My heart goes out to all of the victims of the attack in Barcelona. I am saddened to see yet another terrorist attack. These people did not deserve to die. All of these words seem so inadequate, just as they do after every terrorist attack. I often don’t know what to write after these events, so I’ll just throw out some random thoughts.

Any individuals who commit a terrorist act bear final responsibility for their actions. If they die in the attack or refuse to surrender and are killed by police, that seems like justice to me.

There are security personnel in countries worldwide (and yes, even majority Muslim countries for the conservatives out there) who go to work every day thwarting these kinds of attacks. I appreciate their hard work and dedication and the risks they bear. My life and the lives of my family and friends are the better for it.

What is the definition of terrorism? Using violence against civilians for political goals? If that sounds right, then I think every military in the world and every soldier in every military in the world is implicated. Civilians always die in military conflicts. ALWAYS. Is it no longer terrorism simply because the violence is being committed by people wearing special clothes issued by a nation state? Many people see this as a clear distinction, but I don’t – especially when it comes to bombing. I don’t care how precise the bombing is, again, civilians always die.

I know; I know. “But they surround themselves with civilians!” you say. Okay, maybe they share some of the blame then. But it’s also very likely, if there are friendly civilians around, that the targets are very, very far from the US – and unlikely to be an immediate threat.

National self-defense is justified. But I don’t think most of our modern wars fit this definition. Certainly not the second Iraq War, which – no matter the spin by Bush administration officials – was a war of choice. While I supported the war in Afghanistan when the government there wouldn’t hand over the perpetrators of 9-11, we have long lost our way in that conflict. Toppling Libya just led to more chaos.

Reviewing these wars leads me to the fact that we bear some responsibility for this terrorism. We have spent decades manipulating events in the Middle East and destabilizing the region on countless occasions. We were not always the enemy of the people there. But now we clearly are. We need a truly fresh approach. Perhaps that means stepping back altogether. Enough with our reliance on energy from that region. Enough with military contractors benefiting from the endless wars and arms sales there. And enough with our being part of Muslim religious proxy wars.

Underlying much of the Middle East is a long-running analog to the Catholic-Protestant wars of European history. Various Sunni- and Shiite-leaning nations and groups are contending for religious domination. We really don’t have a stake in that fight. Saudi Arabia – the major Sunni power – is a leading sponsor of Sunni terrorism, including Al Qaeda. (A reminder that most of the 9-11 attackers were Saudi nationals.) Iran is a sponsor of Shiite terrorism. I see no particular reason to favor one over the other. We should want BOTH of them to stop. (And if you’re tempted to look back to the Iranian seizure of our embassy, I’d remind you that we are now on friendly terms with communist Vietnam, even after fighting a horrible war there, and that the CIA toppled a democratically elected government in Iran.)

There will always be extremist violence in human relations. There’s no way around that. But as a nation – as a matter of policy – all we can do it contain it in the short run, fight the ideologies that inspire it in the medium to long term, and work to bring a just peace and social stability to all nations in the really long run. Destroying social order from the outside is unlikely to help with any of those goals.

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