Take a closer look at the ideas of self-defense and sacrifice.
In order for us to better understand the relationship of violence and authoritarianism, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the ideas of self-defense and sacrifice. Pure self-defense is not violence because it is based solely on the affirmation of life, rather than its negation. It has been reported that one of the hijacked airplanes crashed short of its intended target in an unpopulated area of western Pennsylvania, probably because some passengers struggled with the terrorists for control of the airplane. Their action was courageous and noble; it was not violence but self-defense since they were motivated by their desire to protect and preserve life. Quite often, however, so-called self-defense is disguised aggression in which one’s real motive for the destruction of life is suppressed consciously or unconsciously by self-deceptive rationalization.
The difference between violence and self-defense lies not merely in the external circumstances, but more significantly in one’s true motive. In this regard, Shakyamuni’s injunction to “kill the will to kill” reveals the profound Buddhist insight into the nature of violence (quoted in My Dear Friends in America, p. 129). Behind the passionate emotions or seemingly sound rhetoric of self-defense is often hidden the “will to kill.” Violence arises from a will to harm, and self-defense from a will to protect although both employ physical force as a means. So it is necessary to look inward and see one’s true motive— whether it is solely to preserve life or to harm life. We become capable of self-defense with the ability of self-reflection, to which one of the greatest obstacles is an authoritarian orientation that looks outside for the motive of our action in order to escape personal responsibility.
Sacrifice is often praised as one of the highest virtues, but we witnessed in the recent tragedy that there are two kinds of sacrifice. One type is motivated by self-denial. Some people make such a sacrifice because in doing so they can lose themselves to an external power and thus become part of what is not them. They are motivated by a desire to escape from themselves whom they neither love nor trust. Through making such a sacrifice, however, they lose the freedom and integrity to think and act as individuals. This kind of sacrifice is authoritarian in essence, and it is a sign of one’s weakness and inability to freely express him- or herself.
Another type of sacrifice is the complete opposite of self-denial; it is self-expression. Some people courageously choose—instead of being forced by external authority—to sacrifice their physical safety or even their lives as the utmost expression of their spiritual integrity. Their sacrifice is an assertion of individual freedom and will. The line between those two types of sacrifice was drawn clearly in the recent terrorist attacks. While the terrorists were giving up their own power of critical thinking and, with it, their humanity to external authority, it was shown that passengers on the hijacked airplanes and those trapped in the collapsing buildings valiantly faced their final moments in efforts to save others and in their prayers for their loved ones. The terrorists’ acts to blow up the huge structures may seem ‘active,’ but in their innermost reality they are most passive and feeble, while the quiet thoughts and prayers of those who passed away in the attacks— despite their appearance of helplessness and passivity in the eyes of the terrorists—were the greatest expressions of their will and love. In their final thoughts and prayers, they were strong and free.