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To Friends Journal Readers: A Response

I am grateful to have been able to follow the debate over my remarks that were printed in Friends Journal (“Reflections on the Events of September 11,” December 2001). I might add that portions of my remarks, which were abstracted from a speech I gave shortly after the terrorist attacks to a United Church of Christ convention in Washington, D.C., were also excerpted in The Advocate and Soldier of Fortune, as well as Friends Journal. (There cannot be many people like myself—on the mailing lists of all of those publications as well as Martha Stewart Living.) I took some pleasure in directing the small fee that I was owed for publication of my words by Soldier of Fortune to be sent to American Friends Service Committee.

I would like to offer some responses to what many readers wrote. Please understand that I respect every Friend’s personal convictions and do not seek to change them. (I rather doubt that anything I say would anyway.) I’d like to think that my own change is the result of working around the world as a journalist for more than two decades, often in zones of conflict. My religious convictions have been knocked about by real life. Many of my experiences have borne out the essential truth of the Peace Testimony. But other encounters—say, in the Balkans, or the war on terrorism—have led me to see ways in which nonviolence, arguably, can abet suffering and the loss of innocent lives. As a reporter and, I hope, still a faithful person, I feel an obligation to share my thinking.

I have come to regret one phrase of my remarks in “Reflections on the Events of September 11.” When I asserted that the hijackers of September 11 “hate us because they are psychotics,” I was unfair—to psychotics. As several readers wrote, psychotics have a genuine mental disorder. It is often the product of a chemical or emotional imbalance. The hijackers of September 11 were mass murderers. As far as I can tell, they were in full possession of their faculties when they massacred 3,000 people.

Many people who responded to my remarks [in the Friends Journal Forum, Feb.-May, July 2002—eds.] made wild representations about the number of people killed by U.S. and Allied bombing in Afghanistan. I find these assertions particularly fantastic because many were advanced while I was in Afghanistan, actually reporting on the war, including civilian casualties.

I tend to hold with the judgment reached by my colleague, Mike Schuster, and the reporters of the New York Times: about 800 Afghan civilians were killed in the U.S.-led military campaign there. Many of those deaths are being investigated. Several have already been ruled a mistake or negligence by the U.S. military. Perhaps a few will be found to be war crimes.

Amnesty International, which I greatly admire, puts the number significantly higher, at about 3,000. I think their number lacks documentation, but I note it with respect. It is, at any rate, still well below the tens of thousands that some Friends Journal readers advanced with certitude.

Now 3,000 lives—or 800—are not negligible. I would not want to be among that 3,000 or 800. I would not want anyone I loved to be among that number. I would not want any stranger to be among those killed.

But I would invite Friends to measure the number of civilians killed in the war to liberate Afghanistan from the grip of the Taliban alongside the number that would have been killed if the Taliban had stayed in power.

I did a story from the Kabul soccer stadium. When the Taliban was in power, thousands of people would be rounded up from the streets of Kabul and locked into that stadium each Friday afternoon. Then, 12, 18, 20, or 25 people would be marched onto the field and executed by Taliban “judges” for various religious crimes. (Perhaps it is needless to add: there were no appeals, no inquiry of a free press, and no F. Lee Bailey or ACLU to file last-minute appeals.)

Some men and women would be strung up from the goal posts. Others had their hands or legs amputated and were left to bleed their lives out into the grass. Not even in Texas, I suspect, would you get a large crowd of spectators to willingly witness routine executions. The roundup of an audience at gunpoint to watch hangings and butchery were meant to emphasize a message that the thousands who witnessed this weekly crime were intended to bring back to their friends and families: the Taliban rule, and by blood.

If the Taliban had not been displaced, those routine, despicable murders—hundreds of people a year—would have continued. We interviewed the man who had been the chief groundskeeper at the soccer stadium and asked a question that might have struck him as coming from Martians, as much as U.S. citizens: Why did he mop up the blood shed by murderers week after week, and keep reporting for work? “What else could I do?” he asked. “I had no reason to think anything would ever change.”

My crew and I also reported on mass graves in the mountains of Bamiyan province. More than 3,000 people were probably slaughtered and buried in the countryside surrounding the massive Buddha statues that the Taliban used slave labor to destroy—and then killed many of the workers. I doubt that the remaining Hazzara people would have been safe for long; certainly they lived in constant fear.

I saw the kind of world that the al-Qaida terror network and the Taliban created when they had the chance to build their own society. It is the only kind of society they accept as legitimate and holy. It was a society in which women were chattel; skeptics, doubters, and dissidents of all kinds were imprisoned; and arts, entertainment, sports, and other diversions were forbidden. Gay rights? Don’t even think about it. Anyone who doubts that Afghanistan is a better place because of the Allied military intervention should ask him or herself if they would have been willing to live as a gay man or woman under the Taliban.

How long would they have treasured peace when it meant their continued enslavement?
There are some Quakers who will say there is no difference between 3,000 people killed by the Taliban and 3,000 killed in Allied bombing. I know the bromides of pacifism. I used to say that kind of thing myself. But I think there’s a significant difference.

If the Taliban had stayed in power and were permitted to murder thousands more, Afghanistan today would be even more blighted for having no hope of change. Perhaps 800 or 3,000 innocent civilians died in the military campaign to depose the Taliban. But their families and friends now have a country in which half the people in school are women, half the people in the workforce are women, there is a free press, freedom of worship, freedom not to worship, and a free political system (a political system so free that President Hamid Karzai opposes any U.S. invasion of Iraq). Yes, some warlords are gaining power. Yes, hunger and poverty still stalk the land. But there is also joy, music, culture, and a hope of change that had been crushed before the world was aroused by the events of September 2001 to depose the Taliban.

I have an analogy that is conveniently available in my own family. As some readers may know, my wife is from Normandy. A number of her aunts, uncles, and cousins who grew up during World War II were adolescents at the time of the Allied invasion. They have vivid memories of the British bombing that was ordered to break British and Canadian troops out of the thickly hedged French countryside in which the invasion got ground down. Many of them can recall family friends who died when they got caught up in that bombing. They still grieve when they recall those frightening times. But that grief and loss do not mean that they wish they had spent the rest of their lives under Nazi occupation. They did not expect that brutes would be displaced without bloodshed.

A number of respondents also argued that since U.S. policymakers had, at one point, ignored the crimes of the Taliban, it is inconsistent and hypocritical for the United States to depose them now. This is a fair debater’s point, but it is not necessarily a good guide for policy. It was a mistake to overlook the crimes of the Taliban in the mid-1990s (as it was a mistake to countenance the crimes of Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s). That mistake is only compounded, not relieved, by consistency. As Mahatma Gandhi once observed to someone who he had maddened by changing his mind, “I know more today than I did yesterday.”

I am similarly unconvinced by arguments that try to diminish the moral logic of defeating the Taliban by observing that the U.S. did not intervene in Rwanda; or until it was too late to avoid mass murder in Bosnia and Kosovo. I tend to feel that the United States should have intervened in those places, too (intervention in Bosnia might have even forestalled the slaughter in Kosovo). There is no comfort or honor in seeing lives sacrificed for the sake of intellectual or moral consistency.

I believe that Afghanistan is a better, freer country because of Allied military intervention that defeated the brutal, repressive, women-enslaving, gay-bashing theocracy that ruled there and made a home for the training and export of terrorism. I believe that the breakup of some elements of the al-Qaida terror network has already led to the interruption of several ongoing plots that have saved lives—including, perhaps, the lives of people who opposed military action.

I will not be sidetracked into defending the civil liberties policies of Attorney General John Ashcroft. I will note that it is a remarkable feature of U.S. democracy that a time limit was built into the provisions of the so-called USA-Patriot Act, largely at the insistence of conservative Republicans who were alarmed at the potential for misuse in many of those laws.

I don’t feel that the entire war on terrorism is discredited by those laws; any more than I feel that the Allied effort to win World War II was altogether discredited by the U.S. incarceration of innocent Japanese-Americans, the racial segregation in the U.S. military, the bombing of Dresden, or the colonialism of the British Empire—and if there are Friends Journal readers who do not believe that they have grown up in a better, freer world because the Allies were able to defeat the Axis powers in World War II, I doubt that there is much I can say to convince them otherwise. I do know that such a judgment does not make me eager to hear anything else they may have to say.

If you open any daily newspaper, ride a big-city subway, step into any big-city public school—or if you attend almost any big-city Quaker meeting—you still will be impressed by the strength and vigor of diversity, and the state of free expression in the United States.

Over the past year, I not only read the letters sent to Friends Journal, but made a number of appearances at Quaker schools and meetings. It seems to me that many of the people who were eager to confront my views were not acting in the light of the Peace Testimony so much as they were inflexible political ideologues. Some sounded as if they hadn’t taken a fresh look at the world or reassessed their own thinking since Joni Mitchell’s first Greatest Hits album.

I would not begin to try to convince Friends Journal readers that war is moral. I don’t believe that myself. But I do believe that it may sometimes be necessary for survival.

Asia Bennett, former AFSC executive secretary, once told me, “Quakers are very good at recognizing injustice. We are not always good about recognizing evil.” Her observation (even as she might disapprove of the lessons I eventually drew from her wisdom) stayed with me as I covered holocausts and their aftermaths in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. The people who sponsored those crimes often said they had been impelled to act by injustice. But when I looked down into mass graves, or uncovered mutilations, I saw, near as I suppose I will ever recognize it, a force I am no longer diffident about calling evil. In my judgment, too many Quakers have condoned too much violence and nonsense because its perpetrators have been shrewd enough to invoke injustice as their inspiration.

Peace activism has a history that can be as tarnished as war. While I was researching my most recent book, I found it instructive to read accounts of some of the most prominent peace activists of the 1930s:

  • Charles A. Lindbergh said that Germany was rearming and expanding only to redress the injustice of the Versailles Peace Accords; the Nazis were nationalists who would be sated once they had a little satisfaction (say, Czechoslovakia). He said that Jewish interests were driving the democracies toward war.
  • George Bernard Shaw said that the United Kingdom and United States did not have the moral standing to oppose Germany because British colonialism and U.S. economic imperialism were greater sources of injustice in the world.

I concluded that what saved peace advocacy from being totally discredited was the German invasion of the USSR (which forced the left to reassess its conviction that only capitalist colonialist countries were at risk), Pearl Harbor (which forced the right to reassess its certainty that it was possible to stay clear of conflict), and the atom bomb (which made urgent the need to develop peaceful alternatives).

Millions of brave people risked their lives to devise those alternatives—and they shook the world.

Nonviolent resistance won Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign for independence in India. Love in action, embodied by the Birmingham Children’s Crusade and the march of Martin Luther King Jr. and the heroes of the U.S. civil rights movement into the crush of water cannon and police dogs, overthrew the laws of segregation that made too much of the United States a living prison. Corazon Aquino’s campaign to oust dictatorship, Mitch Snyder’s fasts to focus concern on homelessness—the Peace Testimony still has much to offer the world.

But peace does not always hold every answer, any more than military action. Peace advocates who excuse the crimes of al-Qaida as their response to injustice while excoriating the force the United States uses in its own defense as unjustified terrorism are putting their moral weight on the same side of the scale as murderers. Urging peace at any price will leave terrorists in place and insure more crimes of terrorism in our immediate future. And when terrorists strike they will make no distinctions between Quakers and Pentagon generals, inner-city school teachers or B-2 bomber pilots, busboys or bankers, John Ashcroft or Noam Chomsky. Pacifism can assist spilling the blood of innocents, too.

I thank Friends Journal readers for their responses. And again, I thank the various Quaker assemblies that not only have received me with such courtesy over this past year, but actually have sought me out to share my views that they knew to be at odds with those of their own membership.

Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition (Saturday), is a former member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and of Northside Meeting in Chicago, Ill. His latest book is Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball.

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