It appears increasingly likely that we are going to wage a war against Afghanistan. A war will probably result in the deaths of many innocent civilians – “collateral damage” as our media deceptively calls it. In a war, we would essentially do the same thing that the terrorists did – kill innocent people. We would very likely kill as many civilians in Afghanistan as died in the World Trade Center.
The idea of killing more innocents and causing more grief disturbs me deeply. Nevertheless, when I detach my gut feelings from my intellect, I understand the argument: the goal of retaliation is to prevent any future attacks so the overall net number of human lives saved is greater than it would be without retaliation.
Will military retaliation prevent future deaths? While it is impossible to read the future, it does not seem likely that it will. There are many people in the Middle East who already resent the United States for supporting oppressive, non-democratic regimes there, supplying Israel with military aid and causing the deaths of civilians in Iraq who lack food and medicine due to U.S. backed embargoes. Most of the people who resent us are not terrorists. The more pain the United States inflicts upon the region, the higher the resentment and hatred will grow and the more likely new terrorists are to emerge.
I fear that retaliation will continue a cycle of violence. We retaliate and kill civilians. The hate, fear and rage created from such an action will lead on to further antagonism between the two sides and further calls for “retaliation.” Then we strike back again. The violence and hatred grows and both sides become hardened to their positions, making the possibility of a peaceful resolution less likely. This basic cycle of violence has occurred in many other places and times in history.
I believe that the current calls for retaliation stem as much from a desire for revenge and from national pride as from a rational cost-benefit analysis of lives saved. Moderate responses are unsatisfactory; our rage demands a strong response now. Our pride and arrogance also plays a role in it. “Those Afghans dared to mess with the United States! We’ll show them!” As a culture, we confuse “not fighting back” with a display of weakness. Nevertheless, reining in one’s emotions and considering what, in the long term, best serves our interest is clearly going to lead to a response that is in our best interests.