Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rough Social Equity

We left the beautiful Blue Mountain Center on Thursday and three of us drove to the Albany Airport for our flights back to California. As we set in the terminal, we learned of the horrific shooting at Ft. Hood.

Since then, this event has dominated the news. Ft. Hood is the largest army base in the world, and the main place where troops are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The alleged gunman, Maj. Nidal Hasan, is a psychiatrist. Much has been made of the fact that Maj. Hasan is a Muslim. Many Muslim organizations have condemned the killing and many elected officials as well as military brass have been very clear that any backlash against Muslims will not be tolerated and is not acceptable. They have to speak out because immediately the media speculated as to whether Hasan is a terrorist, and various right wing commentators made much of Maj. Hasan’s religious identity.

When Bernie Madoff made off with $50 billion, several elderly Jewish friends of mine said, “Oh, this is bad for the Jews.” I wondered what they were talking about, but then saw news reports and heard people on the street say things like, “He screwed his own people” and “Jews will cheat their grandmother for enough money.”

When the killings at Virginia Tech happened, a great deal was made of the fact the killer was a Korean immigrant, and both Korean and immigrant organizations had to condemn the killings. Everyone had to listen to speculation about the relationship of being this kind of killer to being an immigrant and/or to being Korean.

I was struck (not for the first time) how privileged I am to be a Methodist, not because I think Methodism is superior to any other religious affiliation, but because whenever there is a horrific crime, I never think, “I hope it wasn’t a Methodist.” Reporters, as they give the name and background of the person, never say, “He was raised a Methodist” or “He was becoming an increasingly radical Methodist with ties to Methodist groups around the world.”

What does this story have to do with the commons? I pondered that on the way home. We know that to have a healthy commons, a society must have “rough social equity.” The gaps between rich and poor cannot be too extreme; the treatment of one kind of people cannot be completely different than the treatment of another kind. The living conditions, education, access to nature and so on cannot be completely different from one part of a community (or a nation) to another.

Rough social equity requires that people accused of crimes be treated equally. We routinely say what religious faith or race or age is in describing them, or we routinely don’t. But we don’t say someone is African American if we don’t also note when someone is Irish American and we don’t say someone is a Catholic unless we also say that someone else is a Quaker. Of course, in this “war on terror” we are trained to focus on Maj. Hasan’s faith as a possible explanation of his crime, but not on the much more logical explanation that something was very wrong in the military he served and perhaps it was his faith that kept him from snapping sooner.

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