Today I am reading all sorts of stories about how Syria has finally admitted to its stocks of chemical and biological weapons. They are threatening to use them on any foreign invaders and not the Syrian people. Not anywhere can I find word about where they got these weapons and scud delivery missiles. This is some of the worst reporting ever.
In Nov 2002 under the directive of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, weapons inspectors (Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBarade) searched Iraq for long suspected chemical and biological weapons. They were thwarted at every turn. CIA surveillance photos showed trucks leaving out the back of government installations as inspectors walked in the front. Where were these trucks heading? Yeah thats right, their northwest neighbor, Syria. In all fairness, we have no idea what was in the trucks or where exactly they went. Shortly thereafter, the “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq and then found no weapons of mass destruction.
In September of 2004 I delivered the following speech at Temple Emanu-El, Haverhill a few months after I became president. I don’t think many people understood what I was getting at; the metaphor was probably better understood if you read it rather than trying to listen and focus after 12 hours of fasting (it was Yom Kippur). As I wondered back then, and I wonder now, what was in the trucks and how did Syria get chemical and biological weapons? I don’t know the answer, but someone should ask the question.
At Rosh Hashanah I spoke to you about our congregation and personal actions. Today as we look inward, I would like to take the opportunity to examine how we come to make decisions.
When I was in college some of my favorite classes were my liberal arts Philosophy courses. I remember one that taught me the skills to form a logical argument. Whatever we chose to discuss, the rule was that all of your conclusions must be driven by statements of fact. It’s an interesting exercise. For example: If I take the position that Blue is my favorite color. That is a statement of pure opinion. How do I prove it? I might start like this: The sky is blue. When the sky is blue, it is usually a clear bright day. Clear days allow me to do lots of outdoor activities. Outdoor activities make me feel good. Thus the color Blue leads me to think of things that make me feel good. That is a possible reason that I “like” blue.
If you choose to disagree with me about my opinion, my favorite color, you must disagree with one of the facts in my proof or if there are multiple facts, you weigh them differently. “Hey Josh, snowboarding is an outdoor activity you enjoy. Snowboarding requires snow. Snow only comes on days when it is grey and cloudy” Good point. I might reply “Yes but that is the creation of snow, not the act of snowboarding. Snowboarding is still best on a bright, clear, blue-sky day”
Now most of us don’t have the concentration or time to go through this kind of internal analysis for every single opinion we have. Instead, we often take shortcuts. The problem is that in this age of TV and internet news, talking heads, ‘embedded’ reporters and channel X “experts”, we have become lax in our duty to analyze issues. Pop-media editorials magically become our opinions. We have lost the art of analysis.
We might see the simplicity in someone else’s analysis and decide that it works just fine for us. We may have inherited opinions from our parents and choose not to form our own opinions about the same collection of facts. The real danger is that instead of creating our own opinions, we blindly ingest those of others. By doing so, we homogenize the thought process and corrupt our own individuality.
In all of our lives, time is the enemy. And so one alternative to the lengthy analysis process is to extrapolate parallel ideals from other opinions we have already proven to ourselves. Using these analogies is no substitution for critical analysis, but it can help guide the process: Instead of starting with nothing, we have an outline to follow.
I am an OK story-teller. Stories are a great way to look at scenarios and help you to make correlations to lead your analysis to a conclusion. This particular story works best if you are a parent, if not, well…work with me.
My wife and I like to think we are pretty good parents. We have a 16 year old son. We let him make his own decisions in life. We believe that by showing him respect and affording him his autonomy, he will make the right choices. So far he has lived up to these broad expectations for communal living. But we always know that if he starts to stray, we would need to step in and set him straight for his own good, after all he is still growing and learning. One day we start to notice that he is hanging with a new crowd. He is dressing differently, he looks like a degenerate. Sometimes after he comes home from hanging out with his friends, we notice that his eyes are bloodshot and he seems to be slurring his speech. Once while he is up in his room with his friends, we notice some smoke emanating from under his door. It’s a strange smelling smoke that seems eerily familiar. We decide to be open and forthright with him. We sit him down and ask if he has tried smoking marijuana. “No way guys, no way”. We want to trust him and we take his answers at face value. A few weeks later we smell it again after one of his buddies brings a small paper bag up to his room. This time we are more stern. “We want to inspect your room, will you let us?” “Sure dad, just let me clean a bit, come up in a few minutes” There are piles of clothes and junk near the outer walls, he could hide a Ford Expedition in there. We check randomly, desk drawer, underwear drawer, under the bed. Looks clean. “Son, just make sure you are not letting those friends of yours push you in ways you don’t feel comfortable. We love you and just want what is best for you. If you need to talk, or if you need any help, we’re here.”
Time passes and one day I hear loud music coming from his room as I drive up to the house, smoke is wafting from his open window. That’s it, I’m heading in there. As I bang on the door ordering him to open up, my wife drives home and sees a few of his buddies with a backpack jumping out the window to run home. He lets me in, he smells of pot, there’s smoke everywhere, but no ashes and no trace of any marijuana anywhere. I turn the room upside down, pleading with him to tell me the truth. He is impassionate as if he knows I will find nothing. He is quietly smug with an attitude that he has gotten away with something. Later I overhear a phone conversation “Dude, we got away with it. That was close”
Do my neighbors think that I had grand aims at subverting my son’s independence? Or that I was violating the sanctity of his sovereignty? Of course not! I am reacting to sociological facts that we read about in the papers every day. It’s not the little things that scare me, it is the doomsday scenario that gives me pause. Because I know that once a kid tries pot, they are sure to try ecstacy. And once you’ve had one pill why not try speed. And once you’ve had that high you’ve got to try mushrooms. And after one psychedelic, you’ve got to try LSD. Pretty soon my son is snorting coke and shooting heroine. So you’ll have to forgive me if I am a little paranoid and I always fear the worse. I’m a good parent and I want what’s best for my family. What scares me even more is that one day, my 5 year old will find my son’s needles and play ‘doctor’ with our infant. Is it right for me to get this crazy right now about a little experimenting with pot? Yes, because I have already concluded that the only way to stop this obvious progression, is to stop the rolling boulder while I can still control the slide.
The decision to storm my son’s room was a no-brainer. Would any of you have acted differently given the signs? I tore the place apart to find nothing. But maybe he’s smarter than me and he found a way to hide the stash where I couldn’t find it at all. It doesn’t matter because while I am there, he’s got to clean his room and he’s got to let me back into his life. We have to find a way to co-exist. I had already decided this course of action to protect all of our future; I needed to act preemptively for his own good.
I’ve worked this scenario in my head a million times, and I’m pretty sure that most of you would have done the same thing. Caring for your family and seeing where they will be in 2 months or a year or 5 years, is what keeps us up late at night. But can we all say that we would apply the same standard to other similar scenarios in our lives? Can this scenario, one in which the conclusion is crystal clear, help guide us in how we shape our opinions about other worldly circumstances? Possibly. On one hand, we might look at the facts and react in a way analogous to how we would react to the preceding story. Conversely, we might look at a similar set of facts on a larger scale and come to a different conclusion. What makes the exercise so valuable is that each of us looks at a collection of facts, and assigns weights based on our own internal experiences and evaluation. In the end, our conclusions might be contradictory or they might align perfectly. Hard to believe, but our convictions may not be as clear as we tell ourselves they are. Much of it has to do with perspective.
I’ll tell you another story, this one is true. Megan and I bought our current house just shy of 3 years ago, December 2001. My next door neighbor put in a pool just before we moved in. He did not have a fence installed when we got there. I figured I’d wait for the Spring to see if he would put one up when the ground thawed. Pretty soon it was summer and still nothing. I had a day off one day and so I went to the Town Hall Building Inspector’s office. I wasn’t sure if New Hampshire had the same rules for a 4 foot fence around a pool, that Massachusetts does. Turns out we do. I almost pleaded for help with the woman behind the counter. “By any chance do you ever go back and spot check building permits? I really don’t want to start a war with my neighbor, because he seems really nice. I was hoping that maybe you might accidentally discover through a random review of files that he doesn’t have a fence. By the way, I live on Lake Street and I think his pool went in last September.” “Sorry sir, we can’t do anything without the address, are you reporting a specific infraction?” I left the office in frustration.
There still is no fence. And when friends come over it is so easy for them to criticize me for not having the conviction to report him. I remember problems we had with neighbors as a kid. They had Dobermans, and not getting along made life miserable. But today my friends see the same devastating future, the doomsday scenario, as I do: What if one of our kids wanders over there and falls in the pool? My goodness, how would I live with myself?!? I can see a future and I know what I need to do to prevent that eventuality. I am forced with making that choice every day, and I admit I lack the moral conviction to take action. But oh, it is so easy when you live in another neighborhood. “Really Josh, just call the Inspector, it’s been long enough”
Isn’t it interesting that with the pool I know what the right thing is but I am paralyzed to actually do it because of a little thing like proximity? The slight sense of control I get from thinking that I can watch my kids and protect them when they are playing outside, somehow placates my inaction. In a post 9/11 world, is that not the most dangerous thought you’ve ever heard?
On the other hand, when I had no immediate control of my son’s actions inside his room, I see the threat as imminent. And there seems to be clear justification for action. But when you get right down to the knowledge I have on hand to make these two decisions, is there really a difference in threat to my kids?
Two similar scenarios can lead to different conclusions. In one case, all my self analysis leads to one clear decision to act. On the other hand, little pieces of extraneous history skew my analysis and have paralyzed me with procrastination and inaction. Bystanders, who can stand back and see the issues from afar, are free to do the right thing, free to exercise their moral conviction without repercussions or risk. They are free to perform their own self analysis and come to completely different opinions than I. Does my friend have a moral conviction that I do not, simply because she thinks the solution for the fence is so easy to enact? I say No. Perspective does matter. Acting today to thwart a perceived future threat, seems perfectly clear. However, taking action sometimes risks more danger and strife, when actually trying to curb it. No matter what the position, you have to respect and admire people that have the clarity of vision to see the future, to realize the potentials, perform their own analysis and know just what to do: No matter what the recourse. For them and hopefully for us, it’s hard to do the right thing, but sometimes you just know there is no choice.