The humane person’s dilemma regarding the “war on terror”

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?

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