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Not Contributing to Terrorism

Henry Shue

Those of us who know that we are older, and hope that we are wiser, have dispensed large amounts of free advice during the week since September 11 to young people like you.  I think that the one thing you must be sure to remember is that there is no one thing to remember.  If the problem were so simple that grasping some one point would have allowed us to solve it, we would have solved it by now.

If all the people of my generation who are now putting ourselves forward as wise men were as wise as we pretend, you would not face the kind of world you face.  Many of those who now propose to "solve the problem" are the people who have allowed the problem to mushroom.  There is no guarantee that we are any wiser today than we were last Monday.  The TV is swarming with people saying two things: first, everything is different--nothing will ever be the same; and second, the solution is whatever policy they had been advocating all along.  "The world is transformed, and I was right all along."

I offer you two suggestions.  First, we must try to avoid making matters worse than they already are, which is much easier said than done.  At one point last week Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz spoke of "ending states who sponsor terrorism."  President George W. Bush has promised to "rid the world of the evildoers."  And Vice-President Cheney threatened that nations failing to join the U.S.'s crusade would face the "full wrath of the United States."  These indiscriminate threats are irresponsible not only because they are empty--no one can "rid the world of the evildoers"--but more importantly because they could prepare the way for indiscriminate killing on our part.

A terrible evil was perpetrated on Sept. 11, but the grounds for judging it to be terrible also provide the limits on a justifiable response.  The attacks on Sept. 11 were massacres because they killed people who had not harmed the killers and were not a direct & immediate threat to the killers.  The only people whom one can justifiably kill, I believe, are people who have already done you great harm, as punishment, or people who are directly threatening harm, as defense.

The fact that U.S citizens have suffered great harm does not entitle us to go around the world inflicting similarly great harm on people who have not harmed us and do not threaten us.  It is clear that the U.S. government will take severe military action--we have to hope that the action is much more discriminating than the rhetoric so far.

Will military action discourage another round of terrorism?  I hope so, but I doubt it.  If I could have one wish right now, it would be to ban from the English language the indiscriminate "them."  If the U.S. government indulges in revenge and in indiscriminate killing, it will create more terrorists.  We will have wronged innocent strangers and harmed our own vital interest in security, through the same acts.

So my second suggestion is that we provide an alternative source of hope for those who are not terrorists but now see hope only in terrorism.  The U.S. government is preparing for military action in the Muslim world, in a big way.  The last time the U.S. engaged in military action in the Muslim world in a big way was the Gulf War.  That war went well for the U.S. side: the Iraqi aggression against Kuwait was reversed, and casualties among combatants on the allied side were very low.  But civilian casualties in Iraq, at the time and since, were far higher than would ever have been guessed by Americans who rely for their news on CNN, with its childish fixation on high-tech weapons; and, more important, although the war was short, for ten long years--from 1991 until today--the U.S. has insisted on economic sanctions that have done little to hurt the regime of Saddam Hussein and much to hurt, and kill, powerless ordinary people in Iraq, people some of whom might otherwise have become opponents of the regime.

In spite of their evident futility, the sanctions have been maintained by Democratic and Republican administrations.  To many people, including many Muslims, these failed sanctions look heartless and seem to reflect low regard for those affected, because they blight the lives of children and other powerless people, while being only a mild inconvenience to the dictatorship that also blights the lives of those same victims.  One way to signal solidarity with desperate people in the Middle East would be to end these pointlessly cruel sanctions, in order to say forcefully: we are not your enemy, but the enemy of your enemy.

I have found myself recalling the advice that Archibald MacLeish placed, in J.B., in the mouth of Job's wife:

The candles in churches are out.

The lights have gone out in the sky.

Blow on the coal of the heart

And we'll see by and by...

Our ultimate light is the spark of humanity in the ordinary human heart.  We must blow on the coal of the heart and keep that spark alive, first of all in ourselves: we must not turn ourselves into beasts, whoever our enemies may be.  And we must not smother that spark of humanity where it still glows in the hearts of "them."

- Henry Shue

  September 17, 2001