Waging Peace in a Terrorist Age

News & Politics

The terrorist attack against the United States was truly a heinous act of evil. Clearly the perpetrators and those supporting them must be brought to justice. Yet we as a nation must be careful to deliver a measured response based on facts rather than irrational military machismo. More than anything, we must avoid joining with the terrorists by killing innocent civilians.

The Cold War is over and the recent attack underscores the fact that the biggest threat to international security is terrorism. The assault on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center point out the immense challenge of stopping it. When eighteen zealots armed only with razors and plastic knives can kill thousands of people and cause tens of billions of dollars in damages it becomes perfectly clear that we need a new direction if we are truly to protect our nation.

Current military philosophy generally relies on the strategy of "an eye for an eye." The day after the tragedy, Elliot Cohen, a respected international relations expert at Johns Hopkins University was widely quoted saying, "We are going to have to begin killing people. It's not about bringing people to justice. It's about going after them and killing them." Many U.S. Senators and other military experts had similarly hawkish views of the situation.

Yet as Martin Luther King pointed out so eloquently, "the old eye for an eye philosophy ends up leaving everybody blind." And in today's environment the stakes are painfully high. Will the terrorists' response to our military retaliation against them be a biological weapon released into Chicago's water system? Or perhaps a nuclear bomb detonated in a van parked in downtown Los Angeles?

One of the eyewitnesses to the tragic events in New York was Satish Kumar, editor of the British magazine Resurgence. Satish gained international recognition in the 1960s, when he walked from his native India to France as a protest against the Vietnam War. (After walking through China, Russia, and Eastern Europe he was arrested and jailed by French President Charles DeGaulle, and eventually bailed out by philosopher Bertrand Russell, who flew Satish to England where he now resides.)

I spoke with Satish the day after the attack and he gave me an interesting perspective, based on his personal philosophy of non-violence in the tradition of Mohandas Gandhi. "What we have experienced in New York is a result of past violence and response to terrorists. More weapons and the use of force won't keep people safe. Only peace is true security," Satish said.

The situation in the Middle East is a painful lesson in the dynamics of violence. Palestinians and Jews are locked in an escalating cycle of violence and revenge which has engulfed the country in an atmosphere of fear and repression. The current mindset in the U.S. may invite similar patterns. Will our almost inevitable military response provoke even more atrocious acts of evil and escalate the fear associated with it? And will our fear of terrorism result in actions that deny U.S. citizens their civil liberties in the name of security? Turning America into a police state will only give more strength to those who choose the path of evil.

Satish strongly believes that the solution to terrorism is to advance higher forms of international non-violent conflict resolution. "We need to develop new forms of diplomacy, steeped in a non-violent response to terrorism," he said. "Only by undersanding the cause of hatred which leads to terrorism can it be responded to. The United Nations is a perfect forum to begin such a process."

Recent history bears this logic out. Many of the most extraordinary political successes in the twentieth century were based in non-violent conflict resolution. Gandhi's efforts helped to achieve independence for India from Great Britain and inspired a global movement against colonialism and racism. Other historic outcomes achieved through non-violent means include the American suffrage movement that won women the right to vote; huge gains in civil rights attained by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement; an end to the Vietnam War, hastened by tremendous public opposition; democracy in the Phillipines and Eastern Europe, inspired by non-violent revolutions; and an end to apartheid in South Africa, encouraged in part by an international economic boycott.

Unfortunately, in the past year the U.S. has moved away from rather than toward international engagement. Prior to September 11, the Bush administration had done a number of things to alienate the international community. Prime examples are the rejection of the Kyoto Treaty on Global Warming and the Bioweapons Protocol to limit production of biological weapons. In addition, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made it clear that the U.S. plans to build its "Star Wars" missile shield, in violation of our Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.

In recent days analysts have concurred that the most likely result of this terrorism will be increased U.S. military spending -- beyond the already staggering $300 billion a year. As if missile defense or massive weapons programs could have done anything to prevent the September 11 tragedy -- or future domestic tragedies perpetrated by suicide bombers.

This isn't a situation that will be solved by more military spending and brute force. It will take world-class diplomacy and a commitment to justice rather than vengeance.

I believe our ultimate lesson in this tragedy is to learn to wage peace in this terrorist age. This requires us to understand and respond to the root cause of the hatred that inspires such unrepentant violence. I pray we find the strength to do so.

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