My jaw has been hurting. I blame TV news, which I have been tuning into more frequently since the attacks in Paris. Or rather, I blame the people who they parade across the screen to explain our current strategy for fighting ISIS, and to assess its effectiveness. These people—senators, the President, the Secretary of State, and various military and security analysts—seem so serious with their suits and ties, and the air of authority and confidence they emit. Watching them, though, I clench my teeth in fury and frustration, and then all of a sudden my jaw drops wide open in stunned stupefaction at the foolish pretense of it all. Spasms of frustration, anger, and disbelief knot my face.
My tightening jaw muscles and gnashed teeth aside, the upshot of these experts is either that the strategy is working or that it is not working because it has been insufficiently aggressive. The attackers, in any event, are referred to as “psychopathic killers” of something like that, against whom our fighter-jets and drones will soon achieve vengeance and justice, as we wipe out another safe haven for terror--a phrase that should stop a thinking person in his or her tracks. Meanwhile, domestic officials and authorities talk about things like newly formed police “strike forces,” and promise all sorts of enhanced security measures to keep us and our courageous and peace-loving way of life safe from the haters and psychopathic killers storming our otherwise open gates.
Before speculating on how this sickening jargon of justice and security is able to pass itself off as good and informed sense, I’d like to point out to some simple evidence suggesting that our “strategy” is an utter failure. What passes for an informed response from a Western democracy has, I think, severed most remaining ties with judgment and thoughtful consideration and, to an even greater extent, any connection with meaningful moral principles of the kind required to create a just and peaceful world.
The very existence of ISIS would appear to be evidence, in and of itself, of the failure of the strategies we’ve been employing over the past 15 years, at least, to “fight international terror.” If the current strategy, the very one used in the fight against Al Qaida, had worked, ISIS wouldn’t have risen to fill the partial vacuum created by the weakening of its predecessor and now rival—never mind all the previous bungling that led to the inspiration of Al Qaida and to its growing influence in the once fertile crescent of Iraq and Syria. If we eliminate or weaken ISIS by taking out its leadership or by pounding its followers with ordinance, the safe bet says another group will rise it its place. Bombs kill people, but not anger, resentment, and humiliation. These are in fact fertilized by the toxic dust of a five hundred pound bomb. This seems to be so obvious that I wonder why I, a simple carpenter from Milwaukee, have to point this out.
Is there any time in history when vengeance or retribution has achieved its stated aim—in this case, enhancing our security? Has one aggressor ever, to anyone’s knowledge, been cowered into permanent submission by way of the death and destruction of its own people by another aggressor? Sending in the warplanes may provide some sort of depraved catharsis--but security? This isn’t to say that standing tough while negotiating can’t, I suppose, deter aggression before the bullets begin to fly, nor that complete domination isn’t, for a time, sometimes possible. But does the enemy ever say to itself, as the dust settles and the bodies are carried away: “well, I guess we’re messing with the wrong people, here. Everyone, disband and go back to your farm”? Perhaps it has happened at some time in history. Perhaps a humiliated rebel group has reconsidered its goals or recognized the supposed error of its ways. But I can’t think of any.[i] I can, of course, think of countless cases in which seeking vengeance or “getting tough” results in more conflict—namely, almost every time force is used to “send a message.”
Why can’t they hear our seemingly clear message? Because they don’t see themselves as psychopathic killers. They believe in their cause and can recite the growing list of grievances that gives them cause. If they are filled with hatred, this hatred will only be increased with the onset of increased violence and humiliation. Isn’t this obvious?
That people even on the more thoughtful side of the American political divide routinely advance the proposition that attacking people with terrible weapons of destruction might make the world more peaceful or keep us safer from others suggests an impoverished understanding of the basic psychology of others—or, perhaps, the erasure of others as possessing a nuanced psychology in the first place. This seems to be the case with John Kerry’s reference to the Paris attackers as “psychopathic killers,” a phrase that has its own knot in my jaw muscles. If they are simply psychopathic killers, we needn’t consider the question, “why are they doing this? What conditions are leading to this desperation?” In fact, if we arm ourselves with enough thought-stopping labels, we needn’t bother with any curiosity about the world outside of our selves: “oh, psychopathic killers, and that ideology of hate... well that explains everything. How can we kill them all off before they get to us?”
Lest we indulge in the same lack of curiosity that our leaders appear to have used to numb their own sensibilities, it is worth asking with some sincerity, why—why this reductive simplicity on the part of our leaders? The entire situation deserves a renewed sense of curiosity by us, if no one else. For when smart people in leadership roles say idiotic things, there is usually a reason why and this reason may have something to do with us—more so, at any rate, than most anyone really wants to admit.
There is, it turns out, great danger in the sort of curiosity that might lead us to ask why so many young men and some young women of the Middle East find themselves in a place where death and destruction, and an early rendezvous with paradise, seem the best course of action. For such curiosity may initiate a line of questioning and reveal a chain of connection stretching between their desperation and our international policies, or even our way of life. The self-proclaimed virtue we use to hide our own violence and destruction might burn-off under the light of contemplation.
For no one really disputes the fact that we are so deeply involved in the Middle-East for reasons having to do only with our own self-interest, and a self-interest that quickly boils down to our quest for power and privilege without any real concern for the lives of those living above our oil fields. No one disputes the fact that there is a deep deficit of hope in most Middle-Eastern nations, a history of outside interference (from Europe and America), high unemployment, and a coming crisis with a nearly unimaginable magnitude that will spiral out of control once the oil begins to run out. No one who has investigated it disputes the fact that the Syrian civil war was sparked in tinder dried to a self-igniting crisp by five years of drought, nor would they dispute that this drought that can be attributed to global climate change.[ii] No one disputes the fact that Syrian oil production peaked in 1996, and that its oil consumption nearly reached its level of production just prior to the civil war.[iii] No one disputes the fact that Americans are responsible for about one quarter of all current atmospheric carbon emissions when our imports of industrial products are included, or that the United States, as a whole, uses oil at a rate of about 70 times that of Syria or about 7 times that of Syrians on a per capita basis.
But you’ll never hear any of this, nor the same sort of figures about Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia, or Sudan, especially not when it is time to speculate about what motivated the psychopathic killers. Nor will it be mentioned when the experts begin assessing the effectiveness of our current strategy of bringing more death and destruction to the region, nor in the context of our promise of renewed investment once we have propped up a stable government that is open for business.
In all fairness to our national leaders, we should make explicit the implicit caveat which gives some sort of sense to their utterances: what they really mean, I think, is this: given the fact that we have no intention of apologizing for our way of life (Barack Obama), because our way of life is non-negotiable (George H. W. Bush and Dick Cheney); and given the fact, therefore, that asking questions that might suggest we ought to apologize for it and make drastic changes to it is a useless exercise—given all this, they seem to be asking, how is our policy working? Given our working range of realistic political options, to put it slightly differently, what is our best course of action? Just send in the bombers, or send in the bombers while trying to build a pro-West coalition government? Punish them without mercy, or punish them without mercy and then do a bit of perfunctory rebuilding?
True, this is a lot like saying, “given my refusal to accept the gravitational pull of the Earth, how well am I staying aloft?” And in equal fairness, we should admit, these constraints are not entirely self-imposed by our leaders. We the people have something to do with their political constraints and we the people might start taking action where government officials cannot. I hope, at any rate, that at least a sizeable group of us are able to apologize and negotiate before our backs are too tight against the wall or our feet are too deeply dug in against the growing spiral of conflict. Because the “givens” in the American policy are what is wrong with it and are why it will never work.
So what might actually work? Although admittedly I’m not an international relations expert, I have been watching people for a few years now, and have seen the way they (and I) act under pressure and in the context of fear and anger. Based on these observations, I have taken a few minutes to put together my own brief list.
1) Keep the fighter planes at home. Imagine the response and respect France would have received in the target nations, nations where anger and resentment mix with hopelessness and can turn, from time to time, into terrorism. We pretend we want to help the so-called moderates in countries like Iraq, Libya, or Yemen. Let’s really help them out by not confirming fears and suspicions about our own blood-thirsty or indifferent nature. If the Great Satan stays calm, maybe that label won’t stick.
2) That is the easy one, if for no other reason that there is little that the common person can actually do about this. It falls more into a political wish-list that may someday translate vaguely into a vote, than something we can actually do. What we really need to do is change the way we live and stop consuming at a rate five times the global average. Too often this also falls into the “political wish-list category” as we make bland and effectual calls for someone to “get us off of oil.” But it doesn’t have to be relegated to the wish list. We can join together and find collective ways to create strong and resilient communities that share, reuse, and live far more simply than we do now. We can avoid discretionary air travel, live in smaller homes, and buy fare fewer new things. We can get out our bikes, walk, and grow some vegetables in our yards. In fact, we can turn our whole yards into vegetable gardens and orchards. Our high rate of consumption is not caused by someone else. It is us, and we need to take action and responsibility of our own accord.
3) This taking responsibility requires some difficult humility and, I think, the request for forgiveness. I am not suggesting that causal chains are singular or simple, but among the broader web of interconnection it is all too easy to ignore the chain that connects our consumption to global warming, global warming to the Syrian drought, the Syrian drought to their civil war, the civil war both to the refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS, and thus to drone attacks and the screech of war planes. We need to apologize as sincerely and vocally as possible for what we have caused. If we don’t have any good venues for the apology, then it is our job to create them. If we are truly sorry, we will find a way to have our apologies heard.
4) Finally, something we can all perhaps try to participate in. We could come together with our neighbors, our charitable groups, our religious communities, and adopt refugee families. There is no gesture more powerful than inviting people into your home. We talk to our children about taking responsibility for our actions, and our leaders blow overtime about a culture of responsibility. Let’s actually live responsibly and add to it a culture of love and caring, by sponsoring families in need. Let’s bring those looking for a new start in America to our cities and towns and at our expense. Let’s find housing, help with employment, create a welcoming committee and provide space for people to tell their stories and describe their lives. If we want to “send a message to those who hate us,” here’s a new one: Come to our homes, share our food, allow us to wash your feet after your long journey. They’ve heard the message our leaders, without a blink, have been sending. Now it’s time for we the people to send an open-hearted, vulnerable, message of love and solidarity.
A final closing thought. If all this seems implausible I would only say that it is already happening, only on a scale that has yet to register very deeply or be heard over the din of those crying for revenge and retribution. But we’re here, and the only thing that is keeping us from being a major force is the great numbers of people looking for hope and justice who have yet to come see what we are trying to do and have yet to join us.
I’m talking, here, about the Transition Movement, and other similar groups forming in concert with others or spontaneously out of the fertile soil of hope and commitment. Transition was initiated as a response to climate change, issues surrounding resource depletion and the peaking of the global oil supply, and the economic instability that will be exacerbated by them. But its unique approach to these issues is to foster resilient communities of people trying to live simply and peacefully in such a way that our governments may someday be able to apologize and negotiate successfully on our humble behalf. In the meantime, we are creating new low energy systems that we might live by and networks of care with which we might better thrive.
As an example of what Transition initiatives might do, Transition founder Rob Hopkins has organized into a single volume a collection of 21 Stories of Transition, in preparation for the COP21 climate talks in Paris this next month (availablehere). Hopkins will be there, telling Transition Stories, celebrating the change that has already started with the sprouting of a million roots of grass, telling those who can find a way to listen about something truly hopeful and fresh, that “something brilliant and historic is already underway.” “Our message to the Obamas, Camerons and Merkels of this world,” he continues, “needs to be that it's already happening without them, and they need to support and enable it, but even if they do nothing, it will continue to grow, because it's the future.”[iv] Not only is it already happening, a grassroots transition (unlike the competitive statecraft likely to seize the forefront at the Paris summit) might actually work.
[i] WWII is in some ways a counter example, but it may also be an anomaly that lives too large in the minds of current security experts. If the military humiliation were not followed by the most massive rebuilding in world history and the installation of governments that the people were, in some measure ready to accept, I think we would have a far different post-war story. These were not the rebellions of the long dominated, but of world powers whose industrial might, once repaired, could be redirected towards domestic abundance.