Thursday, May 20, 2010

We have seen the terrorists and they are us

We have seen the terrorists and they are us.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, publisher and editor of Tikkun Magazine, is a vocal critic of Israeli oppression of Palestinians. He is equally critical of Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Recently his house was attacked by persons who glued posters to his door attacking Lerner personally, and attacking liberals and progressives as being supporters of terrorism and "Islamo-fascism."

Is Rabbi Lerner a victim of terrorism? Let's agree immediately that there are different kinds of terrorism. Terrorism often involves physical violence against random people. Examples are 9/11, or suicide bombers in a sidewalk cafĂ© in Tel Aviv. But not all violence is terrorist – husbands who murder their wives and then kill themselves are not trying to intimidate anyone. They want to destroy. But terrorist violence does not aim at destruction for its own sake; it has the explicit purpose of instilling fear, to terrify. No one got hurt in the attack on Rabbi Lerner's house but the point was clearly to send a frightening message: “We know where you live; you better watch yourself and your family.” This is terrorism without bodily violence.

Many definitions of terrorism stipulate that intimidation by governments are not terrorist. When police throw their weight around, when the CIA tortures prisoners, when the military sends its airplanes to rain bombs on an enemy city, that is not considered terrorism.

Whether we call government actions terrorists or not, matters little. It is important to see that intimidation by inflicting pain and death, or life threatening serious harm is used by governments as often and as regularly as by its opponents. In its war against the Mexican government, the drug cartels kidnap and kill. They undermine the democratic process, for instance, by killing candidates in elections. The government reciprocates by arresting and torturing suspects.

Here is Sen. Leahy's (D-VT) story about his encounter with drug enforcement police:
"It was about 125 miles from the border. In a car with license plate one on it from Vermont. With little letters underneath it that said U.S. Senate. We were stopped and ordered to get out of the car and prove my citizenship. And I said 'What authority are you acting under?' and one of your agents pointed to his gun and said 'That's all the authority I need.' Encouraging way to enter our country!"

Calling Palestinians or the Taliban “terrorists,” and withholding that label from the governments that oppose them or from the people who defaced Rabbi Lerner's house obscures the fundamental fact that the most common response to conflict in the world is an attempt to intimidate the opponent. Often that intimidation involves inflicting physical harm on more or less innocent bystanders. Carpet bombing enemy citizens is a good example of that. At other times, the mere threat of physical harm suffices to intimidate.

The root problem is the universal inclination to respond violently to conflict. In almost any disagreement, someone will try to get his or her way by threatening the other party. The most common response to disagreement is an attempt to intimidate the other in order to make them pliable and get them to yield.

We learn terrorists techniques as children because most adults threaten children: sit still or else..., eat this or else..., go to bed or else.... The examples are endless. By the time we reach adulthood we have learned that the way to resolve disagreements is to threaten the other. In this way children learn to be bullies. The response of adult legislators—who had the same teaching as children-- is to pass new laws which threaten bullies with incarceration. Legislators bully the bullies. Responding with violence is a knee jerk reaction of our governments. It has landed us in the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq, as well as earlier in Korea and Vietnam. It involved us, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, in the ill-fated “war on drugs.” Current government policy to improve failing schools it to punish the teachers by firing them. Will punishing teachers improve our schools?

Calling some of our opponents “terrorists” while refusing to attach that label to our own actions, conceals the fact that we too are prone to use violence to intimidate both in our international policies and in response to domestic problems. Whatever the crisis, we look for the guilty party and threaten them . When will we draw the obvious lesson that intimidation rarely solves problems? Or that it always creates new ones?

Surely there are alternatives to bullying, to intimidation, to violence and terrorism. One alternative is an integral part of the Christian message: “Turn the Other Cheek.” But that is a hard recommendation to follow.

A more promising response to conflict is to talk it over. Democracy is one form of this approach to conflict resolution. Participating in a democratic system commits one to avoid violent and/or coercive responses to people who have different interests or different ideas. Instead, one promises to have conversations about the disagreement in the hope of settling it by talking it over.

Talking it over can only succeed if participants are flexible, if they are profoundly dedicated to peaceful resolutions of conflict, if they are prepared to examine their own stance critically, and to give a respectful hearing to the views of others.

All of this is very difficult. But it will save untold lives and prevent much suffering.