War on Violence?
the 1980s I had a conversation with a Belgian priest who was kicked
out of El Salvador for preaching Liberation Theology. I asked him
how he could justify the violence of the revolutions in Central
America. Although I am a pacifist myself, I have reflected often
on his response. What he said was that the violence of the revolutions
pales in comparison with the "systemic violence" perpetrated
on the people by the governments that oppressed them. The issue
is proportionality. The numbers of people killed in armed conflict
could not begin to compare with the number who died due to starvation
and endemic poverty year after year, with catastrophic effects that
ripple on for generations.
country has come apart at the seams over "terrorism."
Of all the forms of violence in this world we have elevated terrorism
to a special category of evil in our minds. By setting it apart
with an emotionally loaded label, terrorism cannot be rationally
evaluated side-by-side with other forms of violence. Terrorism never
fails to arouse our condemnation even when perhaps a greater violence
the violence that can be dreamed up and carried out by a few angry
men. We refer to "terrorist acts" because each act stands
on it's own, like a statement written in blood, intended to get
someone's attention. On December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked.
This was the prelude to a long and protracted war, in which millions
of people were slaughtered. September 11, 2001 was hailed immediately
by the administration as a "new Pearl Harbor," even though
it was a stand-alone event, starting and ending on a single day.
The deaths were horrifying, but by December of 2001 we had already
killed more people in Afghanistan than were killed on September
11, and over a hundred thousand deaths later, the "righteous"
killing under the banner of 9/11 continues. Yes, we must respond
to terrorism, but "war on terrorism," is fundamentally
irrational. You can no more eradicate terrorism with a "war
on terror" than you can eradicate violence with a "war
Often the greatest
violence is the violence that passes in silence, without the noise
of explosions and overt bloodshed. In the first Gulf War we killed
an estimated 100,000 Iraqis. Yet following the war, during the years
of economic sanctions, the number of people in Iraq who died quietly
in their homes and hospital beds due to deprivation of chlorine
to purify drinking water, basic foods and medicines, and the after
effects of exposure to depleted uranium munitions, was estimated
by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator to exceed half a million (possibly
as high as 1.5 million), including disproportionate numbers of children.
When then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was confronted with
these statistics by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes she did not deny
the facts. Instead she said, "I think, we, think, its
I am not trying
to minimize terrorism. What I am appealing for is a sense of proportion.
Terrorism is not especially heinous because of its level of violenceit's
small potatoes compared to many other forms of violence. Terrorism
is seen as heinous because it literally terrorizes us. We feel vulnerable.
There's nowhere to hide. We identify with its victims. We respond
by acting irrationally. Terrorism has literally become a bogeyman.
we rounded up over 6000 Arab and South Asian immigrants based on
racial profiling, deported many of them, imprisoned others, and
in the process did not find a single terrorist. Was that a rational
thing to do? We turned our backs on due process and our humanitarian
principles and have rationalized torture and renditions. We have
played fast and loose with international law, creating a fictitious
category, "enemy combatants," as a pretext to circumvent
the Geneva Conventions regarding prisoners of war, to justify holding
detainees indefinitely without charges, without trials, without
access to attorneys, and in many cases without even acknowledging
who we are holding. Not only is all this behavior morally and legally
wrong, it is wrong-headed in the extreme. It has failed to capture
actual terrorists and it has failed to deter terrorism. On the contrary,
it has fueled hatred for the United States and recruited more potential
terrorists around the world.
I am not asking
that we ignore terrorism. What I am asking is that we stand up to
an administration that has repeatedly waved terrorism in our face
as a bogeyman, saying "everything changed after 9/11."
On this pretext they have deprived us of our civil liberties, made
us less safe, and diminished us as a nation.
its terror by refusing to set it apart as a separate category. Call
it for what it is: violence, pure and simple. Let us call all violence
into question, even our own. But let us not allow violent people
to intimidate us. Let us respond rationally. Let us not be baited
into abandoning the system of laws and civil rights that protects
us all. Above all, let us not succumb to their violent deeds by
cowering in terror.
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