The sight of the buildings burning on TV. The smoke pouring out of the rows of windows. A body sailing in the air. The plane flying into the building, exploding. The building seeming to give like cloth.
The piles of dust and dust, debris and debris, faces coated with it, walking among the rubble, body parts everywhere under the dust. Human beings connected with a cell phone on a plane, a husband saying goodbye to a wife, a wife to a husband, knowing they are going to die.
The moment of acceleration before the plane hits the buildings, dives into the earth. The hundreds and hundreds of individual deaths: burned by fire, crushed, bones broken. Sailing in the air for dozens of seconds before landing--a choice of death better than burning, desperate choices. A moment before, drinking coffee, answering the phone, now, trapped on a rooftop, the heat from below, the fear, decision if it's going to end, end it myself--a couple holds hands and drops together through the air.
Such sights and sounds repeated over and again, on television, until the very seeing hides seeing--numbness quickly sets in. This is all a television show, a movie, a special effect: It is unreal, it is not normal. Then the platitudes: It's a new idea, a new era, this is Pearl Harbor, worse than Pearl Harbor, we are at war. The president speaks. The moments of silence. God Bless America, the familiar. This shall not stand. The anger: revenge, who did it, track them down, Osama bin Laden. Palestinian folk handing out candy on the street. Arab-Americans fearful, fights in high schools, insults, anger.
We dig in the rubble of our own hearts, looking for the feeling. When we understand the pain of individuals, we are touched--when we view the whole panorama abstractly, as televised images repeated, we lose touch. The spectacle erases the particular: the giant building, the huge plane, the enormous rubble. These images take over, and only when we are reminded of particular human suffering can we begin to feel again. Our fear begins, then in time our fear is layered over in dust. We too are buried under the rubble of our everyday lives. We don't want to feel, don't want to know.
But we are afraid and also, at the sight of death, we are angry. We cannot help being angry. We do not yet know the enemy, but we already have an enemy because anger needs an object It is impossible to sustain our anger without an object.
Yes, anger is normal, healthy in the sense that it is not numbness. Anger, rage at our helplessness, fear, these are normal responses. The desire to help, to give blood, give money, to come up with answers, to rally behind political leaders--all this is normal. But is the anger good as a long-term condition?
Those who live in anger, whose consciousness is daily stewed in it, over time are damaged. We know this physiologically, we know this psychologically. We need to understand it spiritually. At the physiological level a constant state of anger is bad for the heart. Anger produces toxins and poisons, irritants in the blood.
At the psychological level, anger is a feedback loop. Anger produces anger. There is no evidence that "releasing" or "expressing" anger relieves it--that is based on the metaphor of anger as a kind of steam pressure that builds up. But this does not fit experience: Those who use angry words, conjure up angry images, get angrier and angrier. Their consciousness becomes steeped in anger.
At the wisdom level, anger and realism are not compatible. The angry person is convinced there is only one way of seeing a situation. An angry person is out of touch with reality in the sense of being out of touch with the wholeness of life, with the interconnectedness of life. An angry person stands outside that interconnectedness, that web of life, and sees all that belongs with him on one side, and all that threatens him on the other. It is the world of dualism, us and them--magnified and intensified.
Anger is preoccupying. Anger takes over consciousness. Anger sees more causes for anger everywhere it looks. Anger is self-satisfied and self-justifying, anger is righteous and right. And so anger becomes a god; that is, anger controls the person's every action and every perception. Anger's knowledge pretends it is omniscient, anger's power pretends it is omnipotent over the individual possessed by anger, as a person in a trance is possessed by a deity. This is why the Talmudic sages equated anger with idolatry. "Regard," they said, an angry person "as an idolater, because such are the wiles of the Tempter: Today he says to him, 'do this,' tomorrow he tells him, do that" until he bids him, "Go and serve idols" and he goes and serves them (Shabbat 105b). Anger replaces judgment. It is so overwhelming that it comes between the person and the divine.
According to the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, the sages have "hyperbolized in denouncing anger and fury, and the severest among their teachings is their saying, 'Everyone who is given to anger it is as if he has worshiped an idol.' They juxtaposed this with the statement, 'Neither let there be a strange god in you [i.e. anger] nor shall you bow down to a foreign god [i.e. idolatry]' (Psalms 81:10), meaning to say that the two matters are equal."
Elsewhere Maimonides writes, "an angry person--his life is not worth living."
We are in a trap today. We feel anger and we cannot help feeling it, but we should know that constant anger is a danger to us physically, psychologically and spiritually.
There is no simple answer. Anger such as we are feeling today seeks an
enemy. It also seeks a release in an act of retribution or revenge. And yet
the reality does not change, expressed in Buddhist terms in the Dhammapadda:
Anger only produces anger;
Violence produces violence
How do we end anger and violence? We find our way out of the cycle. This is not the easy thing to do. It is the hardest struggle, both individually and collectively. Do we love our enemies? Do we love those who murder us and murder our children and our family and friends? Can we even think in those terms?
I don't know. I feel conflicted in my own soul. I would say though that in this state of anger I am also numb to my connection to others. As I have been numb in the past. This pain and anger we are feeling, others in the world have felt. We have walled ourselves off from it, with indifference, with ignorance, with our own sense of self-satisfaction. We have built huge walls against it psychologically, as tall as the Twin Towers--and now those walls have fallen down and we are in agony and anger tells us we must do to someone else what was done to us.
Does anyone's anger justify the violence of September 11, 2001? No. Absolutely not. Does our anger at that violence justify violence of our own in return?
If we are able, we have the right to pursue, discover, and punish those who committed, planned, or aided these attacks. If the sponsor is a foreign power, we have the right to declare war. If we love our loved ones, we have that right and duty. But at the same time, if we go along with the anger, contempt, and revenge in our hearts that normally accompany such duty, then we will become the image of what we pursue: bloodthirsty, heartless, and cruel. For those are the attributes of the idol, anger.
People in America today don't use the word revenge; they speak of closure, settling accounts. But if anger and violence are cycles, there is no closure and there is no settling of accounts. Our anger costs us every time we use it. There's no simple end to it. There is no simple answer, and those who, in their rage, think there is are turning themselves into what they hate.