Let's start at the level of an American soldier in Iraq. I have been struck by the story of the young woman from West Virginia, Lynndie England, who appears in several of the Abu Ghraib pictures. She's 21. Why is her apparent normalcy so disturbing?
The Abu Ghraib photos point to something larger than the specific scenes caught on camera. One of the lessons of this tragedy, from a Buddhist standpoint, is that she is us. That could be my daughter or your niece or someone we might know. It's not as if there were just a few bad apples in a big barrel of good apples. In the frenzy of war, cruelty becomes acceptable behavior. As a nation, we are putting all these good apples - our soldiers - into a very rotten barrel.
Buddhism emphasizes the interconnectedness of the world, and this "interbeing" has no limit. Since I am part of the system that produced this war and these atrocities, then I too share the blame.
What else do the scenes from Abu Ghraib reveal?
They reveal an undeniable aspect of war that we would prefer to keep out of view. The death and mutilation going on in Iraq right now are much worse, and on a much larger scale, than what we're seeing in the photos. One of the oldest teachings in Buddhism is that violence begets violence. If you look at what has happened in the world since 9/11, the level of violence has increased dramatically. Now we are encountering the bounds of "an eye for an eye." As Gandhi said, that method will leave the whole world blind.
The prison guards are victims along with the prisoners. The guards have been overcome by fear and hatred to the point of losing touch with their own humanity. They are not in their right minds. They have stopped thinking of the prisoners as fellow human beings. Albert Schweitzer put it this way: "War makes us guilty of the crime of inhumanity."
Buddhism is known for advocating nonviolence. Is that realistic in this situation?
Nonviolence is indeed at the core of Buddhism. The first precept of moral behavior is "Do not kill. Cherish all life." Contemporary Buddhists believe that this principle is as applicable today as it was 2,500 years ago. Nonviolence has a force of its own, not to be underestimated.
Buddhism teaches that it is almost always possible to move in the direction of nonviolence, even though perfect nonviolence may be unattainable. This means that even in the midst of war, it is possible to honor the human rights of prisoners.
Does Buddhism have a "just-war" doctrine, as Christianity does?
Some Buddhists adhere to absolute pacifism; for them, all war is morally wrong. There are others who say that avoidance of war is always the ideal, but in some real-world situations the use of force may be required. Today's engaged Buddhists are working creatively on these questions. Whatever guidelines emerge, the starting point will remain the same: cause the least possible harm. Those who invoke just-war theory must also be willing to conclude that a particular war does not satisfy the necessary criteria, and therefore cannot be called just.
Is the notion of karma relevant here? Are we getting trapped in a vicious cycle of bad karma?
As you know, karma is about action and the consequences of action. All of our actions - and even our thoughts! - are continuously creating new karma. It's a dynamic process, unlike "fate." Buddhism holds that the laws of cause and effect apply in the realm of morality as well as the physical realm.
One traditional explanation uses seeds as a metaphor. We plant seeds of happiness in ourselves and others when we are kind, and we plant seeds of unhappiness when we treat others badly. Often the effects are not immediate. For example, in parent-child relationships, seeds planted in childhood may not blossom until much later in life.