As I stood around an impossibly small television set, watching the events of September 11, 2001, unfold, one of my colleagues burst into the room. His face reddened, trembling with rage, he shouted, “We are going to kill every one of those bastards!” At the time, I agreed, and wanted a righteous reckoning for this heinous crime.
Less than a month later, as U.S. bombs began dropping on Al-Qaida and Taliban controlled Afghanistan, there was a collective sigh of satisfaction: Now, the score would be settled. These two decades later, I realize how mistaken this thinking was.
The opaque “War On Terror” remains America’s longest fought conflict. Thousands of servicemen and servicewomen have been killed or wounded, and of the three million veterans of this war, upwards of 25% come home suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Simultaneously, the death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq has been nothing short of apocalyptic. By conservative estimates, some 400,000 people have been killed in this region, and half of these people were civilians. There have been twice that many “indirect” deaths, and the war has displaced 10 million individuals.
Back here at home, the impact on our society is almost incalculable. The erosion of personal liberties and freedoms, the caustic rise of racism and Islamophobia, the tension of living among a population increasingly manipulated by fear and suspicion: September 11th “changed this country forever,” but our unmitigated response to these attacks has drastically – irretrievably -changed the world too.
I’m not a “pacifist” as the word is often used. Being “passive” in the face of evil and simply lying down to die with my virtuous principles intact, is not the right understanding of the word or the approach. But, I am all-in when it comes to actively living out and advocating for a life of non-violence.
Living non-violently is an effort to avoid war, for war is the worst of cruelties. Quoting President Jimmy Carter, “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil.” Thus, we seek other solutions; we champion prudence, education, understanding, and aid; and we resort to legitimate defense, only after all other avenues have been thoroughly exhausted.
This is an ethic consistent with the perennial, Judeo-Christian tradition. It was Moses who said, “An eye for an eye,” not as a way of sanctioning revenge (the usual interpretation), but to limit retaliation: “Don’t inflict more suffering than you received!” Jesus went even further, instructing his followers to forgive, to turn the other cheek, halting completely the quid pro quo of violence.
When I speak of this, I’m often asked, “What do I do when I run out of cheeks to turn?” That’s a valid ethical question, but usually a frivolous one, for we have been conditioned to “shoot first and ask questions later.” And when those questions finally arise, say after two decades and following horrendous repercussions, well, then the answers are even harder to come by.
Photo by Marten Bjork