or, "Responsibility and the War on Terrorism"
Sept 30, 2001
September 11th was a day that put most of the country into a state of profound shock, a sensation that isn't felt too too often in a nation with 24/7 news coverage that ignores most of the world. But because this horrific event happened here at home, we were stunned, saddened, and angered to a degree rarely experienced in the United States in the past 100 years.
I'm not that interested in talking about the tragedy itself. Reflections on the dead and the presumed dead are best left to poets and pastors. I also don't want to talk about "how this could have happened," the apparent lapses in safety and security at our nation's largest airports, the "failure in intelligence" that politicians will debate.
What I want to discuss is how we should proceed: what should we do next? Polls taken in the days since the terrorist attacks have shown overwhelming support for a strong military retaliation. That's understandable. I imagine no shortage of volunteers would be willing to track down those responsible for the planning (if not direct execution) of these attacks and personally strangle them dead. But a purely violent response on our part could escalate tensions between the West (particularly the United States) and even friendly (or at least not unfriendly) Arab and Islamic states. In the end, we can all agree that above all else we want to end terrorism. And to do that, a greater understanding of the causes of terrorism must be understood and addressed.
The goal of "ending terrorism" is ostensibly the overarching objective of the "new war" that President Bush and, it seems, the entire Washington DC leadership, intends to pursue. Ending terrorism is a lofty objective, but how realistic a goal is it? To answer this question, let's talk about some other "wars" that we're involved in at the moment.
Since crack became a common narcotic in this country, the government has waged a war on drugs. Our government spends billions every year in the effort to halt the creation and distribution of illegal substances. The problem is that drugs aren't really the problem. Drugs don't attack. Drugs don't sneak into the country. Drugs don't manufacture themselves. People are responsible for the creation, distribution, and consumption of drugs. And for as long as there are consumers, there will be manufacturers. To attempt to stop one without the other is folly. In a real war, a victor is declared when their opposition surrenders or dies. How will we know the war on drugs is over? When all people in the drug trade--users and manufactureres--are dead? When every last dealer turns themselves in to the police?
The United States has also, at times in our recent history, fought wars on crime. But crime has never and will never go away. Poverty, misery, even psychosis will always drive some people to commit crimes. How can crime be eliminated if its causes cannot be?
A war on terrorism could be as pointless and impossible to win as the wars on drugs and crime. Terrorists may not be as intangible as drugs, nor as common as criminals, but they are not a single political or geopolitical entity with an easily identifiable leadership that can be destroyed and eliminated. We may be able to capture, even kill, Osama bin Laden, but he is not the only radical Islamic fundamentalist obsessed with the destruction of the United States.
It's also important to consider that the terrorists who committed the September 11th attacks weren't just terrorists. They were suicide terrorists. These men were not only willing, but eager, to die for their cause. What deterrence can we have to this kind of zealot? What makes someone willing to kill himself for a cause? There are two primary reasons. The first is a religious reason. Someone is convincingly telling these young men that their sacrifices will take them directly to heaven.
Why would someone be so anxious to end life on this world and go to the next one? The answer lies in the day-to-day living conditions of the typical terrorist recruit. Thousands of Palestinians in the Middle East, in particular, live in refugee camps. The camps are filthy, disease-ridden, and crowded. Job and educational opportunities are extremely limited, virtually non-existent. They see Israel and Israelis as the obstacles to any improvement of their lives. And they believe Israel couldn't exist without the U.S.'s support.
If a young man growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp, or in Lebanon or Afghanistan, can be convinced that blowing himself up in a crowded restaurant or slamming himself and his vehicle into a structure full of Americans will not only take him to heaven, it will give his family and friends a better chance of escaping the misery and suffering of their daily lives, then what can really be done to stop him?
To end terrorism, we need to acknowledge this reality. While nothing justifies or excuses the terrorists' attacks, we still have a responsibility to do our part to actively create for a true, just peace in the Middle East. If we openly favor Israel, as our government tends to do, the Arab world will not trust us to be involved in enforcing any peace. Palestinians, Lebanese, and Afghans must see an improvement in their lives so that desparate acts of terrorism aren't viewed as promising releases from pain. At the same time, the Arab world must be willing to compromise and accept on some level the right for Israel to exist. Israel must acknowledge that their nation was created out of land that didn't belong to them and modify their society accordingly.
We must rethink our role in the world and act less unilaterally. We should act only when invited or when our direct national security is threatened, or when there exists a true international concensus that action must be taken.
We must also realize that as the wealthiest, most powerful nation on Earth, there will always be people and groups who hate us and would like to see us destroyed. And for this reason we must defend ourselves. Defense, in fact, is the most important response at the moment. Just as you lock your doors to defend yourself from crime and you educate your children as a defense against drug abuse, we must take measures to defend ourselves from terrorism. The trick will be doing this without stripping ourselves of our civil liberties.
Of course, the suggestions I've outlined here will require a great deal of work and a great deal of cooperation and compromise among many disparate groups. They may seem impossible to realize. Surely they are no more impossible than a victory in a war "to rid the world of evil." If creating a world without terror is truly our intent, let our actions achieve justice and not more pain and suffering.