Barack Obama recently disagreed with Jeremiah Wright’s statements equating America’s wartime efforts with terrorism. Wright had cited biblical passages wherein God condemns (damns) anyone who deliberately kills innocents, whether at Hiroshima or at Ground Zero (9/11).
Although I support Obama’s candidacy wholeheartedly, I disagree with him here, preferring Reverend Wright’s logic. With Wright, I see no moral difference between a weak, fallible organization (or individual) setting off a suicide bomb in a marketplace, and a big, powerful, fallible nation dropping an atomic bomb on a civilian population—except, of course, that powerful nations have more options. Both warriors and terrorists say they’re fighting for survival, and both often choose strategies which collaterally harm innocents over diplomacy and other alternatives because they think such violence a quicker, surer way to attain their goals.
Both soldiers and terrorists justify deliberately killing innocents by the rightness of their causes—the only difference being, of course, that powerful nations have access to huge armies and limitless lethal technologies, while less-powerful groups have weak armies, few weapons and little money. That’s why terrorists, hoping to maximize their impact, focus international media attention on their unaddressed grievances (and harass their oppressors) by strapping on cheap explosives.
Soldiers and terrorists alike feel they are forced into doing the bad things they do to prevent further injustices. Yet this argument for “just war”—that sometimes violence is necessary to prevent greater injustices and harm—is also a perfectly reasonable argument for terrorism.
Mind you, I don’t buy either argument. Positive, peaceful alternatives often work, if one only accepts that compromises, though disappointing, are never final and are changeable later, regardless of the unsavory present trade-offs necessary to prevent further catastrophes.
War doesn’t prevent injustices. War itself is always a grievous injustice to all involved in it. Most soldiers and their families are catastrophically exploited by war. 90% of the victims of war are civilians. Unfortunately, when citizens manipulated into vindictive indignation over present and past injustices march into wars, they rarely consider all the many future injustices which that war will inevitably inflict on both sides.
Whether or not we act violently, injustices occur. Whether we fight wars or rise up together in peaceful protest, some people will suffer unjustly, some will die. The Jews died in the Holocaust despite the war effort and perhaps also because of it. Europe is now united; tyrants come and go. No matter whether we choose peace, terrorism, or war, we cannot prevent all injustices. But we can avoid adding to their sum by accepting compromises, listening to all sides, and steadfastly rejecting the gravest injustice of all—war itself.
I’m not a pacifist. I would defend my family and neighbors from bad guys climbing in our windows and knocking down our doors—a scenario far less likely to happen if my government maintains strong local militias and promotes international good will by working for international justice and against war. I certainly would not travel to another country and throw my weight around, except as part of a globally-mandated UN peacekeeping force.
Violent solutions to conflicts, whether war or terrorism, always make problems more intractable in the long run. Violence sometimes seems appealing in the short-term, but not when both sides of the story are heard. Over time, just as in families, violent solutions stoke anger, resentment and vengefulness, and prevent and postpone just and lasting resolutions and peace.
Although there are always two sides to every conflict, loyal combatants often resist hearing out the ‘other’ side. Powerful greedy nations that initiate wars of conquest against weaker forces often refuse to negotiate with their enemies. Why negotiate when you can get what you want through attrition, slaughter and unconditional surrender?
When wars end, war-weary citizens on both sides, hearing the stories of the victims who bore the tragic consequences of the stubbornness, greed, ignorance, intolerance, hubris, vengefulness, anger and megalomania behind all wars and terrorism, finally realize that it was never the courageous, idealistic grandchildren they sent out to kill each other who were most to blame, but rather the safe, rich, hard-headed old leaders on both sides who failed to keep the peace.
Too often, we prefer being “right” to living and letting others live in peace. We think we have to be right about so many things—about who’s the bad guy, who started it, who’s at fault, what happened, who meant well and who didn’t, who did what to whom, whose ideology or form of government is superior, whose religion is true, who is weird and strange and cultish and backward and disgusting, who gets to be in control, who gets to be the one with the gold who makes all the rules….
The truth is that nobody yet has a clear picture of what human life is all about, what we’re doing here, and how best to look upon the world, ourselves, and one another. Even the leading scholars agree that the more they know, the more they know they don’t know. In every conflict, humility, acceptance and mutual respect are the wisest guides.
When we insist on being ‘right’ rather than making the compromises necessary to live together in peace, we are making the choice of terrorism/war over freedom. What is freedom, if not the freedom to live one’s life and pursue one’s dreams in peace?
Someday, they will give a war and no one will come. This will happen when we stop worrying about being right and in total control (both are foolish illusions in this nuclear age) and instead, hold ourselves accountable to the highest universal standards of treating all others as we would like to be treated, respecting and supporting human life everywhere. When this happens, we will enter a more peaceful, harmonious age.
We will, that is, if some of us are still here. The work of global peaceful transformation is so urgent. As Einstein famously predicted, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Since we can no longer completely control nuclear weapons, we must work now to transform ourselves and our own violent cultures into cultures of peace. Amish, Quaker and Buddhist families alike learn and teach gentleness successfully; they all enjoy unselfish, peaceful cultures. Why shouldn’t the rest of us learn, too?
Cultures change whenever individuals learn peaceful ways of dealing with their own personal conflicts, and then optimize their cultural institutions to educate others about harmonious relations, diplomacy, and global justice. Institutions such as public media (the airwaves and the internet) as well as private media, educational systems, charitable foundations, political and service organizations, private corporations, public agencies, and international cooperatives can all be exploited to promote peace.
People are realizing that war and terrorism are mirrors of each other. They are merely two forms of culturally-acceptable (in certain circles) violence we inflict on one another. Until more cultural leaders make the paradigm shift away from both war and terrorism—and the rest follow—we and all our children everywhere will be increasingly at risk for more injustices, more wars, more terrorism, more Holocausts, more Hiroshimas….
Someday, Barack too will see that this is true.