A New Kind of Peace

"We have met the enemy, and he is us." -- Pogo (whose creator, cartoonist Walt Kelly, died on this day in 1973)

Every time I see George W. Bush at the podium, intoning that ours is a war to eradicate Evil, I can just see Osama bin Laden sitting calmly next to him, wearing an "I'm With Stupid!" t-shirt.

While the U.S. writhes over a bunch of minor exposures and one (count him, one) death from anthrax, Afghanistan is getting pounded and Kashmir is threatening to escalate out of control. Osama bin Laden is unquestionably very, very happy. Whether he started it or not, this is his recipe for world war, and the U.S. is following it like it's reading from his script.

The task of eradicating terrorism rests more than anything else on not just neutralizing existing terrorist plots, but our ability to reach the "hearts and minds" of the much larger number of individuals who are at risk to commit or support such unspeakable acts in the future. That's why "war" is wrong, even as a metaphor; our biggest task is to persuade people, not defeat them.

There are two sets of campaigns in this struggle: security (prevention measures, police, intelligence, even the commando squads that might be spelunking in Afghanistan), and persuasion. Leaving out the misguided military operation, security steps seem to have gone reasonably well, for which the White House deserves credit. But so far, the Bush team has mostly aimed its persuasion efforts not on the Islamic world -- where it's needed -- but on us, the victimized citizens of America. Hence, to cite only one example, we get effusive coverage of a preposterously tiny sprinkling of PBJ's and handiwipes on a country where seven million are on the verge of starvation. Those drops are for our benefit, not Afghanistan's.

Meanwhile, the U.S. doing almost everything imaginable to not favorably persuade potential allies or members of the "enemy." Our bombs and big gunships are destabilizing a volatile (and nuclear) region, blowing up villages' worth of innocent people, forcing out aid programs, and putting an estimated seven million people at risk of starvation this winter. This, and our new chumminess with mass rapists and torturers (the Northern Alliance), brutal dictatorships (Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia), and even a regime waging a near-genocidal campaign against Muslim civilians (Russia, in Chechnya) are creating far more resentment of America in the Islamic world. Not less. By doing all of this, America is inspiring hordes of future terrorists who will inevitably find a way to step in whether or not Al-Qaeda and others are immobilized.

Bush is, as Bowie once sang, putting out the fire with gasoline. We've now started a shooting war in which absolutely nobody can explain what victory will look like or how we'll know when we've won. Bush's answer, quite literally, has been "it's over when we say it is."

That would be absurd if it weren't so fucking dangerous.

The old kinds of resolution of a war -- peace through conquest (think World War II), or peace through stalemate (think Israel/Palestine, which is no peace at all) -- won't do in a "war" against self-defined individuals. The fundamental problem with Bush's war paradigm has been his even more dangerous rhetoric about Good and Evil, dividing the world into two camps: bad and good, enemy and friend. (It's an invitation for other divisions, too: Islam and Judeo-Christian, white and non-white, rich and poor.)

We are battling a tactic. And tactics, and ideologies, can change, just as people can and do change, just as people are each, ourselves, varying combinations of good and evil. Bush wants a war on an unseen Other, but with a new century and a shrinking world, that is no longer possible. We are the other. By identifying the enemy as any individual who decides to hate us in a certain way, we've declared a war on the world, on each other, our neighbors, ourselves. When anyone can be the enemy, everyone becomes the enemy.

Ending that war, achieving a new kind of peace, will require refusing to have an enemy. It requires an effort to ensure that those people irrevocably committed to terrorism will fail, not just because it's too hard to carry out such acts (no matter how we try, it won't be), but because few will support their cause. It means welcoming people, not defeating them. It means, for example, using the endless resources and creativity of America to feed all of Afghanistan, not just 37,000, not just a day at a time. It means using U.S. influence to insist on freedom, democracy, self-determination, economic opportunity, and all that other good stuff for all people, including the Palestinians, Iraqis, Algerians, Egyptians, Saudis, and all the other peoples whose oppression the U.S. now aids, directly or indirectly. It means giving people across the Islamic world (and everywhere else, for that matter) reason not so much to love America or the West as to stop seeing us as the Other, recognizing that we're all on a fairly tiny planet together and can no longer risk global conflagrations. There's too much to lose, and too much to gain by knowing, trusting, and defending each other.

To some people, this approach probably sounds like hopeless hippie shit. But it is, in fact, exactly the premise George Bush is starting from: his inability to understand why people hate America, because it's such a force for good, and his recognition that America needs to state its case (that it's a force for good) more clearly. As a goal, he's right. Assuming it's not all cynical rhetoric, the only gap here is that America's actions are not matching its words -- they're continuing to move in the opposite direction.

Achieving peace in this "war" requires, at the most basic level, recognizing that it is far too dangerous for humanity to allow the planet's affairs to be decided solely through the marketplace and the missile. There must be provisions, in how our planet's technology, resources, and wealth are distributed, to ensure that everyone, evrywhere has the chance to be fed, to be housed, to be secure. We haven't even done that in America. We need it across the planet. We have the technology, the resources, the creativity. We now have ever more urgent reasons to find the will.

Now that this war has started, unless the protagonists want to walk away from it, this is, ultimately, the only kind of peace that will stick. With it, cultural and religious differences, nationalism, and disparities in wealth will still leave U.S. as the focus of some people's resentment. For a handful, the bin Ladens, that resentment will continue to be twisted into psychotic rage.

But we can choose whether the bin Ladens are seen as heroes or pathetic nut cases, whether they are joined by dozens or millions. Without this kind of peace, we are outnumbered, defenseless, doomed, condemned to the sort of slow defeat through mosquito bites that happens with "asymmetrical" wars against an umbombable, unquenchable foe. Or, worse, the kind of global conflagration in which everybody loses.

The only alternative is a peace that will propel us into a new world, a world of six billion family members. To get there, first of all, we have to stop dropping munitions on Afghanistan, and start airlifting serious amounts of food. Now. And then, we need to apply that model on a massive scale. In a war where "everyone must choose," the best way to defeat our potential enemies is to tear down the walls and befriend them.

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