Failures of Imagination

Imagination enlarges the circle of our seeing and enables empathy. It is the only real cure for the globe’s deadly levels of toxicity.
[1] Students in my spirituality workshops at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago reflect a maturity beyond much commentary I read each day in the Chicago Tribune. They also outpace many of the op-ed writers, congressional and Bush administrative figures who parade by the cameras on Sunday morning gabfests.

[2] Certainly, they lack the foreign policy knowledge of the experts. But the students possess an ethical attribute conspicuously lacking in recent debates about torture and the treatment of detainees, not to mention in the Bush administration’s continuing misadventures in the Middle East.

[3] That attribute-Imagination.

[4] Many of the students have lived and learned globally, serving in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East or poorer U.S. neighborhoods. They have worked as short-term missionaries, teachers, health or construction workers through various church and educational agencies. They have been moved-even forced-outside their comfort zones to gain personal knowledge of forgotten peoples. They gain this awareness at what an Army chaplain I know calls “gravel-suckin’ level,” where the forces that disfigure lives, limit opportunities and starve children are all-too-clear.

[5] Their imaginations have been tutored by other sides of life and history. This prevents easy retreats into the narrow circle of self-interest and parochial vision where one’s perspective is shaped by opinions of the like-minded. Without such imagination, ethical choice is blinkered and empathy impossible.

[6] Lawrence S. Cunningham and Keith J. Eagan suggest a widening circle as a working model of the spiritual journey into greater maturity (Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (Paulist Press, 1996). Christian growth, they say-and I would add, human maturity itself-involves “the attempt to enlarge our circle of human concern.” This happens only when our way of seeing, acting and understanding is shattered, crumbling not once but again and again, so that the perspectives and experiences of those unlike us make claims on our attention, understanding and behavior.

[7] Failing this, our vision remains parochial as opposed to truly catholic. And our actions grow toxic. They express our passions, prejudices, paranoia, assumptions and aversions about those unlike us. Unchallenged, we remain insensitive to the needs of an already dangerous world, making it even more dangerous. A perilous lack of imagination haunts us from the halls of Congress, to the Pope Benedict’s poorly chosen quotations, to the ironic street scenes of Muslims burning the Holy Father in effigy because his quote associated violence with Islam.

[8] Imagination enlarges the circle of our seeing and enables empathy. It is the only real cure for the globe’s deadly levels of toxicity. Imagination is an essential ethical act. It is that graced ability to see afresh-to consider that the other’s experience, view, suffering and need may be morally equivalent to one’s one. Without imagination, we cannot transcend the limits of parochial knowledge and perception.

A Failure of Imagination
[9] Examples of failed imagination abound, with inhumane and deadly consequence. Last year, searing images from New Orleans confronted Americans with the reality of the poverty and class in their own nation. “We couldn’t have imagined” are words spoken not only about hurricane Katrina, but even more about what it means to live pay day to pay day-or to have no pay day at all. We couldn’t have imagined the scenes of degradation we witnessed on our TV screens. Human beings cried for help from rooftops or sat by the dead bodies of family members on highway overpasses. This was not in Africa but in a celebrated U.S. city where millions vacation every year. We couldn’t imagine there were so many who did not evacuate when ordered to before the storm because they could not do so, having no real option beyond public transportation.

[10] A raft of government agencies quickly established an ineptitude almost unmatched in recent U.S. history. But as inept as government response proved, the failure of imagination is most telling. Too many people, in too many places of responsibility, dwelt in a world so far removed from the realities of the poor they couldn’t begin to imagine their needs, until the distorted faces of the dispossessed appeared on the evening news.

[11] The same remains true of many, perhaps most, in middle-class America, who are as unaware of American poverty as they are of the grinding realities of tens of millions in Africa. Are our attenuated consciences able or willing to enter the reality of a mother in Darfur who watches her children waste away, their ribs shrink-wrapped by dehydration and malnutrition, while she carries the child of her rapist? Can we consider the depression of the Latin American farmer who loses his land because world markets and trade laws ensure he will receive less for his crop than the price of production? Or how about children on Chicago’s west side who struggle to get younger siblings out of bed, fed and off to school before trudging weary and late to class because their mother is hooked on meth? And what about the teacher whose task it is to teach this child, who can get to school only through raw grit and determination?

Blind in the Beltway?
[12]Society’s failure to imagine the daily realities of such lives perpetrate apathy and policies that ensure their continuation. Other such failures make a dangerous world even more so. Consider the recent lack of imagination among one group of those insulated inside the Washington Beltway.

[13] The last week of September the U.S. Senate debated the treatment and prosecution of terrorism suspects. Overturning rights that go back 800 years in English common law, the Senate adopted, 65-34, a bill that denied habeas corpus rights to those accused, sending it onto the House of Representatives. Habeas corpus allows suspects to go to court and force the government to show why they are being held. Without this, they are subject to unlimited detention without charges being officially leveled, making them unable to defend themselves against potentially false accusations. Habeas is central to U.S. jurisprudence, a right of which the United States is rightly proud. It provides a check upon error and the abuse of power by any expression of government that would detain for political or other ends.

[14] Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina, addressing his Senate colleagues, spoke for the majority, claiming his “moral compass” was in good order. The senator said he would “sleep well,” even though those accused could be held for years without being shown cause. Only in a nation where fear is an overriding principle is such an act of easy conscience possible. Apparently, the senator couldn’t imagine our government making errors of judgment or fact, nor a situation where temporary passions cloud reasoned judgment.

[15] It gets worse. A majority of Graham’s senate colleagues couldn’t imagine a situation where the innocent get swept up with the guilty. Imagine this: Arrested for terrorist associations, held for years, kept from your family, allowed no access to legal services, tortured, denied your day in court, your days and years slowly leak away, and all you can do is remember how you once lived, a vocation you enjoyed, the sound of your children’s laughter, and the touch of your wife’s hand.

[16] The senators could have imagined this had they noticed the scene playing out in Toronto, Canada, on the same day they voted to deny habeas. Giuliano Zaccardelli, commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, apologized to a Canadian citizen, Mahar Arar and to Arar’s wife and two children. The commissioner said the Mounties gave false and exaggerated reports to U.S. intelligence agents about Arar’s supposed terrorist connections. Based on these reports, U.S. agents detained Arar at a New York airport four years ago and handed him over to a Syrian prison, where he was held in a “coffin-sized dungeon” and tortured for 10 months. This was part of a “rendition” program in which suspects were secretly delivered to other countries for questioning, including countries like Syria which are well-known for torture (The Washington Post, 9/28/06). An exhaustive inquiry revealed that Arar is an innocent computer programmer. His story surely must make many Canadian Muslims wary of flying through the United States.

[17] Should the Senate bill become law we can be sure cases like Arar’s will multiply. The senators might have imagined this. They also might have considered what this looks like across the globe, beyond the boundaries of congressional districts and the next election. Imagine: In the name of security, the U.S denies a principle central to American life and law, while announcing its global aim is to nurture democracy across the globe. Such disrespect and charges of hypocrisy as result from this vote will be well earned.

[18] The senators might also imagine what it looks like when the United States sends terror suspects for questioning to a place like Syria. On one hand, Syria is denounced by the Bush administration for (among other things) its complicity with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. On the other hand, Syria is suddenly useful for questioning our terror suspects. Such an exercise in imagination might reveal why many in the Middle East consider the U.S. a dishonest broker, a cynical slave to greed, fear and self-interest, not a beacon of the principles it proclaims. Were a further exercise in imagination required, the senators could consider what it looks like when the Bush administration acquiesces to the disproportionate Israeli bombardment of civilian targets in southern Lebanon, undermining one place in the region where a fragile democracy was struggling to take hold.

[19] The resulting international perceptions, encouraged by the clueless bubbling of those who throw gas on fires, are making the world more dangerous for us and all the world’s children, down to the third and fourth generations.

More to Come?
[20] Just over four years ago, I wrote a column opposing war in Iraq based on just war principles (The Lutheran, Oct. 2002). Now, as then, the present administration was stirring fear about a member of the “axis of evil.” We were told we knew what Saddam Hussein was doing regarding weapons of mass destruction. We were warned that he was impossible to control, even though international containment policies had kept him hemmed for more than a decade. We were assured that a quick application of military force would solve the problem–and that the Iraqi people would universally receive us with open arms. All of these statements reflected a profound failure imagination on the part of an administration that could only listen to itself.

[21] Today, the fires of fear are fanned again, but in relation to Iran. We are told that we are living in the time of the third world war. Iran is being compared with Nazi Germany. “Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained?’ writes William Kristol in The Weekly Standard. And once again, various applications of military force are being suggested as remedies for the problem.

[22] We can hope that recent history will tutor the imagination of an administration that has shown little awareness that global rogues can be contained and their threat dissipated, over time, by means other than military. But this requires patience and imagination, an ability to consider paths less trodden than the weary rattling of swords in the face of threat. In relation to Iran, we might imagine that military action might make things worse, much worse. Given the growing blood bath in Iraq, that shouldn’t be a stretch.

[23] We might also consider that, for all their belligerent posturing, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs who run Iran are more inclined toward self-preservation than martyrdom. This is what they would certainly face if ever they used nuclear arms against Israel. And surely they know this. Just as they know the heavy breathing they are hearing from Western capitals and press rooms inflates their popularity and power back home. Imagine what impotent consternation they would know if the West refused to overreact to their chest thumping and historical revisionism, and treated it like the adolescent posturing and crass power mongering it is.

Conclusion: A Wider Circle
[24] But this requires imagination and a widening of the circle of those to whom we listen. The circle needs to include those whose perspectives challenge how Americans see themselves, how we our history and the world, justice and injustice, war and peace. It requires listening to those our actions and policies effect-sometimes with deadly consequences, if the streets of Baghdad have anything to teach.

[25] Failing this stretch of imagination, we merely add to the globe’s deadly levels of toxicity.