Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: Stop participating in it.
My Lai, 1968
I have written several times in critique of the United States and its inclination to become a police or military force in the world. I’m sure that this has made many uncomfortable. A lot of Americans have grown up with the belief that the United States can solve the problems of other nations and will do so in a just way. This is because most of us have been fed a nationalistic version of American history. The kind that minimizes the conquering of American Indians, slavery, racism, and oppression, and in turn praises victories in war, military excursions, discovery, and invention.
My call for us to question U.S. military action comes not only from an essential aspect of my Christian faith, peace, but also from my reading of history through the lens of the “other.” I can already hear the challenges from my patriotic readers: How is the United States supposed to fight terrorism?
First, let me say this. In 2017, politifact did a fact check on violent extremists in the United States since 9/11. The results showed that there have been 85 attacks, with 225 deaths. Of those attacks, 23 were conducted by Islamic extremists, killing 119 individuals. 62 attacks have been conducted by right-wing extremists, killing 106 individuals. For reference, about 750 people have died from lightning strikes since 9/11.
But let me offer some food for thought on this issue and what would be my response to this challenge. If we are ever to decide how we should deal with terrorism, we should first look at how other countries should have dealt with terrorism by the United States. So, lets look at some specific examples: How should the Japanese government have dealt with the United States dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which murdered over 225,000 Japanese civilians. School children, mothers, fathers, teachers, bankers, farmers, grandparents. Akiko Takakuro, who was 20 years old when the bomb was dropped, speaks of what happened:
Many people on the street were killed almost instantly. The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and the fire gradually spread over their entire bodies from their fingers. A light gray liquid dripped down their hands, scorching their fingers. I, I was so shocked to know that fingers and bodies could be burned and deformed like that. I just couldn’t believe it. It was horrible. And looking at it, it was more than painful for me to think how the fingers were burned, hands and fingers that would hold babies or turn pages, they just, they just burned away. For a few years after the A-bomb was dropped, I was terribly afraid of fire. I wasn’t even able to get close to fire because all my senses remembered how fearful and horrible the fire was, how hot the blaze was, and how hard it was to breathe the hot air. It was really hard to breathe. Maybe because the fire burned all the oxygen, I don’t know. I could not open my eyes enough because of the smoke, which was everywhere. Not only me but everyone felt the same. (http://www.hiroshimaremembered.com/history/hiroshima/page14.html)
Not only were many killed instantly, but for decades after, Japanese people have suffered deformities and cancer because of the harmful effects of the bombs. What would have been the appropriate response of the Japanese in that situation?
Or how about in World War II when British and American forces firebombed the completely non-military target of Dresden, killing as many as 135,000 civilians in the process. Victor Gregg, a survivor, recounts his experience:
As the incendiaries fell, the phosphorus clung to the bodies of those below, turning them into human torches. The screaming of those who were being burned alive was added to the cries of those not yet hit. There was no need for flares to lead the second wave of bombers to their target, as the whole city had become a gigantic torch. It must have been visible to the pilots from a hundred miles away. Dresden had no defences, no anti-aircraft guns, no searchlights, nothing. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/feb/15/bombing-dresden-war-crime)
Or what about American ventures in Vietnam, where we thought we would intervene because we couldn’t stand the thought of communism. It is estimated that some 2 million Vietnamese civilians died throughout the war, and another 5.3 million injured. One of the most horrific events in all of American history occurred in a village in Vietnam called My Lai, where around 450 unarmed civilians – women, children, and the elderly – were murdered, raped, and mutilated by American soldiers. Efforts by the U.S. military and government were quickly undertaken to prevent any word of this getting out. In part, they succeeded. Lt. William Calley was the only member of the American troops to be charged with a crime. His sentence: Three and a half years of house arrest.
What must have been the appropriate response of the Vietnamese people after this act of terrorism?
And we can go further, to the Contras in Nicaragua, where the Reagan administration funded and sent military backing to fight alongside the right-winged terrorist group, known as the Nicaraguan Resistance. This resistance, with the help of the U.S. military, fought against the socialist backed Nicaraguan government, committing over 1,300 terrorist attacks, with more than 70,000 political killings in El Salvador, 100,000 in Guatemala, and 30,000 in Nicaragua. Father Miguel D’Escoto, who lived through the experience during the 1980’s, describes his feelings for Ronald Reagan:
First of all, let me start out by saying that, of course, Reagan is now dead. And I, for one, would like to say only nice things about him. I’m not insensitive to the feelings of many U.S. people mourning president Reagan, but as I pray that god in his infinite mercy and goodness forgive him for having been the butcher of my people, for having been responsible for the deaths of some 50,000 Nicaraguans, we cannot, we should not ever forget the crimes he committed in the name of what he falsely labeled freedom and democracy. (https://www.democracynow.org/2004/6/8/reagan_was_the_butcher_of_my)
How should the Nicaraguan government have responded to this act of terrorism by the United States?
And finally, we arrive to today, where American anti-Islamic airstrikes have plundered the Middle East for the past several decades. And contrary to its efforts, has ironically not solved the problems to attain world peace. Different terrorist groups are rising up, and each has a deeper hatred for the United States than the next. American politicians hype up the success of these military actions but downplay the innocent killing of civilians, brushing those off as “collateral damage.” It doesn’t matter if we killed a few hundred innocent people in an airstrike, at least we are ending terrorism! Shockingly, the fighting terrorism with terrorism tactics have not been as successful as most think.
While we can continue going down the line on horrible atrocities committed by the United States, we can also choose to look at the amazing individuals who have chosen to fight for peace. People like Martin Luther King Jr., who not only fought for civil rights, but was also extremely vocal about fighting against the Vietnam War. Or Eugene Debs, a socialist presidential candidate who spoke out against military involvement in World War I and was sentenced to ten years in prison for speaking out against the American government. Or Dorothy Day, a Catholic social justice activist who was beat, clubbed, and imprisoned for her protests against World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. And of course, Bob Dylan. Listening to his songs (“Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Masters of War”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “With God on Our Side,” the list goes on and on…) one will quickly understand the role he played in the peace movement.
There are many others who have been willing to suffer the consequences that come from fighting against the military regimes of the world’s greatest power. Because of this, we have hope. Our nation is filled with those willing to take a stand for peace, even in the face of immense persecution, hatred, or ostracization.
For us, we need to be those people. The people willing to come out against military action. To say that the answer to terrorism is not terrorism. And when we come to the ever so difficult question as to what to do about terrorism, we must first ask ourselves how we believe other nations should have responded to American terrorism. Because the boy in Hiroshima is our son. The girl in My Lai is our daughter. The families who face the continuing military barrage by American forces are our brothers and sisters. They are not as politicians like to say, “collateral damage.” When we can address this question reasonably, then, maybe then, we might obtain the right answer and truly begin the long road to peace.