On Answering Terror: Responses to War and Peace after 9/11/01

Answering Terror is an anthology of articles and reflections, largely drawn from Friends Journal, that deal with Quaker reactions to 9/11. However, a better title may have been "Scott Simon vs. Quakerdom." Simon, anchor for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition (Saturday), explained in a speech that was published in Friends Journal (and reprinted in Answering Terror) why he, as a Quaker, had abandoned principled nonviolence in the face of the Iraq War, though other, more heinous wars did not so challenge his faith. Quakers of all persuasions spontaneously responded to his remarks. Simon’s arguments are not new to Quakers; they have been repeated for 400 years, and the responses to them explain why Quakers still believe that nonviolence remains the last, best hope of humanity.

I was asked to write a brief jacket blurb, but I was not far into the book manuscript when I sensed that this symposium deserved more than a nod and a promise. I was one of the few to see the pre-publication book in its entirety, and I was so disarmed that I grabbed the phone and asked the editors if I could instead write a longer comment. They said yes, and so I wrote this reflection. I will try to justify my enthusiasm.

What we have here is a denomination writing to itself. Has such a thing ever transpired before? On the surface there is a pro-and-con debate over nonviolence; but under the surface, every doubt, vacillation, conviction, and act of courage that Quakers have ever entertained rises to the surface. The dialogue with Scott Simon merely articulates the profound search for Truth that has been the hallmark of Friends in every generation. Quakers have held slaves and fought in wars, as well as stood against tyranny and spoken against injustice.

We should congratulate Simon for the clarity of his charges. He is forthright in his attack. I will simply list some of his points and then respond to them amicably, as befits Friends.

Police versus Armies

Simon is ambivalent about being a Quaker; sometimes he calls himself one, and other times he speaks of his affiliation in the past tense. The ambivalence is significant because it co-exists with his anger at Quakers for not intervening sooner in Bosnia/Serbia/Kosovo and elsewhere around the globe. Simon writes, "It seems to me that in confronting the forces that attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States has no sane alternative but to wage war; and wage it with unflinching resolution."
This declaration of war sounds eerily similar to President George W. Bush’s speech in the Washington National Cathedral right after 9/11. Bush and his advisors should have seen that this was a matter for the police; Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida, and the Mafia are organized crime networks, and should be dealt with as such. Police action should have been enlisted, not entire armies. Doing so would have avoided the principle cause of terrorism: occupation of the homeland by foreign troops.

By declaring war on terrorism, Bush denied the rights of habeas corpus, immunity to torture, access to an attorney, and a fair judicial process. As a consequence, we have had Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, hell-holes designed to break the human spirit. Such treatment is likely to lead to more terrorism rather than less and to decrease security rather than rebuild it. As a result, we are far less safe now than before Bush’s wars began.

Force versus Violence

Several Quaker respondents found Simon’s distinction between force and violence to be helpful. "Force" signifies a truly legitimate, socially authorized, and morally defensible use of restraint to prevent harm being done to innocent people. "Violence," or excessive use of force with intent to harm, is morally illegitimate. If we find a spouse or friend under attack, a whole range of possible reactions are available to us. In this anthology, Mike Murray reminds us, "In any event, adrenaline would go a long way in determining [our] response." Hopefully we would use a minimum of force in self- or other-defense, but most likely the muggers would "have the drop on us," and we would have few or no options, violent or nonviolent. A police officer who must arrest a killer may have to use lethal force to restrain him. Such a use of force falls within the definition of his or her office as spelled out by society and Scripture (Rom. 13:4—"The state does not bear the sword in vain"), and is divinely authorized to preserve order in a structure of justice. But violence, when pursued, almost always leads to consequences unforeseen and undesired. Those who favor violence as an antidote seldom anticipate the levels of carnage or the length of its jurisdiction. Despite their commitment to nonviolence, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. always left a way out. Gandhi said, "I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. . . . But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence." And King confessed that he would have "set aside" his pacifism during World War II "in the face of such evil."

Ian Cooper writes, "A pacifist can defend him/herself. What a pacifist cannot do is become the aggressor." He argues that George W. Bush was clearly the aggressor in Iraq. In fact, he virtually violated all of his foreign policies. Hence his wars are indefensible—as if we needed additional grounds for condemnation and impeachment.

The Slippery Slope

The difficulty with the force/violence continuum is that it becomes very easy to slide down the slippery slope from legitimate force to illegitimate violence. Absolute pacifists may in some cases take the hard line in order to prevent that slippage. But life is complex, and there may be times when we must consider uncomfortable choices on that continuum. Every situation demands special considerations, and the will of God today may not be the same as it was yesterday. As Daniel Coston writes, "I would not stand peacefully by while my family was being harmed, even if it meant that I would need to use lethal force. So why should I expect my government to be any different?" People turn to violence because they believe that only violence can save them. I call this belief the myth of redemptive violence.

The Taliban

Curiously, the topic that commands the most attention in the letters and columns of Answering Terror is the role of the Taliban. This may be because the essays are dated (after Afghanistan, before Iraq), but I suspect that there is more to it than that. The sins of the Taliban are itemized in rich detail, as if Quakers needed to exculpate themselves from suspected sympathy. Women under Taliban rule were banned from most forms of employment. Severe restrictions were placed on female education. Harsh shari’a punishments were imposed on adulteresses (death by stoning), thieves (amputation of the right hand), and beard trimmers (lengthy prison terms). Women were forced to wear the traditional head scarf, but men paid a high price as well. As Scott Simon tells it in his response to Friends Journal readers:

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 would be marched onto the field and executed by Taliban "judges" for various religious crimes. . . . 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.

Reports like this one go on and on. Somehow, if the sins of the Taliban were sufficiently heinous, our failure as Quakers to support intervention might be justly criticized. The truth is, the attack on the Taliban was premeditated and had nothing to do with freeing Afghan women or bringing democracy to a "primitive" people. As British writer John Pilger wrote in the UK Mirror on October 29, 2001, "The oil and gas reserves in the Caspian basin [are the] greatest source of untapped fossil fuel on Earth. . . . Only if the pipeline runs through Afghanistan can the U.S. hope to control it." That is why the U.S. wanted to control Afgha-nistan. "When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, Washington said nothing. Why? Because Taliban leaders were soon on their way to Houston, Texas, to be entertained by executives of the oil company, UNOCAL. With secret U.S. government approval, which later fell through, the company offered them a generous cut of the profits of the oil and gas pumped through a pipeline that the Americans wanted to build from Soviet central Asia through Afghanistan."

Oil also played a major role in motivating the invasion of Iraq. But something more sinister now enters the picture: why negotiate for the world’s second-largest oil reserves if you can control all that oil directly? Keith Helmuth calls this "U.S. exceptionalism," a form of oil imperialism that claims that the United States can exempt itself from any encumbering policies that interfere with its will to dominate the world. Thus Bush ignored the Kyoto and Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaties, and rejected the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court or any other check on his sovereignty. What I call imperialism, Bush calls self-defense. Defense? We are the most powerful nation in history; yet few countries are so embattled and afraid.

Paul Barker explains in his article, "Queries From Afghanistan," that some things have improved: Afghanistan is a free country. Women are not as suppressed; half the people in school are women and half the people in the workforce are women. There is a free press, freedom of worship, and freedom not to worship. There is even freedom of politics, and perhaps too much of it; we are seeing resurgent warlordism, highway banditry, incipient civil war, and a Taliban movement transformed into a guerilla force with endless casualties on all sides. The near eradication of opium poppy production in 2001 has been replaced with bumper crops of poppy that account for 80 percent of global heroin production. In Afghanistan, "victory" is neither complete nor assured. Yet Scott Simon reminds us of the irony that Iraq, our current obsession, had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.

Nonviolence Works

On pragmatic grounds alone, nonviolence has proven far more effective than violence. In just the second half of the 20th century, the world experienced an avalanche of nonviolent struggles, almost all of which succeeded with very few or no casualties—and almost all of which were underreported. Locations of nonviolent revolution include Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Yugoslavia, Mongolia, the Soviet Union, Brazil, Chile, China, Nepal, Palau, Madagascar, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Gabon, Bangladesh, Benin, Algeria, the Philippines, South Korea, South Africa, Israel, Burma, New Caledonia, New Zealand, India, Ghana, Iran, most of the states in Latin America, and, in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farm Workers movement, and the anti-Vietnam and antinuclear movements. During the same period, there have been only a few violent revolutions (Nicaragua, the breakup of Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda), which resulted in an unacceptable number of casualties. And yet there are still people who say that nonviolence doesn’t work. Indeed, it’s about the only thing that has been working!

In times when hope is thin, I recommend that you copy the preceding paragraph and chant it like a mantra. After all, these are not theories—they’re facts. We must cling to our successes. In the majority of these cases, the number of casualties was significantly lower than if violence had been favored. The British Empire would have lost India after World War II regardless of whether violent or nonviolent action had been used. War could easily have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, some say even millions. The choice of nonviolence meant that only 8,000 were killed. In comparison, the violent Nicaraguan revolution could have been won bloodlessly had the people been instructed in "people power," according to the Sandinista foreign minister, Miguel d’Escoto. Instead, they chose violence, and 20,000 people were slaughtered.

Rather than abandoning nonviolence because we have not yet learned how to use it effectively, we might test it as we do any other new invention: by trial and error. We have massive corroboration that nonviolence has worked in cases of national liberation, but we have not had much success in using it to overcome economic inequality.

The issue is, finally, spiritual. The world has been lurching toward democracy of late, and democracy is the institutionalization of nonviolence. For those with the eyes to see, the proliferation of nonviolence can be regarded as the work of the Holy Spirit in history. Did you see the burning bush? As Mike Murray writes, "Many good Friends don’t reject violence categorically. Like William Penn, they carry on, wearing their swords as long as they can."
For more information and to order copies of Answering Terror: Responces to War and Peace after 9/11/01, visit http://www.friendsjounal.org.

Walter Wink

Walter Wink is a member of South Berkshire (Mass.) Meeting and professor emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary.