Courage of the Vanquishing

[Letter to various news organizations and emailed to friends September 14, 2001]

The events of September 11, 2001 have been called an "attack on our way of life," and "an attack on civil society". Horrific, and devastating as they were, is our only option an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?

Colin Powell might want to reread his own words from Foreign Affairs of 1992. Considering the steps to be taken before letting bullets fly, the then general wrote,

Is the political objective we seek to achieve important, clearly defined and understood? Have all other nonviolent policy means failed? Will military force achieve the objective? At what cost? Have the gains and risks been analyzed? How might the situation that we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further and what might be the consequences?

In the Middle East, Ireland and elsewhere we chastise the warring parties for engaging in tit-for-tat, escalating spirals of violence that we suspect will lead only to a prolongation of animosity and distrust. We implore the parties to take small steps, to embrace "confidence building measures." We cajole and even bully the parties to sit down and work out their differences.

We are practical Americans used to the idea that somewhere there lies compromise and an accommodation that can suit both parties. We believe in the "win-win" scenario. Now we have already declared war before identifying an enemy. If we couldn't find the North Vietnamese in North Vietnam, how do we intend to find international enemies using the whole world and even our own country as their hiding place?

There is a chorus of editorials and reports from Europe suggesting that they are already trying to downplay the notion of a war. There are good reasons for this. Europe has more experience of war on one's home turf. War, it is pointed out, is an activity between groups typically nations, typically over territory. How do we fight a war over an idea, our way of life, with an enemy who has no country? How will we know when we have won? What if we lose? Are we to exterminate people because they don't believe in our way of life?

And what is that way of life that we are defending anyway? Do we really think that Muslim fundamentalists will be happy if they can just live in a monster home, drive an SUV, eat a cheeseburger, devote research to genetically engineering plants and animals, abort unwanted children, download pornography from the Internet?

President Bush has already declared in the context of energy use, "The American way of life is a blessed one." Are we setting ourselves up then for our own holy war? If we think the American way of life is about human rights, democratic freedoms, free and open markets, are we to impose them by force on those who don't share these values?

In Ireland we called the IRA terrorists, but sat down with Sein Fein. In the Middle East we called the PLO terrorists, but we sat down with Yasser Arafat. We call Osama bin Laden a terrorist, but do we think we will not end up in dialog with the Taliban?

It took brave and forward thinking leadership to drop the gun and instead promote dialog with their enemies. We have celebrated their genius on our own White House Lawn. Now that we find ourselves in a similar position, are we courageous enough to do the same?