To return to the Abu Ghraib abuses, torturers are planting horrible seeds in their own hearts and minds. Unfortunately, the same is true for nations. There's nothing mystical about it - we can see it happening right now. And "collective karma" can play out for generations.
Where does individual spiritual practice - or religious practice - fit in? The ability to act responsibly, to act ethically, is not simply a matter of having the "right" beliefs. Think of all the things that are being done in the name of God and Allah!
From a Buddhist perspective, there has to be some inner cultivation of character, a process that ideally continues throughout one's life. Buddhists make some radical claims in this area. For example, the Dalai Lama says, "Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way."
You have said that engaged Buddhists are trying to apply ancient teachings to present situations. How might Buddhism help us respond to the current crisis in Iraq?
A starting point is not to turn away from suffering. Our first impulse is usually to push bad news aside, to tell ourselves that it's not really our concern. We're afraid that if we were to let all the suffering in, it would overwhelm us. But Buddhism teaches that if you are able to stay open, even momentarily, what comes up is compassion. Not only do we feel horror at seeing these pictures, we can also feel sorry for the victims and the perpetrators. Feelings of empathy are reminders of our deep interconnectedness.
If Buddhists ran the world, how would they handle those who disrupt social harmony?
In other words, how would crime and punishment be handled in a Buddhist-inspired society? That's a good question. It's safe to assume that there are always going to be offenders and dangerous folks who need to be controlled. The current system relies on punitive justice, and it's not working very well. In contrast, transformative justice seeks to heal victims, heal offenders, and address the conditions that give rise to crime. Today, Buddhists are very involved in prison reform in the United States and elsewhere, so this is not just a hypothetical question.
Let's say that Buddhists were running a military prison in Iraq, and it was necessary to extract information from detainees to prevent more car bombs or other acts of violence. How would Buddhists handle the interrogation?
The Geneva Convention has explicit rules about the treatment of prisoners. The basic guideline is one that all religions would agree with: Don't treat a prisoner inhumanly. Don't deny his or her humanity. That approach may in fact be more effective in getting information.
Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Dalai Lama said, "The real antidote to terrorism in the long run is compassion, dialogue - peaceful means - even with terrorists." Is that hopelessly naïve, or is it a deeper kind of realism?