Americans Preach Non-Violence, Except When We're At War

Over the past six months, the world has felt a bit like a water balloon—tender and heavy, ready to burst if it is not cradled when passed from hand to hand. We dread each new push notification. Best case scenario, it’s an update about this exhausting presidential election. Worst case scenario, it’s another massacre…another body count.

I’d like to take a moment to focus on the recent U.S. air strike which killed 85 civilians in Syria. There was no push notification for this one, perhaps because it was overshadowed by the Republican National Convention. Perhaps because we just don’t care as much about lives lost in what we call “developing” countries.

Perhaps because we frame it as just another casualty of war. Terrible, but the military was trying to do its job, yes? In an effort to liberate people from the barbarism of Assad and ISIS, civilians were caught in the crossfire.

But why do we frame it this way?

When innocent people are killed by the police in the United States, the population that feels threatened is expected to air its grievances peacefully. But when foreign powers commit acts of violence, striking back with violence is not only acceptable, it’s standard foreign policy procedure. We look at the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers through a lens of “Violence is not the answer to violence.” We look at our drone strikes in the Middle East through the lens of “War is terrible, but sometimes it’s necessary.”

Why can we not apply the “violence only breeds violence” argument to the Middle East? Six thousand years of war in human civilization have left us with little knowledge of how to solve conflicts between foreign powers without fighting each other. But we humans, who have invented a way to fly without sprouting wings from our backs, are surely capable of inventing new methods of conflict resolution.

In his book, Nonviolent Response To Terrorism, Professor Tom Hastings argues that social welfare programs can be used to prevent terrorist groups from recruiting new members. ISIS gained much of its power by providing economic support to struggling families. If those families could get that support elsewhere, they would be less likely to turn to organizations like the Islamic State.

You may counter that there are a large number of people from well-off families who still join the Islamic State, and you would be right. But this does not mean there is no effective way to address the recruitment problem. It only means that economic disadvantage is just one piece of the puzzle.

Denmark has been employing a revolutionary tactic to curb radicalization: compassion. Unlike other countries which have declared people who traveled to Syria enemies of the state and threatened to revoke their passports, Denmark has made it clear that its citizens are always welcome to come home, and that they will receive support if they do come back. Sure enough, at least 18 people have come home to Denmark from Syria, and the number of young people leaving has decreased dramatically.

In addition to recruitment, another issue we can address sans combat is ISIS’s supply of weapons. An arms embargo on the region would prevent ISIS from acquiring more U.S. weapons (which most of its weapons are), or weapons from other countries, if they also agree to the embargo. It may be tempting to send arms to those we think of as the good guys over there, but to let someone else do the fighting is just another interpretation of the “War is bad, but sometimes necessary” frame that we need to leave behind.

Lastly, we need to stop tap dancing around the political reasons why Muslims turn to radical terrorist groups. We characterize ISIS’s motivations with platitudes like, “They hate America,” and “They hate freedom.” Politicians and pundits see no reason to talk about the human rights violations committed by Israel, because they operate by the principle that if you express your grievances with violence, there is no possible way that you could be making a valid point about anything. I understand not wanting to sit down and have a chat with a group that makes a spectacle of executing journalists and other innocent people. But we could at least acknowledge that the unjust treatment of the Palestinians is a major reason why young people—even in Western countries— are attracted to radicalization.

And the Palestinians are not the only ones who have suffered. There are the Kurds and the Sunni tribes as well. Making reparations to and restoring the humanity of people who have been victimized by imperialism is something that we should be doing anyway. If it also prevents more young people from joining the jihad, that’s all the better.

I believe we are currently at a crossroads where the violence is becoming so overwhelming—the push notifications so jading—that we will recognize we have to try something new. It was Audre Lorde who said, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Compassion, in one form or another, is the answer to all the issues we face. That’s not just a warm and fuzzy ideal; there is evidence that it works. Compassion is what we need as we cradle our little water balloon world and pass it from hand to hand. We know from its weight that we humans can only tolerate so much brutality, but we have an endless capacity for love.

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