A Response to September Eleventh

As a Quaker, a pacifist, and one of the 9 percent of U.S. citizens who dissent from our country’s current response to the September 11 attack, many friends belonging to the 91 percent majority have asked me to explain my position. Piecemeal answers are time-consuming and unsatisfactory, so I have drafted this fuller statement that I can share with all interested.

It goes without saying that I share the view of all in the U.S. that what happened in New York and Washington was an unspeakable crime. I, too, want the perpetrators identified and brought to trial—preferably under international auspices. Those are givens.

There are two roots to our national anguish, either painful in itself, but together responsible for causing a level of shock as deep or deeper than Pearl Harbor. The first is our sadness over the terrible loss of lives and the pain we feel for those whose days will never be the same. The second is the harsh recognition of a new national vulnerability. For 300 years we have been secure behind our oceans. For 300 years we have been in control of out fate. The coming of the atomic and missile age actually ended that happy state of affairs a half-century ago but did not seize the nation until September 11, when it came like a bombshell. Citizens of the U.S. knew then that our world would never be the same. It was a stunning shock.

The question we face now is how to respond to this new reality, and this is where the 91 percent and the 9 percent part company. How do we differ? As I understand it, the 91 percent, under the president’s leadership, hopes to regain control and restore at least a measure of invulnerability by building alliances, tracking down evildoers, and military action. In his words, "It is America’s mission to rid the world of evil. We must root out the terrorists and stamp out terrorism, and we will do so." It is a new kind of war, against civilian populations, and not fought by opposing armies. Our military response will be measured, designed to flush the guilty from their hiding places and punishing enough to persuade those who harbor them to turn them over. The war’s end is indefinite, but it will be long and will continue until the threat of terrorism is eliminated. The U.S. will stay the course. Justice will prevail.

The people of the U.S., traumatized by events, find comfort in a new national unity, based on a fervent patriotism that finds expressions in showing the flag, singing "God Bless America," arranging for 40 million children to simultaneously recite the pledge of allegiance, and congratulating ourselves on our role as the champions of justice and the torchbearers of freedom. This outpouring is reinforced by the full weight of the government, the media, and the entertainment, sports, and corporate communities, and leads to unquestioned backing of the bombing of Afghanistan as the opening phase of the new war.

There is a need for comfort in trying times. The decline in partisan bickering and the coming together of our diverse society are welcome. But acquiesence has a downside in the present crisis because it silences dissent and the serious discussion of alternative policy directions. From my perspective, this is a dangerous state of affairs because the path down which we are going is likely to lead to more terrorism rather than less, and to decrease security rather than rebuilding it.

Why? First, because retaliation, whether identified as "punishment" or "justice," does not teach the enemy a lesson or lead it to change its ways. Retaliation stiffens, angers, and invites counter-retaliation. If we have not learned that over the last half-century in the Middle East and Northern Ireland conflicts—to name just two of many settings where the tit-for-tat game has been on daily display—I don’t know where we’ve been. Retaliation as a way to prevail against an enemy has, short of annihilation, been a failure. Has any benefit really accrued from the daily bombing of dirt-poor, starving, and chaotic Afghanistan? Has this really reduced the threat of terrorism?

Second, we will likely see more terrorism because our bombing will increase alienation, and in many countries, especially throughout the Arab world, add to hatred. It is already doing so. Polls taken in Turkey and Pakistan have shown that a shocking 80 percent of Turks and a majority of Pakistanis oppose our bombing, and a dangerous number even supports bin Laden. It is just this hatred that produces the fetid soil from which the terror masters recruit their troops. (Compare: the rise of Hitler in an embittered Germany in the wake of a vindictive Versailles.) If we succeed in capturing bin Laden, there will be plenty of others prepared to take his place. Increasing hatred assures more terrorism. In sum, I believe the president’s "crusade against wickedness" will fail.

What is my alternative? How seriously should I take the instructions for dealing with enemies given to me by Jesus, whom I claim to be my guide, my brother, and my master? There is no doubt about where he stood. He made it clear in the greatest of his sermons when he preached to the multitude from a mountaintop: "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? . . . Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye." (Matt. 7:3-5)

Reflecting on these words is not a popular exercise for Christians these days. Brushing them aside has been made easier, first, by the efforts of theologians who for 2,000 years have found them too uncompromising and have looked for ways to temper them without repudiating their preacher; and, second, by claiming that Osama bin Laden is a new and more terrible devil than the world has ever known, who must be dealt with differently.

Neither of these rationalizations is satisfying. I believe Jesus meant what he said because his words are no less than a faithful reflection of the vibrant witness of his own life. Nor can I accept the convenient bin Laden argument. Jesus’ world was at least as brutal as our own, his country under military occupation, and its terrorist differing from ours in name only. His name was Herod and his al-Qaida was his army.

These reflections have made me think about motes and beams. What are the beams in our American eyes that make people hate us? And if we can remove them won’t that lessen hatred and reduce terrorism? Human beings do not fly civilian airplanes into buildings to kill 3,000 innocent people without harboring a depth of anger that makes them easy targets for a bin Laden to persuade them that in doing so they will become God’s martyrs.

We in the U.S. live with illusion if we do not recognize that there are millions, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, who harbor this kind of feeling toward us. Doesn’t it make sense in such a circumstance to ask what options are open to us to ease this dangerous situation? A few voices are doing so, but I have yet to hear a single word on the subject from any government source. Indeed, to the contrary, President Bush has been widely quoted as saying that he, "like most Americans, is amazed that people would hate us because I know how good we are." With all due respect, I am appalled at the shallowness of such a comment from the most powerful man in the world.

I think there are things that we can do that would point us in a new and more hopeful direction. I identify them in what follows in the hope that they will provoke thought:

Aid to others

We need to take a fresh look at our outreach to the world’s poor, its hungry, its oppressed and illiterate, its sick, its millions of refugees. We think of ourselves as generous and caring. The reality is otherwise. The U.S. is by far the most miserly of all the world’s industrialized nations in the percentage of resources it allocates to nonmilitary assistance to the underdeveloped world. I think we should be troubled when we glance at our current budget: $340 billion for the power to kill; $6 billion for power to lift the quality of life of the poor and dispossessed, on whose succor peace ultimately depends.

World arms trade

Shouldn’t we reexamine our role as the largest player in the worldwide trade in arms? We justify it on the grounds that it helps democratic allies defend themselves against aggressor nations, but often they are dispersed on the basis of two other criteria, (1) the ability to pay, or (2) the recipient’s qualification as the enemy of our enemy and therefore entitled to our weapons. It is this armament that frequently ends up in the hands of tyrants and is used to oppress their people or attack their neighbors. A poignant current example: Afghanistan, where we armed the Taliban because they were fighting the Russians, but who then used our largess to seize power, with tragic results. The arms trade is great for Lockheed, but a curse to the world, and a source of slaughter from which hatred is spawned.

Sanctions against Iraq

Shouldn’t we be concerned about the 5,000-6,000 Iraqi children who die every month because of U.S.-supported sanctions? Aren’t these lives just as precious as those so wantonly destroyed on September 11? The sanctions are of course aimed at Saddam Hussein, but after years they have left him stronger than ever, and they are being ignored by many nations, including close allies. What purpose are they serving to justify the added burden of hatred they provoke?

The role of the CIA

Whatever it may have accomplished that we don’t know about, what we do know should raise the grave concern of all in the U.S. Particularly egregious has been its role in arranging coups that overthrow governments we don’t like, even popularly elected ones. The list is long—Guatemala, Chile, Iran, Cambodia, to name several. Do we in the U.S. have any awareness of the millions of human beings slaughtered by the regimes we installed in their place or opened the way for? I have personally seen the tragedies we wrought in three of those examples: Chile, Guatemala, and Cambodia—and it is an appalling record. Our readiness to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations poisons our image, especially when others see the firestorm that erupts here when foreigners mess into our affairs, even when through relatively innocuous illegal contributions to our political campaigns.

U.S. policies in the Middle East

This is the most sensitive and difficult concern for me to raise, but because it is probably the most important source of hatred of the U.S. throughout the Muslim world, where the greatest threat of terrorism is centered, I have to speak to it despite my full support of an independent Israel. The problem is the perceived 50-year imbalance in our stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I speak to this issue on the basis of three visits to the West Bank and Gaza over the last 20 years, and six weeks living in Jerusalem, with instructions to focus on meeting with Likud officials to better understand their point of view. There are a number of factors that underlie Arab anger:

  1. The harshness of Palestinian life under a half-century of brutal Israeli military occupation—brutal not because it is Israeli, but because any occupation in a hostile environment is brutal. Neither people in the U.S. nor, indeed, many Israelis, have any idea of what the daily life of a Palestinian is like, and has been for 50 years: arbitrary cutting off of livelihoods; daily encounters with checkpoints often involving long delays; land seizures; unfair allotment of water; summary trials in military courts; sudden shutting down of schools and colleges; blowing up of homes; thousands trapped in squalid refugee camps since 1948. I wish U.S. and Israeli policymakers could spend two weeks living with a Palestinian family; they might better understand the rock throwers.
  2. Massive military aid to Israel. This is justified as necessary to assure its security in a hostile environment, but U.S. weapons, from heavy tanks to helicopter gunships, kill Palestinians at a ten-to-one rate and give Israel overwhelming superiority in the brutal game of mutual retaliation. This adds to Arab anger and robs us of the neutrality required of a broker in peace negotiations.
  3. The Israeli settlement program. Deliberately designed to honeycomb the West Bank to make a potential Palestinian state geographically impossible, and involving the seizure of large blocks of land without warning or compensation and the eviction of all who live on it, the program has always been a massive obstacle to any meaningful peace settlement. Yet for over 30 years the U.S. has made only the most modest protests and has made it financially possible by large grants of nonmilitary aid that have served annually to free Israeli funds for its construction program. Some years ago, I was sitting in the office of Mayor Freij of Bethlehem when he pointed across a valley at a settlement under construction and said, "Mr. Cary, I have friends whose family has lived on that land for 700 years. They were just told to get out. We could do nothing. Do you blame us for being angry? I can promise you one thing: the Israelis will never know peace until this sort of injustice is ended. You Americans could have stopped this program, but you weren’t interested in doing so."
  4. Highways crisscross the West Bank to assure easy passage between Jerusalem and the settlements. Cars with Israeli license plates can reach most of their destinations in 20 to 40 minutes, while Palestinian cars take several hours because of holdups at military checkpoints.
  5. I’ve mentioned water. I do so again to underline that because it is in such short supply throughout the region, its allocation is a major issue. Israel controls all water resources, and in the eyes of Palestinians, its allocation is so unfair that it is a source of bitterness, of which they are reminded daily.
  6. Terror. We rightly condemn and give full press coverage to Palestinian terror—the blowing up of Israeli buses and the tossing of bombs into marketplaces— but where has been the outrage, or even press mention, of the Israeli practice over many years of forcibly removing Palestinian families from their homes and bulldozing or dynamiting them because a relative has been accused of being a terrorist? Isn’t this cruel retaliation against innocent people also terrorism?

Or, to cite a more recent, specific example of terrorism: the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavan Zeevi. You will remember that a few months before his killing the Israelis assassinated two radical Palestinians (in what they labeled "preemptive strikes") by blowing up their cars from helicopter gun ships (U.S. provided). The Palestinian response: nothing—not, alas, by choice, but because they had nothing to respond with. In contrast, the Israeli response to the Zeevi killing: heavy tanks (U.S. provided) sent into ten Palestinian towns, at the cost of 25 Palestinians lives—all in territory turned over, at least in theory, to the Palestinian Authority. I don’t justify assassination under any circumstances, but there’s hardly been a clearer example of the imbalance of power (courtesy of the U.S.) that is such a bitter source of Arab anger.

The arrogance of power

Throughout history great powers and empires have always been tempted to go it alone, to pursue their own interests without regard for the interests of others. England was the victim of this mindset throughout the 19th century. In the 21st, are the immense wealth and power of the United States taking us down this road? Some troubling evidence:

  1. Our stance toward the United Nations. We call on it when it suits our purposes, but ignore or denounce it when it doesn’t. We don’t pay the dues we solemnly committed ourselves to pay because some things about the organization displease us. This petty behavior badly hurts our image around the world.
  2. We walk away from treaties we signed and ratified, but which we no longer want to be bound by. A current example
    is the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the cornerstone of arms control for the past 20 years.
  3. Ignoring, vetoing, or reneging on a whole range of negotiated agreements that enjoy overwhelming support of the world community, but which we don’t like because they may limit our freedom of action. Examples: the Kyoto agreements on global warming, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the elimination of land mines, the Law of the Seas agreement, the establishment of an international war crimes court, and the regulation of international trade in small arms.Wouldn’t a more generous, cooperative role in the community of nations, instead of readiness to go it alone because we are the superpower that nobody can challenge, help to change our image and lessen anti-Americanism around the world?

Earlier, I spoke of identifying and bringing to trial the perpetrators of September 11 as "a given," but I haven’t mentioned the subject since. It is still a given, but it has a different priority with me than with the nation’s 91 percent.

Blasting Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants from their caves or killing them on the run will satisfy the widespread desire for vengeance, but its price is too high and its contribution to easing the threat of terrorism too low. Destruction of a starving country and blowing up Red Cross relief depots, hospitals, and residential areas—however unintentionally—only add to the anger that is the root cause of terrorism.

I give priority to pursuing other avenues that promise to improve the international climate to the point where diplomatic and legal initiatives can produce the culprits for trial and punishment. Biding our time will prove less costly than dropping megaton bombs.

I have wanted to give some sort of answer to the many friends who are troubled by bombing and retaliation, but ask, often plaintively, "But what else can we do?" My suggestions are of things that in the long run would seem to me to be more likely to free us from terrorism and restore security than rooting out bin Laden by twisting arms to build temporary military alliances, meeting violence with violence, and bombing poor countries.

In making my case, however, I have two problems. The first is how to speak forcefully on so many issues without coming across as anti-American and/or anti-Israel—perceptions bound to produce more heat than light. It’s also frustrating because I am as devoted to our nation as any flag-waver. My aim—and my definition of patriotism—is to help a great country become greater, and more worthy of its dreams.

My second problem is the impression I may convey that the United States is the only one responsible for bringing terror on itself, which is patently not the case. We are one player among many. Other countries, including nations in the Arab world, are guilty of sins of omission and commission that have contributed to the present poisoned atmosphere, and which must be addressed. My position is only that we are complicit, and should undertake our response to September 11 where it is easiest and most important to do so—where our own house is out of order and where we can ourselves do things that will contribute to easing the world’s sickness.

We must move beyond the naive but satisfying illusion that "we" are good and "they" are evil—that the devil always lives somewhere else: now in Berlin and Tokyo; now in Moscow, Hanoi, and Beijing; now on to Belgrade and Kabul; but never in Washington. The devil lives in the hearts of all of God’s children, and until we take responsibility to try to lift up that which is good in us and cast out that which is bad, the scourge of terrorism will continue to torment us.

Stephen G. Cary

Stephen G. Cary is a member and former clerk of Germantown (Pa.) Meeting, a retired vice president of Haverford College, and has long been associated with American Friends Service Committee, including 12 years as clerk of its national board.