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Fight the Right War

Guest Column
Aram Harrow

Many people’s reactions to the atrocities of September 11 have gone from disbelief, to sadness, to anger, quiet or otherwise. We commonly hear that we have received a declaration of war, and should respond accordingly. Here are my arguments for restraint.

The moral case. Morality should be universal. If attacking hostile governments by killing civilians is “evil” and “the very worst of human nature,” then it is no better for the U.S. to do so than for Afghanistan to.

The terrorists who attacked the U.S. last week haven’t spoken up, but probably would describe U.S. foreign policy with “evil,” “cowardly,” “despicable,” and other words that Bush used. They believe that political ends and avenging wrongs from a foreign military justifies killing enemy civilians, even if their support for the government was only indirect. Analogously, Bush’s speech stated that: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” Calls for a spectacularly bloody retaliatory strike aimed loosely towards the billion Muslims in the world are increasing, while dissent has been muted. Mountains of historical evidence document America’s tolerance for heavy “collateral” damage when attacking the infrastructure of a demonized enemy, such as Saddam or Milosevic.

Tuesday’s tragedy demonstrated America’s surprising physical vulnerability, but, perhaps more disturbing, our response threatens to show a moral weakness that will be much harder to justify in hindsight.

The practical case. In Israel, extremists on both sides use terrorism and “random” violence for ends which are neither desperate nor irrational -- they aim to derail peace efforts and provoke a violent response on the other side that will cause moderates to reject compromise and side with extremists. “Jew” or “Arab” loses meaning in the face of the deeper struggle between hatred and tolerance, though typically only events such as Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by an extremist Israeli shock people into remembering. These oft-forgotten and crucial lessons from terror sound like Sunday school truisms: “the aim of violence is to beget further violence” and “blood cannot be washed away with blood.”

These principles must sound a little other-worldly after Tuesday’s atrocities, but there is no other time when it is more important that we remember them. Pausing to note that we can prove very little about the motivations of the attackers (the whole thing might well have been a scheme to sell stocks short at a crucial moment), it is quite plausible that they hope to provoke America into violently lashing out and driving moderate Arab governments into the arms of extremists. If this were true, then easing our minds with carnage and carpet bombing abroad would only play into the enemy’s hands.

Terrorism is war, but fought over hearts and minds instead of land and resources. Pearl Harbor was a focused attack on American Pacific naval power by an enemy that knew war was inevitable and desperately needed to buy time. Its sequel has been anything but. The blow we were dealt last Tuesday was horrific, but affected our military and economic power only symbolically. Were it an actual declaration of war, it would have hit bridges, power plants, Internet and telephone routers, oil pipelines, and other unglamorous, but vital, sources of American strength. Rather than trying to cripple America’s ability to wage war, it was meant to incite one. The 21st century terrorist fears not naval power, but the growing influence of moderates, economic ties to the West, and the victory of peace and tolerance over extremism, paranoia, nationalism and war.

There is indeed a war for us to fight, which will take all the resolve that President Bush called for. However, winning will require not cruise missiles and cluster bombs but mercy and respect for human life. None of this is meant to suggest that the proper response is inaction, or that we should not do our utmost to see justice done. But there is no justice in matching atrocity for atrocity, which bombing the people of Afghanistan from the Bronze Age back to the Stone Age would likely entail.

With the crutch of starting a world war pulled out from under us, the question of “what now?” has suddenly become even harder. Can the United States rethink the way it relates to the rest of the world? Can we take the first step in a global de-escalation of cultural hostility? Can we learn to deter suicidal terrorists with an olive branch? Do there exist modes of international coexistence that escape the aggression/appeasement dichotomy? Without context, Bush’s “resolve” is a curiously ambiguous word -- it can mean either a bottomless acceptance of civilian casualties or the selfless strength and will for peace of a Gandhi or Mandela -- so let us pray that Bush will interpret it to mean that attacks from demons in the shadows cannot frighten us into sinking to their level.

Aram Harrow is a graduate student in the department of Physics.