Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Responding to my own blog! (more of my take on it)

Blog comment threads are supposed to be active and fast-moving. I guess I just don't have what it takes to participate in, much less moderate, a comments discussion, because after I wrote my blog about the reaction to Bin Laden's death, I got some very interesting feedback, both on my blog and on facebook, but I didn't come up with any good responses quickly. I'm still not sure I have a good answer, but I'm ready to try, so I figured I'd better just write a new post and start over, so to speak. If you missed the first one, here's the link: http://blog.patrianoceu.org/2011/05/my-take-on-it.html
(And I'm sorry this post is long.)

Here are a few blurbs taken from the comments that I had trouble responding to. They're my food for thought in today's post.
  • Nations are not individuals, and the purpose of our government is to protect its people.
  • USA does not turn the other cheek. USA is not a Christian nation or nonviolent. Where do you see that in our history?
  • Hearing Afghans comment on the evil and suffering Osama has caused THEIR country over the past 10 years has put this in perspective for me.
  • One might also ask why is the pain of an American worth LESS than the pain of someone in those countries? Yes they've had a long history of violence, but does it really make it any easier for Americans?
  • Perhaps, news of OBL's death is the closest thing we'll have to a V-day in the War on Terror. Does that context allow for some sort of celebration?
I think what I'm about to say doesn't directly respond to any of those thoughts, which are of course all very valid. But your thoughts sparked new thoughts so that's what I'm sharing here. In essence, this discussion helped me realise just how awkward and potentially misleading the phrase "war on terror" is.

As a war against a concept instead of a war against a nation, I am thinking that it falls better into the category of the "war against drugs", that is, a pervasive type of crime rather than a particular enemy. We fight the criminal activity at home and work with other governments to break up drug lords' kingdoms elsewhere. We have not and, as far as I know, will not declare war on Colombia or Mexico, for example.

Somewhat as an aside, doing a little bit of web research to decide what I want to say here today, I learned that the average annual number of illicit-drug-deaths per year is approximately 17,000 people in the U.S.A. This is just a bit less than the annual number of homicides in the U.S.A. (upwards of 18,000), many of which are of course also drug-related. (THESE are in fact a tiny fraction of the number of deaths each year due to tobacco (435,000) and - checkthisout! - poor diet and physical inactivity (365,000)!)*

I also came across a plethora of numbers quantifying the human toll of the "war on terror", but I didn't find them very useful to analyse because they're usually given as cumulative totals instead of annual figures, and cited according to any given nation and nationality. But one article suggested that from 2001-2006, the total total total figure might be as much as 180,000 deaths, or 36,000 people who died each year, worldwide, in this "war on terror". Just now as I write this, I see that that's around the same as the drug-induced plus homicide deaths in the U.S.A. only, per year. All these numbers are frighteningly high, of course, because each of those staggering numbers represents human beings, and I don't want to be blithe about any of it, but nonetheless I appreciate them for the perspective they give.

Back to the topic at hand, I found it interesting that about half the people who read my blog agreed entirely with me, and the other half responded by defending the U.S. military response. (I'm relieved no one disagreed with me by trying to argue that it was a good thing to celebrate death!)

And I think that maybe, just maybe, the reason why the whole response to Bin Laden's death, which brought back memories of the response to 9/11, evoked such extreme responses, comes down to how we define "war". Is there a "war on terrorism"? Yes, there is. But have we declared war against a nation, or is this war a rhetoric for a type of crime that is particularly malignant? Well, that's where we diverge. In the war on drugs there is no "V-day", there is no victory. There is just the hope that the crime rates will decrease and survival rates will increase.

Whereas, in a war against a nation, someone one day surrenders or withdraws and the other guy gets to say they won. I personally do not see that happening in the war on terror. We will not have victory and nor will they. Yes, we should keep struggling to decrease the criminality and promote respect for human lives, but we should not deceive ourselves that one day we will win the war and terror will cease. When people find new lucrative or politically effective ways to achieve their means, they will use those means as long as they can possibly get away with it, so I unfortunately believe that the world will always have drugs and the world will always have terror. Let's just do what we can to keep them to a minimum. Law enforcement arrests and prosecutes, and in my career we educate, all of us working toward the same goals of life and prosperity, especially in people's hearts.

And thanks for the reminder that Afghans suffered at Bin Laden's hands as well: terrorism is everywhere and opponents to terrorism are everywhere. This is why I think it's really dangerous to treat this "war" like the kind that Congress declares. Because it justifies us thinking that Palestine or Iraq or Afghanistan is the enemy; even worse it teaches us to say Muslims or Islamists or religious fundamentalists are the enemy.

So no, I'm not saying that the United States should be wussy or something like that, although I still rather passionately believe that nonviolent responses are stronger and more effective.** I'm saying that the way we are fighting the war against the crime has some pretty awful repercussions for our foreign policy, which is actually pretty much a different thing, though of course there is overlap. If we raid a plantation in Colombia and take prisoners, we may be getting the "bad guys", but if we aren't also working to promote a positive image of our shared values and goals with the Colombian people, they are going to side with their drug lords, because that's human nature. Right now I fear the U.S. is making exactly that mistake in catching the "bad guys" of terrorism; this was a golden opportunity for us to show the world that we share those values of life and prosperity, but instead, in order to score political points at home, our government has allowed, even encouraged, the media and its citizens to push an us-against-them idea that us=Christian Americans and them=Muslims everywhere else.

Now there's one other thought rolling in my head that I'm not exactly sure where to place so I'll just tack it on here at the end: how do you bring justice when the criminals have already killed themselves? I'm not thinking specifically Al Qaeda here, because this question is, I think, more applicable moving forward than looking to the past. But all around the world, I see this story repeating itself: out of our desperation for closure, are we looking for justice in the wrong places? Are we blaming Muslims or Palestinians or Pakistanis for a crime committed by their brother or neighbour, because their brother or neighbour is already dead and that is just terribly unsatisfying?

* Stats were repeated on a few sites, but the most informative was http://drugwarfacts.org/cms/?q=node/30
** In my line of work I get some pretty inspiring stories about community-based nonviolent work in Latin America that is making impressive headways in the war on drugs. We have those stories in the Arab world, as well, although the rhetoric of war and fighting still tends to be louder at the end of the day. That, I suppose, might be a topic for another post.

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