Episode 68 – “The Shelter”

During the fall of 2001 students in my Introduction to Philosophy course watched this episode on the afternoon  the same day in which, hours before, the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. were attacked by terrorists who hijacked fully fueled commercial airliners and flew them into their targets.  On that day, September 11, 2001, we were beyond the terror of possible attack, and we confronted the aftermath of an actual attack on our cities, on thousands of human beings, on organizations and businesses, and on symbols of power, commerce, and achievement.  In contrast, “The Shelter” is about the possibility of attack, and our response to such threats. But it is certainly relevant to us post September 11th: Life has changed. The threat of such attacks is more salient than it ever was before, and we will need to consider what kind of shelters we build as we attempt to come to grips with that threat.

“The Shelter” opens with a suburban celebration: a group of families is in the middle of a surprise birthday party for a well-loved resident: the local family doctor.  The only thing the residents seem not to like about their doctor is that he has built a bomb shelter in his basement. They view this act as odd. There is no palpable threat, so it’s irrational to prepare for it.  When the party is interrupted by an announcement of unidentified flying objects headed toward the U.S., everyone scrambles to their home. But only the physician and his family are safe. No one else has a shelter. The shelter becomes the scarce resource that everyone needs, and the neighbors claw and fight their way in. The doctor protects his territory. When asked why he can’t take up the concern he had for them just a few minutes ago, he says “That was a thousand years ago.” The neighbors turn not only on the doctor, but he turns on them, and they also turn on each other, finding ethnic differences suddenly important in the grab for resources.

In response to 9/11, our concern is to try to figure out how to act, how to respond to the the threat, how to find our shelter, our security, our peace. In “The Shelter,” reasoning, at least moral reasoning, has been thrown out the window. The emphasis is on survival at any cost. We have time to reason and reflect, and to attempt to figure out what morally appropriate responses are open to us. Many of us have raised the fear that some possible political and military responses may not be appropriate.

Of course, determining what is morally appropriate is a complicated matter. First, as philosophers, we need to come to grips with the issues in moral theory. How do we know what is right or wrong in even the most mundane cases? What justifies our beliefs about such things?  If we believe that it is wrong to take an innocent life, for example, we are faced with further philosophical questions: what makes a life innocent in the first place?  What is a life? Is it morally wrong to take non-human lives?

When making moral assessments of the actions of others, it is important to distinguish between explaining actions and justifying actions.  Clearly a terrorist acts out of a sense of outrage at the actions of the targeted country. The terrorist has beliefs, and reasons in support of those beliefs. We may come to understand the causes of the terrorist’s beliefs and the conditions which lead to extreme acts such as acts of terrorism. But such explanations don’t count as justifications.  They do not show that the terrorist was morally justified in acted as he or she did.

To demonstrate that an action is morally wrong, or morally correct, we need a standard which may fall outside the standards and values used by the person whose actions we are judging.  It doesn’t follow from the fact that different groups – different countries, interest groups, even companies, may have different sets of values, that we can’t make the appropriate moral judgments from the outside. Understanding the terrorist’s own justification won’t resolve the moral issue. It just tells us why he or she thinks they are justified, not whether they are justified.  And the existence of different sets of values certainly cannot show that each set is morally appropriate, because those of the terrorist will conflict with those of others, those of his or her targetsfor example.

“The Shelter” does not supply a moral standard by which we can judge the rightness or wrongness of actions. It takes a well developed philosophical theory to do that. But “The Shelter” does suggest what happens when we abandon moral reasoning and act out of brutish self-interest, and when, for whatever reason, we drop our regard for other persons as individuals, and treat them instead as means to our own ends. The results are found not only in the Twilight Zone, but sadly, in lower Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and in many other places, before and since.

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