Sunday, February 11, 2007


Life is not simple. There are no easy answers to so many of the big questions. We are often torn between what seems right and what seems right. And one of the most difficult questions regards how we should respond to those who do evil.

There are many categories of people who do the most flagrant kinds of purposeful evil: child molesters, torturers, serial killers, murderous dictatators, and terrorists, to name a few. These people have one common characteristic - they do terrible harm to large numbers of innocents, and they put fear into uncounted others. What should a moral person do when confronted with this kind of purposeful evil? My last two posts discussed opposite poles of action regarding the radical Islamic terrorist threat.

In the first post, I criticized two Christian friends who support wholesale suppression of Muslims because "peace-loving Muslims" are not doing enough to control the radical terrorists who do evil in the name of religion. I felt that it was unfair (wrong) to assume guilt by cultural association, and I said 1)that violence is counter-productive and 2) that love is the ultimate solution to the problems of the world. Rather than stigmatizing peace-loving people of the Muslim faith, we should be doing everything possible to support them.

In the second post, I opined that terrorism would be the scourge of the 21st century. Terrorists deal in the currency of fear. They believe that by indiscriminately and horrifically killing innocent non-combatant citizens of a target country they will force a government to accede to the their demands. My suggestions for dealing with terrorists were 1) to minimize their ability to "hide" within civilian populations by offering those populations both carrots and sticks, and 2) to mercilessly attack them whenever they are found. I went so far out on the latter suggestion that I condoned collateral damage. Comments ensued...

One comment stated that it seemed I would support a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq to assist the "peace-loving Muslims" in that country. I don't support our continuing presence in Iraq, for two reasons. First, we can't beat the terrorists in Iraq because they have all the tactical advantages. Second, there must be a political settlement there, and some kind of effective government, before the U.S. will be able to offer and provide aid to moderates. Sadly, it will be bloody in Iraq whether we stay or leave. But it will surely continue to be bloody as long as we stay, so we must give the Iraqis a chance to sort this out for themselves. (Of course, every sane person knows we never should have invaded Iraq in the first place, or kept large forces in the Middle East which provoked radicalism.)

Another comment stated that it was inappropriate for me to advocate telling Muslim populations that terrible consequences could befall them if terrorists associated with their society pull off some horrendous operation in the West. He felt that large masses of these people already lived in such precarious circumstances, and under such great threats, that further threats from us would have no impact on them. Maybe so. But just theoretically, let's think about how the U.S. would respond if individuals associated with Hamas detonated a suitcase nuclear bomb in Chicago or somehow breached the Hoover Dam. It seems to me that every Palestinian would be in grave danger even if the U.S. said we were only after Hamas. So, maybe predicting terrible consequences is merely stating the obvious.

Lastly, a commentor felt that I was wrong about not being too concerned about collateral damage when we attack terrorists. He felt collateral damage tends to incite radicalism on the part of those who mourn the innocent victims, and even encourages terrorists to stay closer to innocent populations. Maybe so. But it seems that terrorists already make sure there are plenty of civilians around them at all times - our current rules of engagement make this strategy their best insurance policy. In my view, if we let terrorists escape out of fear for collateral damage, we may be saving the lives of a few in favor of losing the lives of many who will later be killed by those same terrorists. If we choose in favor of the messy attack on terrorists, we must make it clear that we chose the action we felt was least harmful from an overall perspective. Lastly, if civilians like Palestinian women purposely place themselves as shelters for fighters who they support, I don't consider their deaths collateral damage.

So, I'm conflicted. I pray for peace and peacemakers every day, and I practice peace whenever I, or others around me, face a personal conflict. I sincerely believe that virtually all disputes can be successfully negotiated by opposing parties that show good faith. Yet I also know that pure evil intent exists - intent that is immune to negotiation and will stop at nothing to achieve its purpose. It is that evil that I believe must be resisted with whatever force is necessary. If it is the lives of my family and myself that must be lost to prevent a greater tragedy, so be it. I am willing to be "collateral damage" when the cost of saving my own life is too great.

I'm not sure that Jesus would agree with this post, and I claim to be his follower. Perhaps I will someday fully come to grips with the concept of turning the other cheek. On the other hand, maybe there was a good reason why Jesus is never quoted as criticizing a good soldier...maybe he felt there were good reasons why us humans need someone to keep order when things get totally out of control. I'm conflicted!


ThomasLB said...

I don't know what you do once things have gotten this bad. It's like that Simon & Garfunkle song, "Any way you look at this, you lose."

I think the long-term solution is to adopt a foreign policy based on human rights. Most people aren't born killers, they're molded into that role.

There will always be sociopaths like Charles Manson around, and modern technology has made it possible for "lone wolves" to do a great deal of damage, but the sheer number of terrorists/resistance fighters in the Middle East is a direct result of selfish and cruel foreign policy decisions by the West. We sowed the wind, now we're reaping the whirlwind.

Dave said...

"[T]he sheer number of terrorists/resistance fighters in the Middle East is a direct result of selfish and cruel foreign policy decisions by the West. We sowed the wind, now we're reaping the whirlwind."

Thomas, if the terrorists/resistance fighters exist "as direct result" of the West's actions, why are they killing each other, rather than joining forces and attacking U.S. forces? Seems counter-productive.

I think they are nothing more than virulent strain of ethnic/religious antagonism that has been around for a thousand years. Relatively recent examples:
the Soviet Republics before and after the Soviet Union; Eastern Europe, before and after the Soviets; Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. I've used the phrase lately that people are basicly cussed. If we had not invaded in '91 or '02; or, if we left tomorrow, I think the people in the Middle East would have, and will fight each other.

As to Likehiker's conflict, I don't see whatever we do there as working. Just pessimistic me.

ThomasLB said...

I think it mostly has its roots in poverty and hopelessness. There's always been a few people who can't get along with other religions and races, but for the most part people can live peacefully with their neighbors. The problems start when unemployment and disenfranchisement becomes entrenched, and the search for scapegoats begins.

I don't think people start out violent and angry. I think they become that way when they've lost control of their own destinies.

At this point, Iraq is just one big temper tantrum. I don't think the violence even has a point any more; I don't think anybody is trying to "win" anything. They're just murderously frustrated.

But I might be wrong about everything. Maybe I'm trying to make sense out of something that makes no sense.