Sunday, April 30, 2006

United 93 and the "Bonhoeffer Clause"

Well, there has been a certain amount of buzz around the release of United 93, the first movie to depict the events of 9/11. My wife and I went to see it on Friday. We came out reasonably impressed, almost despite ourselves. We both liked that no stars were cast, but rather unknown actors/actresses (the most we managed was 'Wait a minute, he/she looks familiar. Can't quite place them...'). Indeed, many of leading figures in the various air controls, FAA and NORAD headquarters were the actual people who were on duty that day. The style lets the action just flow and you do really get a strong feel for the chaos and 'fog of war' which beset both the civilian and military agencies struggling to work out a response to the 9/11 attacks. The frantic efforts of all parties to figure out just what was happening, how many planes were under the control of hijackers and what rules of engagement were possible in so novel a situation explains many things about the apparent paralysis in the hour and a half that it took for the attacks to unfold. That and having only four aircraft (only two of which were actually armed!!) to defend the entire Eastern seaboard. I think we sometimes forget how unexpected and how suddenly things happened that day.

The movie, of course, focuses on United flight 93, the only hijacked plane which failed to reach its target (now believed to have been the Capitol) because, according to reconstructed accounts, of the brave actions of the passengers and surviving crew. That knowledge made this movie very difficult to sit through, since the action seems to creep at a snail's pace (actually, it is closer to real time than any Hollywood thriller would get). What was interesting about that pacing is the effect it had on both my wife and I. By about half way through the movie, we were both ready to jump up and yell 'Stab somebody already!!! Get this thing started!" Ironically, as my wife pointed out later, we were very much feeling the same emotions that the hijackers themselves were feeling because we, the audience, and the hijackers were the only people who really knew what was going to happen. So, all these scenes of people eating their breakfasts, chatting with each other or just quietly reading which are so normal were simply jarringly eerie because we know where all this will end. So, we found ourselves understanding the younger hijackers who were getting really twitchy as they awaited the signal for them to seize the plane.

The other really striking element of this movie was the comparative lack of jingoistic rhetoric. When the decision was made to storm the cockpit, there was no 'America is the greatest' rhetoric, just a recognition that, in all likelihoold, everyone on that plane was already dead (since they already knew about the WTC and the Pentagon attacks, this wasn't a surprising conclusion), but all they could do was to make sure that no one else need die. To be sure, the passengers in the movie had a faint hope and planned for it (they had a small plane pilot and a retired air traffic controller), but they are shown to realize that any chance to save their own lives was slim at best. They weren't fighting to save so much their own lives as the lives of others. They were ordinary people caught in an impossible situation and responding bravely and sacrificially.

This analysis, of course, should be surprising to those of you who have been reading my posts on pacifism. Yes, I do see some need to climb down a bit in conceding that, in this extreme situation, a resort to violence was likely the best option available. In a sense, we have to invoke the "Bonhoeffer Clause", when faced by an evil beyond our ability to persuade or restrain short of violence, violence is an justifiable tactic. I note, in passing, that, if we read Bonhoeffer's diaries from prison, he continued to regard his involvement in the plot against Hitler as a sin, albeit a necessary one. In a sinful and brutal world, that is sometimes the situation we find ourselves in.

(Now, before anyone jumps up and says, 'Ah ha, this invalidates your entire argument about pacifism', my only answer is that this case is so extreme that no one can seriously take it to impugn a reluctance to use violence. It may justify just war theory, but I'd also argue that, if we actually consistently followed the historical Christian doctrine of just war we wouldn't a. be able to fight them with modern weaponry and b. we'd have a lot fewer wars! Does that make me a crypto 'just warrior'? Maybe, but, if so, I would insist on applying it far more rigorously than it is currently employed, making me functionally a pacifist)

And a last comment on an already too long post. After we finished watching the movie, we were among the last people to leave the theatre (my wife likes looking at the credits). As we were leaving, a young Muslim man approached us, wanting to chat about the movie. So, we, two observant, if pacifist Christians, and a reasonably observant Muslim compared notes. We were both struck by the opening scene in which the hijackers got ready to go to the airport as one of them prayed from the Koran. Understandable, our Muslim acquaintance found it hard to watch what he felt was the distortion of his religion, even or perhaps especially because it was at the hands of his co-religionists. My wife remarked that she has a similar reaction to media portrayals of mafiosi "devoutly" attending Mass.

We were also struck that, just before the passengers on United 93 moved to overtake their hijackers, that the film makers very clearly juxtaposed the hijackers praying in the cockpit to the passengers, almost to a one, praying the Lord's Prayer, setting up an opposition that we all felt was invidious. Where were the Jewish prayers or prayers of other faith traditions?

Yet, those were mild criticisms and we found ourselves agreeing in our sorrow and shock, even after five years, at the events of that day. We relived what we were doing that day and how it had affected us. We talked about the impact of that day on peaceful Muslims and all of us. Then, we shook hands and parted, conscious of that grace which allowed us, even if for a moment, to bridge a divide that our media and our fear tells us should be unbridgeable. And it is that grace which gives me hope that we'll find our way through the mistrust and fear that still linger between we Christians in the West and Muslims. Amen.

6 comments:

Jim said...

Phil,

I've been thinking about Bonhoeffer's and your "exception." I think that the willingness to defend the helpless (cf. Nigeria and your bishops courageous statement) does indeed take precedence.

It seems to me that what we do not have, and need, is a replacement for the "just war" thesis. If anyone can claim as my government has, that an invasion is appropriate "pre-emptive defense," we need some new ethical system thinking!

FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

Actually, I have little problem with the critera for 'just war'. I think that its standards are, if you are going to accept the possibility of a justifiable war, rigourous enough to prevent unjustified wars. They very effectively prevent wars up to the point of a kind of WWII sceanrio (which is the war I'd say comes the closest to a justified war) or a peace-keeping scenario. And that works for me.

Peace,
Phil

Jim said...

Hmmmm.....

You have a point right up to 1905. After the Franco-Prusian war, its children, WWI and WWII, I think the just war doctrine is a bit tattered.

One aspect of the problem is our technology. I don't think the current US government rationale holds up well. I am, however, sturck by what would happen if we insisted on a defensive only posture in the age of multiple warhead nuclear bombs.

MADD, while it was not fun, actually worked. We and the communist states said bad things about each other, probably over emphasized the Olympics, and did some bad stuff using surrogates, but the bombs were still there to be destroyed under treaty. Absent MADD, what is next?

FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

Ah, Jim, if 'just war' was actually used on both sides, we wouldn't have to worry about MADD.

I think this is where some of our confusion on this topic. I'm really not interested in pacifism or just war doctrine being applied ot just one side. My own hopes and ambitions are wider than that. Now, you can criticize that as naive and unreasonable, if you like, but the only way that we'll ever get past this whole war thing is if we stop thinking about nation states and start thinking globally. Otherwise, neither theory will work, although just war will last a little longer because it can take in the possibility that the other side isn't so just as we are.

Jim said...

Phil,

I have a friend who says that the reality of a sinful world is that when the lion lays down with the lamb, he is thinking lamb chops.

I think it is a fine ambition to see war end. In the meantime, I am glad the US Marines are between me and al Qida.

FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

Yet, Jim, we have to live both in the now and the not-yet. That is, as N.T. Wright would say, God's victory is not just a far off one, but rather it is one that has already happened. Its fullest consummation might be in the not-yet, but we are a people who are called to live that victory now. I note that that reality means that we may have to put ourselves into danger, but I think in these days, we are called to live our hope, not say it.