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The world is as dark as we allow it to be

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Wednesday, May 19th, 2004 — On May 13, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "In the second half of the 20th century, the world became, quite literally, a darker place."

This article, tucked into the corner of the front page, seemed to relate to the shocking headlines coming out of Iraq about actions so devoid of human sensibilities that they are impossible for us to understand. The photographs evoke images of darker times and places.

But the warning about "global dimming" did not refer to the situation in Iraq, simply to air pollution. The ironic juxtaposition was not wasted.

The images of prisoners at Abu Ghraib being abused by American soldiers, as well as the beheading of a U.S. civilian by terrorists, cast a dark shadow over the soul of our collective humanity.

Victim and perpetrator have become one in this combat, in which a total lack of respect for what it means to be human renders it inconceivable to us at home. A sense of shame and disbelief settles over the American people.

"It is like walking into the post office and seeing your own face on the wall," a friend said of the prisoner-abuse images.

Battle lines that were difficult to define at the beginning of our presence in Iraq are now unrecognizable. Our own people have inflicted wounds on our national and individual pride from which it might be as hard to recover as any damage the Iraqis or terrorists have done to us, or anything heretofore we have done to them.

What is more, God is being dragged into this godless battle -- as if God could possibly carry the banner for either of these arrogant strategies.

We can ask ourselves and our leaders how and why these things happened. In the end, the real answers will not be found in the documented testimony of individuals. While details are important, this is truly a case of the whole being bigger than the sum of the parts.

And the impact is as local as a cup of morning coffee.

I went to one of my favorite downtown coffee shops one morning last week. The owner is a gentle, soft-spoken Iranian. On other days he and I would enjoy a friendly exchange about our families, our plans or the struggles of the downtown merchants. Both of us are amateur students of religion. He once gave me a book of Sufi poetry, and I gave him my favorite collection from the Christian mystics.

But that morning last week was not like others. There was a tension between us. A copy of the newspaper with President Bush's picture lay on the counter. Both of us were too upset in view of the mounting stakes in Iraq to exchange pleasantries, and too confused to comment on the war.

Each of us was offended and embarrassed. This war is infecting our hearts and closing down the lifeline that connects us to one another, polluting our common humanity.

It has been said that we entered this conflict without a game plan that would see us through to the end. We still do not have such a plan. Our guidelines thus far have come from the single imperative: We will conquer the Enemy.

If the recent unfolding of abuses at Abu Ghraib and the terrorists' retaliation can be said to serve any purpose at all, perhaps it is to show all people that there is not a single enemy "out there" -- that we can become our own enemy.

As Americans, maybe we are finally ready to insist that the terms of our engagement with Iraq need to be spelled out precisely, and then to hold our leaders accountable for living by their own rules. Perhaps now we can begin to exercise our rights as citizens -- Republicans and Democrats -- who ultimately bear the tangible and intangible costs of this war, to know our country's goals and insist that our leaders move us toward those goals.

There are two beliefs I cling to, as the fast-breaking news of events in Iraq seems to be bringing this conflict to a turning point. First, I believe that as human beings, all of us are better than what we are seeing on TV and in our news media. None of us were meant to engage in such pathetic, degrading acts.

Second, I believe that darkness is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not the end. If the darkness is a time when we no longer recognize ourselves, a time of not knowing who or what we are, then in that time we also know our need for a transformation that enlightens us once again.

Above all, this is a time to take a deep breath and to believe in who we know we are meant to be.