Progressive Writers Bloc

The War on Violence?

By David Chandler

In 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.

Today this 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 passes unnoticed.

Terrorism is 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 on violence."

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, it’s worth it."

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 violence—it'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.

After 9/11 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.

Deny terrorism 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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