The Biggest Weapon of Mass Destruction is the Hate in our Souls

February 14, 2004
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Credo published in The Times on 14th February 2004

We have heard the phrase so often that it has become a cliché: weapons of mass destruction. Chemical weapons, biological warfare, nuclear devices and dirty bombs have become the nightmare of the 21st century. There is, though, one agent of mass destruction about which almost nothing is said, yet its power exceeds all the others combined. Its name is hate.

This year, on national Holocaust Memorial Day in Belfast, as well as the destruction of European Jewry, we remembered the genocide in Rwanda ten years ago. Eight hundred thousand Tutsis and Hutus were murdered in the space of a mere 100 days. Yet the killing involved no sophisticated weaponry. It was done, for the most part, by machete.

The events of 9/11 changed our world. The shockwaves it set in motion have not yet subsided. Nor, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, do they show any sign of abating. The terrorists who hijacked the aircraft and turned them into killing machines were armed with no more than box cutters. The method was new but the motive was as old as time.

The greatest danger to the future of the world is not weapons but those who wield them. The problem is not “out there” in laboratories and weapon caches but “in here”, in the human heart. What makes the difference between good and evil is not our technological capacity to destroy but what Freud regarded as our psychological urge to destroy. The ultimate weapon of mass destruction is called mankind.

On this, the Bible is astonishingly clear-sighted. It tells of how the first recorded act of religious worship led directly to fratricide. The first two human children bring an offering to God. Their names, engraved forever in the annals of tragedy, were Cain and Abel.

The highest motives can lead to the lowest deeds. There is nothing optimistic or naïve about the biblical view of what we are.

What, then, is the Bible’s answer? Here too it is blunt and unequivocal. First, human life is sacred. That is the thrust of God’s covenant with Noah after the Flood: “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Murder of the innocent is the ultimate crime. That is the meaning of the statement, in the Bible’s opening chapter, that God made humanity “in His image, after His likeness”.

Never before or since has homo sapiens been invested with greater dignity. Life is sacrosanct. Murder, therefore, is a form of blasphemy. It neither has nor can have religious justification.

Second comes the command, endlessly reiterated, to “remember”. As a species, we make mistakes. That comes with the unique genetic endowments that set us apart from other forms of life. We make plans. We experiment. We take risks and sometimes they go badly wrong. One thing alone redeems the human situation. Remembering the past, we learn from it. As pain is to the body so memory is to the mind. It steers us, as if by reflex, from the things that harm.

Third is the Bible’s central passion: education. “You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children,” says Moses. “All your children shall be taught of the Lord,” said Isaiah, “and great will be your children’s peace.” If children can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. They can be trained to respect other people’s interests as well as their own. “What is hateful to you, do not do to others,” taught Hillel. Or, as the Book of Leviticus insists: “When a stranger lives among you, do not oppress him . . . love him as yourself, for you were once strangers in Egypt.”Many questions have been asked in the wake of 9/11, not least about the war in Iraq. Were there weapons? Was there an intelligence failure? Was there disinformation? The air has been thick with charges and counter-charges, accusations and denials. Yet the big questions have not been asked, or if they have, they have failed to capture public attention.

What are we teaching our children? How do we confront hate? How can we ensure that those who come after us will understand that violence is the worst form of conflict resolution? What if, as well as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, there was an internationally agreed set of standards for teaching human responsibilities?

What if a mere 1 per cent of the massive sums spent each year on weapons of war were set aside to teach the world’s children the imperative of peace? What if religious leaders of the great faiths were to confront the sources of hate in their own traditions?

These questions are burningly urgent. Civilisations fail when they address the symptoms but not the cause. The cause is fear mutated to hate, then translated into deed. Asking the real questions will take great courage, but right now, nothing less will do.