Saturday, July 14, 2007

Ending the war on terrorism

Quakers are traditionally called to “live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.” Buddhists are reminded in the Dhammapada that hatred never ends through hatred but only through love, and that anger will never come to an end as long as one dwells on all the ways in which one has been wronged and abused. How can these principles, one from a Quaker source and the others from a Buddhist source, be applied to what has come to be called the war on terrorism (or the war on terror)?

We can begin by noting that the principles stated above suggest that terrorism can never be brought to an end by terrorism. We can then go on to ask what the nature of terrorism is. Having asked that, we can ask how terrorism might be brought to an end.

Terrorism usually means the use of violence or the threat of violence as a means of intimidating or demoralizing a population, especially a civilian population, so that the people being attacked or threatened will stop being an obstacle to what one wishes to achieve.

The government of the United States has characterized some actions taken against American citizens (and others living in the United States) as acts of terrorism. The most frequently cited instance, of course, is the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC on September 11, 2001. The response to those attacks was swift and aggressive and resulted in violent actions against people, many of them perfectly innocent civilians, in Afghanistan and Iraq that led to much physical and psychological suffering. The response has also resulted in threats of violence to Iran and more subtle reminders that violence is an option in dealing with other countries, such as Syria and North Korea. The response to terrorism has been a series of actions that could themselves be described as terrorism.

The response to the American terrorism has been yet more acts of terrorism against the allies of the United States. The cycle of violence shows no signs of subsiding. To a generation of people who have lived through the so-called cold war, a time of incessant stockpiling of nuclear and biological and chemical weapons (often now called weapons of mass destruction), this war on terrorism is nothing new. It is a continuation of woefully incompetent ways of dealing with people who are perceived as obstacles and threats. The time has come to consider other ways of taking away the occasions of war.

A place to begin taking away the occasion of terrorism against the United States is to ask why the United States is perceived as an obstacle to the dreams and wishes and needs of the people who have been attacking the country. Fortunately, one does not have to inquire very far, for the people being called terrorists have made their wishes known. One festering issue for more than a decade has been the continued presence of United States military personnel in Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Middle East after the first Gulf War, a presence that has been maintained despite promises made by Richard Cheney at the time of the first Bush presidency that United States troops would withdraw when that conflict was over. Continued military presence has been seen as a betrayal and as a promise broken. It is not in any way unreasonable for people around the world to be alarmed by the number of American military and naval bases situated all over the planet when it is not obvious that the military presence is either necessary to maintain peace and stability or effective in doing so.

The United States could perhaps bring hostility against itself to an end rather quickly if it were bring all of its military personnel and equipment back to this country rather than maintaining a costly and not obviously useful presence in every continent in the world. (As of 2002, the US had military bases in 63 countries and troops stationed in 156 countries.) This would eliminate one of the occasions of war and terrorism.

The United States, long after the cold war has come to an end, has maintained a frighteningly large stockpile of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. These armaments can only be a source of concern and fear (perhaps even terror) to billions of people. Maintaining those weapons while working to prevent other nations from acquiring them can only be seen as hypocrisy, and this hypocrisy natural results in frustration, resentment and even hatred against the United States. Maintaining those arms is not necessary for defending the country against any of the forces that now threaten it. They should be dismantled and destroyed. That would eliminate another of the occasions of war and terrorism.

Although wars are often justified as means of protecting abstract ideas and values, at the root of most conflicts are disputes over territory and access to means of livelihood. In the world today there is an enormous disparity in access to goods and services. A small percentage of the world's population live in a state of unprecedented affluence and abundance, and the majority live in deprivation and desperate poverty. The economically and socially weak have very few means of improving their lot in life. The disparity can be addressed only if the affluent do all they can to bring about a more even distribution of the means of achieving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If the United States is serious about protecting itself from terrorism, she could begin to find more productive and charitable uses for the much of the $532,800,000,000 now spent on military readiness. (This figure does not count research and development of WMD, which is done through other agencies.)

There is, of course, no guarantee that repatriating all military personnel, reducing stockpiles of armaments to the modest quantities necessary to ensure domestic peace, and redistributing the world's resources will bring an end to all war and conflict. There is, however, a near certainty that a failure to do these things will perpetuate a climate of resentment, fear and loathing directed at the United States until such time as this country, like all empires before it, collapses from its own extravagance, arrogance and incompetence.

Quakers are advised as follows: “Stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remember they they too are children of God.” Buddhists are advised to regard all living beings with the love a mother has for her only child.

Needless to say, one need not be either a Quaker or a Buddhist to stand firm in the testimony to take away the occasion of all wars. This is a testimony that all agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Baha'is, Christians, Daoists, Hindus, Humanists, Jews, Muslims, Pagans and shamanists can stand firm in together. It is worth trying.