Ted Grimsrud—December 14, 2015
At the beginning of one of my classes the other day, a student asked me what I thought we should do about ISIS? He said he was writing a paper on the topic. My main response was to say that I didn’t have a quick answer ready that I could give in 30 seconds. I said I would get back to him.
Later that day I sent him a link to Juan Cole’s recent short essay that gives some sensible pointers—(1) Don’t accept that the best response to the actions of ISIS is to “declare war.” Actual states should not grant such legitimacy to small bands of violent criminals. (2) Welcome refugees. To characterize all Syrian refugees as potential combatants and to refuse to help them is to play into the hands of ISIS recruiters. (3) Take a public health response to the radicalization of youth in Europe’s bidenvilles—focus on community policing and proactive governmental intervention to improve the dignity of the people.
However, as I thought of about the question, I was troubled with the implications of how this kind of question is usually phrased. What should we do about ISIS? What should we do about Saddam Hussein? What should we do about the Communist threat? What should we do about Hitler?
Who is the “we”?
What troubles me is that this comfortable use of “we” raises what is often seen to be an irresolvable dilemma for pacifists and other people who prioritize peace. The implied answer to this kind of question is almost always that “we” must resort to military force.
We should pause to think about what “we” means here. Who are the possible “we’s” in such a question? (1) Certainly one “we” could refer to the leaders of the United States—after all, we live in a representative democracy and as citizens of this nation what our leaders choose to do does reflect on us. This is what “we” in this context usually seems to refer to.
But the “we” could also mean something such as: (2) we who as citizens of this country have a patriotic duty to advocate for what best serves the nation as a whole (with the recognition that most of the time the policies pursued by national leaders are not in the best interests of the nation as a whole, but more in the best interests of the power elite—the people who profit from war, such as the recent war on Iraq).
There are other possible “we’s” as well. I’m a Mennonite Christian. (3) Shouldn’t my “we” be centered more on my community of faith (which transcends national borders) and my sense of God’s will, not my nation-state? As well, I identify as an international citizen, a person who especially makes common cause with other people who share many of my convictions about pacifism, anarchism, egalitarianism, economic justice, and similar ideals. (4) Isn’t the sense of “we” I share with such other (let me suggest the term) “humane people” more important than particular national identities?
The “we” of options two through four would think of very different responses to ISIS, or let’s say more generally what is labeled “terrorism,” than the “we” of option one. And, I believe, those three options are the kinds of things that any “we” that I want to relate to should pursue—not the options of our national leaders. Power elites do what power elites do—my moral discernment as an American patriot (that is, a believer in the ideals of the American democracy story) or as a Mennonite Christian or as a “humane person” has a lot to do with active opposition to the moral stances taken by the power elite—not echoing their stated (and enacted) options.
The American Empire as terrorist
So many of the conversations I participate in seem to reflect what seems to me to be a naive and unrealistic sense of the United States national security apparatus as a possible agent of peace in the world. The question, “what should we do about ISIS?”, even when asked by a pacifist, seems to take for granted that the possible answer should be focused on what should U.S. forces do—as if U.S. forces have the potential to be a force for peace in the world.
However, the American Empire is by far the worst terrorist in the world if we use a careful, stable definition of terrorism. American forces themselves terrorize people all over the world with overt violence and, even more, the threat of violence. As well, the powers that be in the empire actually benefit from the “extremist terror” of non-governmental actors such as ISIS. Just consider who benefited the most in the U.S. (at least in the short run) from the violent acts of September 11, 2001. Fear, militarism, insecurity, among other similar dynamics, all lead to a tremendous about of money and power going war profiteers, gun manufacturers, right wing media moguls, and fear-exploiting politicians.
We can agree that terrorism is a bad thing and should be opposed and overcome, regardless of its source. We will want to start, then, with a reasonably stable definition of terrorism so we know what we are opposing. The U.S. Army in the Ronald Reagan administration, facing the emergence of terrorism as a central national security theme, presented this definition: “The calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.” This definition may not be the best we could imagine, but it would surely strike most people of good will as reasonable and a good start. The key moral issue, then, is to seek a consistent and objective application of this definition. If terrorism itself is our problem and our responsibility is to resist it, we would oppose any and all incidents of “the calculated use of violence” to attain “political, religious, or ideological” goals.
When we follow a stable definition of terrorism and apply it consistently, we will see terrorism itself as our key problem—not any particular group of alleged terrorists. That is, if we truly oppose terrorism, we will not allow the rubric of terrorism to lead us to label only certain people as “terrorists” in a way that serves political agendas. We will be especially sensitive to the proclivity to use the label both to stigmatize political opponents in ways justifying violent responses to them and to justify acts that according to a stable definition of terrorism are terrorist acts themselves.
For example, in his history of the use of car bombs (Buda’s Wagon), Mike Davis shows that the driving force in using such bombs has been covert American operatives and allies such as Israel. This illustrates how tactics that clearly fit the US Army’s definition of “terrorism” are not generally defined as terrorism when used by status quo powers. The use of terrorist methods (which by definition surely include aerial bombardments, the use of drone warfare, and “targeted assassinations”) is immoral, regardless of who uses them. Pacifists could agree that terrorists must be brought to account for their actions; terrorist acts are indeed crimes of the most heinous variety. However, such accountability must be applied consistently. [The three previous paragraphs are drawn from my essay, “Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism.”]
It is a waste of time to try to imagine what the American Empire should do as if it is capable of creating genuine peace. It simply cannot be an honest player in this process. To play this game is to give consent to empire. This consent, based on thinking our “we” in responding to international violence is the “we” of the American power elite, places us within the assumptions that U.S. militarism is necessary and unassailable. This consent is what the power elite wants when they unleash the propaganda dynamics that try to persuade us that we have no option but the process of domination, the myth of redemptive violence.
What to do?
Part of what humane people must do in response to these “we” questions is simply accept our limitations. In face of the propaganda dynamics that ensure the consent of American people in relation to the U.S. national security apparatus we best recognize that we simply don’t have the capability directly to intervene and fix the terrible injustices occurring around the world. We must accept our relative impotence in order actually to have any power that might be expressed in healing ways.
Let me suggest four general elements of a healing response:
(1) The first, essential element is simply to disbelieve in Empire. Reject the first of the four “we’s” above and cultivate a sense of “we’s” two through four. Refuse the consent the Empire’s propaganda machine pressures us toward. Resist the myths of a morally good American Empire.
(2) Then, we also voice critiques of our national security apparatus, what we could call “American warism.” To the extend we become educated in the issues of the day related to international violence, it is not so we may speculate about how the American Empire can do the most “good” possible—more so, it is so we may critique what the American Empire does, pretty much all that the American Empire does. The goal of this critique, at least in the short run, is not to try to reform the empire nearly so much as it is to call people out of it, to try to increase the refusal of consent.
(3) Embrace with renewed commitment the effort to live as if all life is precious. Find ways to humanize those labeled as “other,” welcome refugees, bring relief to war victims, work at restorative justice and peaceable ways to resolve conflicts, love our grandchildren. Reflect on the spiritual roots of our shared humanity and commitment to nonviolence.
(4) Self-organize. Take whatever power we can find to cultivate self-determination. Participate in alternative economic structures. Find alternatives to violence-based security.
The main calling of humane people in the face of terrorism (in all its forms) is to find alternatives to adding to the spiral of violence. We are called to resist evil without adding to it.
Our ultimate enemy is the spirit of domination, not human beings. The book of Revelation powerfully presents this perception. The enemies of God that are judged and destroyed in Revelation are the spiritual forces of evil (personified as the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet). The city of Babylon is judged and transformed into the New Jerusalem—and the “kings of the earth” (human leaders aligned with the Dragon) find healing in the New Jerusalem once the Powers are cast into the Lake of Fire.
The main strategy Revelation gives for the human work of resisting evil is to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” It is the Lamb’s persevering love that is the key to the outcome of the human project. So, we could say, that any ways we resist domination and practice love are acts of resistance against terrorism (be it the “terrorism” of the desperate thugs who make up entities such as ISIS or the “terrorism” of the American national security apparatus).
[For more reflections on these matters, see my 2014 book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II. I have posted early drafts of the book’s chapters on my PeaceTheology website (see especially chapters 8–10 on alternatives to warism) along with links to various blog posts that discuss these issues.]