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Q&A: Terrorism's ethical components

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csmonitor.com: So how does the US deal with the cause and not the symptom?

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Kidder: We do this in a very long-term way. Think of it this way. This being a message system, it attacks the symbols of that message. So you pick out a symbol that has to do with America's international economic strength.

Fortunately, from their point of view, there was not only one tower, there were two. That means you could run a plane into first tower, which nobody could've seen, the television cameras weren't there, and once that tower is burning, and all the television cameras are on it, then you wait until you're sure it's all on national television live, and then you run the plane into the second tower.

See what I mean? You're getting people's attention absolutely riveted, because they've seen it in real time. You're attacking not only the symbol of the nation's economic dominance around the world, but you're also attacking, of course, the military center in Washington.

Now, what I find disheartening in all of this, is that we've allowed ourselves as a nation, to let the most important symbols of who we are be the symbols of our economic and military power. Surely, this country stands for more than that. Surely, there is a sense of humanity, a sense of grace, a sense of caring for those less privileged, a sense of human rights.

All these kinds of things are powerful symbols, but we've got to work harder at making those be the things that, when people think about America, they think about those things. In that sense, the terrorists have a point. We haven't made those kinds of symbols the things that stand out in the minds of those overseas; it's something else.

csmonitor.com: Do terrorists work from a different set of ethical criteria? Are they insane, are they operating from a mind set that totally justifies their acts, are they aware of the evil of their own acts?

Kidder: One of the things we've discovered from the work that we do at the Institute for Global Ethics is that there really is a core of shared moral values that you find anywhere. You find people all around the world talking about the need for honesty and respect and responsibility and fairness and compassion. And those really are the five big things that we find again and again.

Oddly enough, it doesn't work to condemn the terrorists, condemn the Nazis, condemn the Mafia as people who have no values whatsoever. Within their context, they have a very well-developed sense of what they think responsibility is, what truth is, what compassion. And, to their own members, and within their own families, they will extend those things very powerfully. The problem is that the boundary within which they put those into practice is so small, so narrow, it won't extend beyond the brotherhood of this particular terrorist cell, for instance. And that allows them to treat other people as simply objects – they're beyond moral concern.

One of the great achievements of Western culture and one of the great achievements of America, is that we keep trying to push the boundary outward. 150 years ago, it didn't include African-Americans. 100 years ago, it didn't include women. We keep pushing that boundary outward. Our moral concern is dedicated to everybody who comes into our frame of consciousness. That's a very different thing from the terrorist mindset which is an extremely narrow one. Those who study terrorism point out that there's an interesting psychological – psychometric, as it were – parallels between the mind of a terrorist and the mind of a teenager.

Now, this isn't meant to condemn teenagers in any way. But it's meant to suggest that, as people mature, they move away from a sense of the world being made up of black and white; everything's either violently good, or violently bad, and there's no nuance to it. They move away from this notion of their own invincibility. In that sense, what you're dealing with in terrorism is something like a case of arrested development; an unwillingness to move into an understanding of the nuance, the gray areas, the moral difficulties; figuring out what constitutes ethics in a complex world.

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