The Incredible Shrinking Letter to the Editor

I'm not ungrateful.  It's not easy getting a letter published in the New York Times (they receive up to 1000 letters a day).  Here's a link to mine, published in the paper today - thank you, NY Times.  It's just a little painful to watch the original whittled down so much.  Some of the flavor is lost.  Also, I think editors nowadays apply certain prevalent pseudo-rules of grammar - like the one that says "always replace the word which with that" - resulting in a duller, more awkward style.  Anyway, here's my original :

To the Editor:

General Michael Nagata displays welcome intellectual humility in voicing puzzlement about the nature of ISIS, and how to combat it.  As he gathers his "unofficial brain trust", he should add theologians and religious leaders to his group, because it is clear ISIS is about manipulating the disconnects between the theocentric worldview of Middle Eastern societies, and the generally secular, anthropocentric viewpoint of Western political systems.  

ISIS expands by offering a visionary alternative to decades of dictatorship and civil disorder in the Middle East - but it is an option which is more tyrannical and dehumanizing than the regimes it seeks to displace.  It is rooted in a propagandistic version of theism - the rebirth of the caliphate in the name of service to God.  The best counter-narrative which the West can offer is a vision of society rooted in a dual sense of freedom : a synthesis of both religious and civil liberty.  But post-Enlightenment Western societies are no longer very adept at thinking in terms which include a theistic perspective (hence, in part, Gen. Nagata's bewilderment).  

Yet there is a Western religious tradition, stemming from the concept of free will as essential to God's benign purpose for creation.  Individuals and societies, in other words, must freely choose goodness and righteousness : spiritual values cannot be applied by force.  Historically, this principle has been the basis for the separation of church and state.  If General Nagata and others like him can develop a holistic narrative, which meshes the sacred precept of spiritual freedom with the secular values of civil liberty, the West might have a better chance against various seductive ideologies of tyranny and fanaticism.

Henry Gould

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