Many people have been struck by the story of the young woman from West Virginia, Lynndie England, who appears in several of the Abu Ghraib pictures. She’s twenty-one. Why is her apparent normalcy so disturbing? The Abu Ghraib photos point to something larger than the specific scenes caught on camera. One of the lessons of this tragedy, from a Buddhist standpoint, is that she is us. She could be our daughter or our niece or someone we might know. It’s not as if there were just a few bad apples in a big barrel of good apples. In the frenzy of war, cruelty becomes acceptable behavior. As a nation, we are putting all these good apples—our soldiers—into a very rotten barrel.

Buddhism emphasizes the interconnectedness of the world, and this “interbeing” has no limit. Since I am part of the system that produced this war and these atrocities, then I, too, share the blame.

What else do the scenes from Abu Ghraib reveal? They reveal an undeniable aspect of war that we would prefer to keep out of our view. The death and mutilation going on in Iraq right now are much worse, and on a much larger scale, than what we’re seeing in the photos. One of the oldest teachings in Buddhism is that violence begets violence. If you look at what has happened in the world since September 11, the level of violence has increased dramatically. Now we are encountering the bounds of “an eye for an eye.” As Gandhi said, that method will leave the whole world blind.

The prison guards are victims along with the prisoners. The guards have been overcome by fear and hatred, to the point of losing touch with their own humanity. They are not in their right minds. They have stopped thinking of the prisoners as fellow human beings.

Buddhism is known for advocating nonviolence. Is that realistic in this situation? Nonviolence is indeed at the core of Buddhism. The first precept of moral behavior is “Do not kill. Cherish all life.” Contemporary Buddhists believe that this principle is as applicable today as it was twenty-five hundred years ago. Nonviolence has a force of its own, not to be underestimated.

Policy experts might say, “Nonviolence would never work in dealing with terrorists.” Perhaps not. But imagine, just for a moment, that the United States built up its nonviolent capabilities on a scale comparable to our current investment in the military—with the necessary money and training, backed by a willingness to make sacrifices. That would certainly yield a wider array of options.

Buddhism teaches that it is almost always possible to move in the direction of nonviolence, even though perfect nonviolence may be unattainable. This means that even in the midst of war, it is possible to honor the human rights of prisoners.

Some Buddhists adhere to absolute pacifism; for them, all war is morally wrong. There are others who say that avoidance of war is always the ideal, but in some real-world situations the use of force may be required. Today’s engaged Buddhists are working creatively on these questions. Whatever guidelines emerge, the starting point will remain the same: Cause the least possible harm.

Are we getting trapped in a vicious cycle of bad karma? As you know, karma is about action and the consequences of action. All of our actions—and even our thoughts—are continuously creating new karma. It’s a dynamic process, unlike fate. Buddhism holds that the laws of cause and effect apply in the realm of morality as well as the physical realm.

One traditional explanation uses seeds as a metaphor. We plant seeds of happiness in ourselves and others when we are kind, and we plant seeds of unhappiness when we treat others badly. Often the effects are not immediate. For example, in parent-child relationships, seeds planted in childhood may not blossom until much later in life.

To rerurn to the Abu Ghraib abuses, torturers are planting horrible seeds in their own hearts and minds. Unfortunately, the same is true for nations. There’s nothing mystical about it—we can see it happening right now. And collective karma can play out for generations.

If Buddhists ran the world, how would they handle those who disrupt social harmony? In other words, how would crime and punishment be handled in a Buddhist-inspired society?
That’s a good question. It’s safe to assume that there are always going to be offenders and dangerous folks who need to be controlled. The current system relies on punitive justice, and it’s not working very well. In contrast, transformative justice seeks to heal victims, heal offenders, and address the conditions that give rise to crime. Today, Buddhists are very involved in prison reform in the United States and elsewhere, so this is not just a hypothetical question. (See Tricycle, Spring 2004.)

Let’s say that Buddhists were running a military prison in Iraq and it was necessary to extract information from detainees to prevent more car bombs or other acts of violence. How would Buddhists handle the interrogation? The Geneva Conventions have explicit rules about the treatment of prisoners. The basic guideline is one that all religions would agree with: Don’t treat a prisoner inhumanely. Don’t deny his or her humanity. That approach may in fact be more effective in getting information.

Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Dalai Lama said, “The real antidote to terrorism in the long run is compassion, dialogue—peaceful means—even with terrorists.” Is that hopelessly naive, or is it a deeper kind of realism?

From an interview conducted by Deborah Caldwell for on May 13, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

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