such benefits without making any efforts at self-improvement.


How do we judge these various positions?  Simply by installing them and seeing if they work.  If private charities and private schools work better in raising the education levels of all children, then that is what we should promote.  If the private health care industry is controlling the cost of care and providing an adequate measure of health care for all, then that is what we should promote.  If private industry is best equipped to improve the environment, then that is what we should promote.


The bottom line is that the true political debate is not about personalities.  It is about issues.  Trump’s hair and Fiorina’s face and Rubio’s ability to drink water in public are all irrelevant.  It is only when all, liberal and conservative alike, address the issues and offer rational solutions that this country will make good choices and achieve good solutions.  Absent that, we do nothing but wield weapons that will end up destroying us.