Last week's dreadful events in Mumbai had me thinking, in a previous entry, about death. They also triggered some thoughts about vengeance. Thus far, India has been commendably restrained in its response--at least insofar as action is concerned. There have been the press reports about high officials laying the blame for the attack on Pakistan but, to my knowledge, no rattling of sabers or deployment of troops to the border as in that earlier incident, back in 1992-93, when terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament. The exchange of angry words is inevitable; the return of violence for violence is not, if reasonable minds prevail.
The desire for revenge is understandable. Humanity 101. You slap me in the face, my hand itches to hit you right back. The Mumbai incident, obviously, provoked memories of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, and of the American response. Most of us, including my not-quite-completely Buddhist self, could not but feel that urge to respond to bloodshed with further bloodshed. The attack on the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, whose support and training had enabled the 9/11 hijackers, seemed to me justified as an effort to protect ourselves from further harm.
In retrospect, though--and particularly in view of the current deteriorating situation in that unfortunate country--I question whether the American initiative was either practical or necessary. It has certainly proved ineffective in the long term. My sense is that the practical necessity for self-protection was so clouded by the spirit of revenge that intentions became unclear and confused, with the result that the real mission was left incomplete. The return of the Taliban today surely gains strength from that same spirit of revenge. The cycle is tragic and unending.
Insult to mind or body offers opportunity, however. I can respond in kind and give myself the momentary, illusory satisfaction of having repaid the offense; or I can swallow my pride and, in the words of that other great prophet, "turn the other cheek." In the latter case, I risk appearing weak in the eyes of the world, and of showing myself as a person to be taken advantage of--a risk not to be taken lightly in today's dangerous world. The risk, though, is perhaps even greater and more imminent if I choose the other path, returning violence for violence, satisfying my ego but opening myself to further retaliation.
I hope that India will seize the opportunity with a measured response and an invitation to continue along the path of peace. Under our current reckless leadership, we set the worst of examples. Had we responded soley with our attack on the Taliban and the terrorists they harbored, we might perhaps have stood justified in the eyes of the world. In following that up with the invasion of a country in no way related to the provocation, we lost our moral bearings as a country. An eye for an eye is poor policy for a great nation. Two eyes for one--and more--has proved an unmitigated disaster. Let's hope that India chooses a wider path than we did.
The Buddhist teaching is pretty clear: in exacting retribution, I am likely to do more harm to myself than to my enemy. As always, though, it is easier in the theory than in the practice. To follow the teaching requires some honest and fearless inner debate.