Reflections on terrorism, peace, and human nature

My heart goes out to all of those killed and wounded by terrorist attacks — in Paris, Beirut, Mumbai, the U.S., of course, and elsewhere. Nothing I write or say can take away the pain, sadness, anger, and vulnerability they must feel. I have a few thoughts regarding terrorism, peace, and human nature that I try to keep in mind at times like these. I don’t think they’re very comforting to those who have lost loved ones, but I hope, should I or my family ever be the victim of these evil events someday, someone would gently remind me of what I wrote here.

  • It’s important to realize that, as Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack write, we live in one of the safest periods in human history. Many kinds of violence are at historically low levels, and the deaths associated with terrorism are nothing compared to world wars — let alone the very real possibility at one time of a global nuclear war.
  • Revenge is natural part of human psychology, but blunt, vengeful militarism and bombing will not solve the problem of terrorism. In fact, it can inflame it by creating new enemies, especially when we callously accept that innocents will die as part of our bombing, as we have during Pres. Obama’s drone war. Such bombing becomes, in the minds of innocent victims, just another form of terrorism. Instead, we need to look to policing and politics. A study published by the Institute for Economics and Peace (h/t emptywheel) highlights (PDF) a RAND Corporation report that found that more than 80% of terrorist groups end though improved policing or through the group becoming part of the political process. Military force alone accounted for only 7% of terrorist groups ending. In this case, our strength will come from our restraint.
  • The same RAND report did find that only 32% of religious terrorist groups ended during its study period. Religious movements seem to be particularly intractable. However, simply blaming religion or, in this case, Islam in particular will not help. In fact, the more we stoke anger and divisiveness — especially along religious lines — the easier it is for them to recruit new terrorists. I’m not saying we can just ignore the religion of the terrorists — after all, it is a significant source of fuel for their movement — but an excessive or unilateral focus on it will only serve the interests of the terrorists.
  • We in the United States and in the West must acknowledge the role of our foreign policy in creating these terrorists. The list is long: the disastrous decision by the Bush administration to drive us into the Iraq War and destabilize the entire region; the tacit support for all of Israel’s actions, no matter how illegal or misguided; the propping up of brutal regimes that leave very little room for political change; the drone bombing I mentioned above.
  • Also regarding policy choices, we have to recall that the only reason the Middle East is of unique strategic importance is because of oil. Without the need to keep the oil flowing, we wouldn’t have much interest in the area. After all, there are humanitarian and human rights disasters across the world, but we don’t invade all of them. Also, oil money is what continues to fund much of the violence. Our dependence on oil is a public policy choice that we make. We could be spending the billions we spend on bombs to look at alternatives.
  • These terrorists are terrible people, but not uniquely terrible. This capacity exists within all societies and within all of us for this kind of violence. We’re all very good at crafting reasons for violence that are very convincing to ourselves. After all, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If you live in the United States or another Western nation, count yourself lucky to be living in a certain time and place that is relatively secure and not targeted by the world’s great powers. And count yourself lucky to live a secular nation, where religious extremism is undermined by the larger cultural commitment to peaceful, inclusive, and robust politics. In the long run, the greatest threat to the terrorists is that we stand firm in support of our democratic republican values. The alternative leads to our becoming just like them.

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