So what should the US do to respond to terrorism? If not war, then what?
These are difficult questions and progressives have not had very satisfying answers. The public is demanding a good, quick answer. We know that war is morally wrong, is likely to kill more civilians than the 4,800 killed on 9/11 (perhaps leading to the starvation of hundreds of thousands or millions of Afghanis this winter), and also is likely to be counterproductive in stopping terrorism. But progressives don’t have any obvious, quick alternatives.
However, as my friend Carlos Alcala wrote regarding this question, the problem is not our solutions but that people want a quick fix and there is no quick fix for terrorism:
“I, too, would like to see positive proposals. I, too, fail to come up with any. Or at least, anything novel.
“Perhaps the real failure is not admitting that the changes we seek are not responsive to slogans or new programs. They depend on wholesale changes in the ways people around the world, and not just in our country, behave. Framing things in terms of a response to terrorism is opportunistic, and short-sighted. We need to continue to build a better society a little piece at a time, educating others, reforming our power centers, and using our moral yardsticks on ourselves as individuals as much as on others as interest groups. This is hard and painful work that will do little, visibly, to end terrorism in our lifetimes and yet is the only thing that can ever do it.
“I’m not certain that what the protesters (at their best, anyway) say is wrong; that what they suggest is not positive. Anti-war activists have not “failed to answer the most obvious question...: ‘Well, what then?’” It’s just that the answers do not satisfy those who want a quick fix. It’s just that the answers don’t look like they’re about terrorism, at a time when addressing terrorism is presented as the only issue. The answer is: build social justice here and abroad. The answer is: disarm the weapons of mass destruction. The answer is: promote sensible use of resources. The answer is: spend your time thinking about ways to help people, not thinking about ways to thwart people.”
There aren’t any quick fixes. Instead we must build a just and peaceful society (as I call for in my book, Inciting Democracy). Below is a good article by Cynthia Peters of Znet <http://www.znet.com> discussing how to do basic social change: talking to people.
It’s Simple. It’s Not So Simple
By Cynthia Peters [Znet Commentary]
Now is the time to be talking to people. Communicating, sharing information, listening—they are the core of social change, of changing minds, of exchanging rationalizations and cynicism for vision and empowerment.
It’s simple, really. A terrible crime is being committed in our name. Millions of dollars worth of bombs are raining down on an already decimated country. Beyond the military terror and destruction, the terror of starvation almost surely awaits millions of Afghans unless the bombing stops and a full-scale aid program gets food in place for the winter. This is a calculated crime against humanity that differs from September 11th only in scale; that is: it is many times larger.
That the U.S. is taking part in the killing of innocent people is not new. What’s new is that people are paying attention. Before September 11th, I tried talking to people about the 500,000 Iraqi children dead thanks to the U.S. economic embargo. And people’s eyes glazed over. But during these last few weeks, as I’ve staffed an information table on the main street that runs through my town, I’ve noticed something else during my conversations with people about the war in Afghanistan, the certainty of mass starvation unless our current trajectory in that country is reversed, the principles of international law, the idea that escalating violence is exactly that and not a form of justice, and the importance of the rule of law over the muscle of vigilantism.
What I’ve noticed is that the glaze is gone.
People’s eyes are opened to the world in a way they weren’t before. People are bringing questioning minds to the problem of terrorism and the U.S. role in the Middle East and elsewhere. People are filled with grief, awed by the courage of the rescuers, stunned by what it means to turn a commercial jetliner full of innocent people into a living, breathing bomb. People are curious—and I mean that—about exactly how the U.S. has abused its power around the globe, and they are reflecting on the consequences of that abuse.
Many conversations are not that hard. Sometimes, just listening to the words pouring out of someone’s mouth helps him or her listen to those words, too, for the first time. Sometimes re-phrasing what you hear, without necessarily making a speech complete with historical facts and figures, is enough to put a crack in the confident parroting of the war defense. Sometimes, just being out on the street with “Justice Not War” flyers is enough to reach the cynic who already understands the misuse of U.S. power but believes there’s no point in contesting it.
But not every conversation is so easy. I don’t feel good about having some guy towering over me, jabbing the air with his finger, spitting out his passionate belief that, yes, we should kill as many Afghans as possible. It’s not just that it’s personally threatening, or that it’s ethically in line with Osama bin Laden. It’s also that it’s painful to come face to face with this particular kind of human being.
Heartless retaliation is not limited to this war-mongering type. Consider the educated guy in the corporate suit who speaks in soft tones and has a pained expression on his face as he shrugs off the possibility of millions of starving Afghans with, “Well, we have to get Osama bin Laden somehow, don’t we?”
Rather than scream my disbelief back at him, I try calmly repeating his own logic back to him. “So you think it’s okay to put millions of Afghans at risk of starvation in order to possibly catch one man?” Then I try to let the pause be. I try not to fill up the silence with more words. I try to let him hear what he’s saying. But this is hard to do. I feel a sort of a panic rising up. He is a thinking person, yet he articulated his accord with an obscene and murderous set of policies. I hold down the panic. He backs off a little from his argument. The interaction ends.
Unlike protesters in many countries, I don’t risk getting killed or imprisoned when I put up my card table on Centre Street. I’m not worried about getting hurt, and I have a thick enough skin to deal with the hecklers. But dissent has its challenges, such as having reasonable conversations with privileged people who have access to power and knowledge, but who nonetheless are aligning themselves with points of view that will almost surely result in mass murder.
This is where it becomes not-so-simple. I don’t like talking to people like that man in the suit. They make me sick.
But talking is what we absolutely need to be doing right now. It is the only way to prevent mass murder. In a one-superpower world, the citizens of the superpower are the only force that can control the superpower. It’s up to us.
Talking has the added benefit of being the only antidote to the sick feeling. For all the corporate suits, there are many more thoughtful people who pause, look me in the eye, nod their agreement that violence begets violence, say things like, “Thank you for being out here.” “I realize I’ve never quite thought about it that way.” “Do you have more information?” “Can I come to your meeting?” “Will you speak at my church?” “Where can I learn more?”
Many people I’ve met in the last few weeks don’t need to hear my analysis. They already know. And they have a lot to teach if we listen. The Vietnam vet challenges me on how we should pressure our government when it is corporations that seem to have so much control. The firefighter tells me that all he hears at work is that the killing should stop. The Haitian man wonders how international legal channels could be made more independent and less influenced by the United States. The three women carrying bibles talk for a long time, first with me and then amongst themselves. The teenager starts off protesting that her parents would disagree with me, but winds up voicing her own views.
Late one night, someone calls from a nearby town. He has our flyer inviting people to a neighborhood anti- war meeting, and he’s shocked that I risked putting my name and number out publicly. I get the feeling he’s calling partly to see if I’m real, thus making him a little bit less alone. He and his small group are planning on marching the next day in a community-based parade featuring marching bands and civic organizations. They will carry a banner that says, “Our Cry of Grief is not a Cry for War.” He is nervous but inspired to hear what we have accomplished so far in our town. The next day, they participate in the parade. “At least a few people cheered on each block,” they reported to me later. There are plans now for cross- town pot lucks and meetings.
It strikes me as pathetic, sometimes, how few we are, how far we have to go, how many steps forward, backward and sideways we will have to take. Someone suggested that I give a short talk at the next meeting of her neighborhood crime watch group. But at the last minute, the group, which has put tremendous collective energy into debating the relative merits of stop signs vs. stop lights, relations with police, and all the minutia of orchestrating their security in the three-block radius of their homes, decides that hearing about the war is not relevant. I’m allowed to leave my flyers, but whatever I have to say just “isn’t our business,” says one participant.
On the one hand, this experience is simply frustrating—something to be absorbed, learned from, tried again someday perhaps. On the other hand, this experience is not-so-simply rather alarming—a stark reminder that people will mobilize tremendous resources for immediate concerns, but withhold those resources when it comes to contesting a major human rights catastrophe in the making.
It’s not hard to grasp the potentially genocidal consequences of current U.S. policy. But it is a bit harder to integrate that understanding into your daily life, and let it affect your actions. How will this knowledge change you? What will it make you question about how you spend your time, what you do with your money, whether you are doing everything in your power to reduce the horror. Maybe before, when you sheltered yourself from this knowledge, you never wondered if it was okay to spend time watching the Yankees’ game. Now you are wondering.
And you are looking around at the peace activists and realizing that working in coalition with people to stop a major atrocity can mean aligning yourself with people you don’t agree with—or even who you find personally threatening. Some of the people fighting this war might be the same ones that, in another forum, would be your boss, deny you a living wage, ensure more privileges for the already privileged. Some of your fellow peace activists would be horrified by your sexuality, find you perverse, or wish you out of existence. They may have never learned to listen to women or take people of color seriously. You survey the growing legions of peace activists and wonder if they’re the same people who are gentrifying your neighborhood, planting tulips in the park but letting affordable housing go down the drain, never showing up to protest police violence or the gutting of welfare. Working with these people can be alienating, disheartening, downright soul-killing.
Should you do it anyway?
To answer that question, keep in mind that there are ways to ease this necessary work of talking and listening, putting ourselves face- to-face with brutal, merciless or just plain petty thinking, and risking fragile coalitions.
1. Pick the community you can work best in. There is a growing peace movement, but if that is not your political “home,” then work elsewhere—in your neighborhood, your union, your place of worship, your community organization. Don’t stop doing the political work you were doing before, but do look for new connections. Now is the time.
2. We should appropriately acknowledge the frustration and alarm that will be part and parcel of organizing work, but we should also be careful not to overstate it. No matter how alarmed we might be by people’s denial, people’s rejection of a moral stance, people’s downright selfishness, nothing compares to the alarm of those at the receiving end of U.S. bombs and U.S. orchestrated starvation. Keep your frustration in perspective.
3. Join others for solidarity, support, shared inspiration, venting opportunities, perspective, and retreat from the challenges. Know that organizing is painstaking work, and you need to create conditions that will allow you to do it for a long time.
4. Know when to walk away. You don’t have to talk to everyone. Don’t waste time and energy engaging with the person who is going ballistic, but use your energy instead for the many sensible people that have their hearts in the right place but who lack information or support for entertaining alternative points of view.
5. Don’t judge every interaction. It may feel like you failed to reach someone, but people’s growing consciousness doesn’t follow a linear path. They may ignore you, but later privately read the literature you hand out, and this may affect how they read the newspaper the next day. Each step is exactly that, and with others adding their efforts, each step matters more.
6. Finally, pick the work you can do most effectively. If a two-hour tabling stint on your main street leaves you feeling drained, despairing or frightened, then do something else. Write an emergency grant to help pay for all the leaflets and posters. Volunteer to manage the data base for your organization. Set up the web site, collate the articles, moderate the list serve, host the house parties, bring food to the meetings, design the banners, or take part in any of the numerous background activities that are essential to movement building.
Sound simple? It is and it isn’t. Each of us, individually, has a responsibility to figure out how we can negotiate the organizing challenges and moral imperatives of the current crisis. Together, our job is to knit our individual abilities into a mass movement that pressures our government to back off from its bloodletting. The not-so-simple problem with this mandate is that it won’t be easy. The simple fact, however, is that we must do it anyway.
From Z Magazine/Z Net.
Author of Inciting Democracy: A Practical Proposal for Creating a Good Society and initiator of the Vernal Education Project:
Working to increase the skills and support of progressive activists
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