News & Politics

The Horror of War

It seems important for us to remember that responding to terrorism with bloodshed on an even larger scale will only make us less safe.
I have no clear idea what shape the world will be in by the time you read this. The cold-blooded terrorist attacks left all of us staring into the future with a numbing mixture of grief and anger and fear.

As a nation we have faced many steep challenges, but we've been mercifully free of worry about the world's woes crossing our borders to claim innocent lives. The horror of war, for Americans not in uniform, has always been an abstract concept. I think this safe distance from the front lines has shaped our sometimes oversimplified view of international events and the aggressive course of U.S. foreign policy. But now, even as the American public backs extensive military action, we are no longer shielded from the full realization of what war means for men, women, and children.
Everywhere you looked were pictures of missing people, thousands and thousands of them, placed by desperate friends and relatives, in hopes that a miracle might occur.... These sheets of paper are absolutely heartbreaking. The pictures of the missing show people of every nationality and race, every age and religion, describing their physical characteristics and identifying features and telling when they were last heard from.... The pictures show them hugging their wife or husband, holding their child or a pet, embracing friends in a bar. They are so young. So vibrant. So innocent.
This is not an account from Berlin 1945 or Beirut 1982 or Sarajevo 1994. This is an e-mail from my friend Ron Williams, describing scenes outside his front door in New York City. Even now, many days after the attack, it chokes me up to read it. So does another passage from the letter in which Ron (co-founder of Detroit's Metro-Times alternative weekly) describes the spontaneous crowd that gathered along Manhattan's West Side highway waving flags and homemade banners to cheer firefighters, police, and other rescue workers heading home after 18- and 24-hour shifts searching for wounded in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

American flags have appeared all over Minneapolis, too, and for the first time since I grew aware of the Vietnam War as a grade schooler, I can gaze upon the red, white, and blue in a completely unambiguous light. The brave firefighters; the bereaved families; flag-waving New Yorkers; nervous Islamic-Americans; clergy and other leaders appealing for tolerance; my neighbors and I nervously sharing news on the sidewalk each evening-we're all united as Americans in our sadness at this tragedy and in our resolve that an atrocity will not break our spirit. These feelings are heightened for me by the memory of how my I first heard about the attack from election volunteers while voting in our local primary, and how my wife Julie and I got further details from an older black man we met walking home from the polls. "Those are our people," he said, shaking his head. "Those are our people."

At the same time, my feelings of sadness and patriotism don't translate into automatic support for an all-out military assault on anyone and everyone the White House doesn't like. I want the perpetrators of these vicious murders brought to justice. I want measures in place to protect America from further terrorism. But I don't want husbands and daughters and parents on the other side of world to be thrown into agony simply because their innocent loved ones, like workers at the World Trade Center, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We won't see these families sobbing on CNN, my friends will not be describing those scenes in e-mail, but it will bring more sadness into my world just the same.

War is probably inevitable, given our political leaders and the psychological dynamics of the global power structure. Still, it seems important for us to remember that responding to terrorism with bloodshed on an even larger scale will only make us less safe. Every new escalation of violence provokes more of the same. It is not unpatriotic to talk of peace. There are good ways to show our strength, to honor those killed, and to ensure national security other than waging war and siphoning massive amounts of money to the military. This view may be wildly out of tune with the American public at this moment in history, but later, as the flames of revenge cool down in people's hearts, many more will understand that a lasting and honest peace is the best protection against new waves of terrorism.

Satish Kumar, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi who walked around much of the world in the 1960s on a pilgrimage for nuclear disarmament, was staying with my friend Ron in Greenwich Village at the time of the attack. They rushed outside after hearing the news and from a sidewalk on Seventh Avenue saw the second jetliner smash into the World Trade Center. Satish, who is editor of the English magazine Resurgence, offered his thoughts in an article for the Mother Earth News Service: "Governments must provide for the security and defense of their citizenry. But parallel with that protection, we must create a new international culture of peace. Peace is the ultimate security, greater than that provided by any government or any armed entity. We spend so much money on our armed forces and weapons. If half of those resources could be devoted to resolving conflicts peacefully, then we might see some good out of the horrific act we recently have experienced."

That's the glimmer of hope I hold through this dark time. As the mightiest military power the world has ever seen, we might gradually come to see that there is more to be ultimately gained from learning the arts of peace than from perfecting the technology of war. Offering this lesson to the world would be the ultimate mark of America's greatness.