War exposes a disturbing truth: there is little separating the oppressor from the oppressed. Blinded by hate and ideology, handed unlimited power to use lethal force, absolved of moral choice by the state or dominant authority, wrapped in the absolutism of nationalism or of religious or ethnic chauvinism, numb to emotion, human beings need little to turn into monsters.
The power to indiscriminately snuff out human lives is seductive and intoxicating, especially to those who came from positions of powerlessness. It hands to killers the god-like ability to strut and posture as titans, able to force others to cater to perverse and degenerate whims, able to instill fear, even terror, in those around them. In wartime there are the all-powerful and the all-powerless. This vast divide, one I witnessed in the wars I covered in Central America and later the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia, creates a demented world where the forces of death reign supreme. Darkness resides in all of us. It must be kept at bay.
“Friendship opens up the world to us by insulating us against passions that narrow our sympathies,” Gray writes. “It gives us an assurance that we belong in the world and helps to prevent the sense of strangeness and lostness that afflicts sensitive people in an atmosphere of hatred and destruction. When we have a friend, we do not feel so much accidents of creations, impotent and foredoomed.”
Those who are most adept at carrying out violence have been rendered numb. They lack self-awareness and therefore lack a conscience. They do not have real friends. They seek to become God. The more disconnected they are, the more efficient they become as killers. Zealots and fundamentalists, and these can come in secular form as we see with “new atheists” such as Sam Harris, commit the greatest heresy possible—they externalize evil. They seek to rid the world of this evil, always personified in other human beings, and they become agents of evil.
The religious life is not designed to make us happy, or safe, or content. It is not designed to make us whole or complete. It is not designed to free us from anxieties and fear. It is designed to save us from ourselves, to make possible human community, to let us see that the greatest force in life is not power or reason, but love.
In every conflict I covered, whether in the Middle East or the former Yugoslavia, it was those rare moral individuals able to cross cultural, religious, and ethnic lines who best vaccinated themselves from hate. They had the capacity for genuine friendship. They saw in the enemy their own face. Once the war began, these relationships and their radical individualism, often rooted in religious faith, saved them, although they as distinct individuals did not always survive.
A polarized world—one where we retreat into our own tribe, where we lack the linguistic, historical, and cultural skills to engage others, where we refuse to confront the evil within us—dooms us. Ignorance fosters fear. Fear fosters hatred. Hatred sees violence as salvation.
The road to redemption leads outwards into other cultures and communities, ones that take time and effort to understand. It is rooted in self-awareness. It is rooted in the strength, fundamental to faith, to be a moral individual. It is rooted in the acceptance that when we stand with the oppressed we are often treated like the oppressed. The courage to take this stand, no matter what the cost, nurtures the goodness that is also within us. It is the expression of faith.