e-mail us


Without understanding, the vicious cycle of violence will continue


One year ago, two dates punctuated a continuing cycle of violence and counterviolence: the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with about 3,000 people killed, and the Oct. 7 start of the attack on Afghanistan, with about 6,000 people killed so far. How can we break out of this vicious cycle?

After Sept. 11, a psychologist gave advice on CNN to parents with children asking difficult questions. One young boy had asked, “What have we done to make them hate us so much that they do such things?” A mature question, unlike the answer: “You could tell your child that there are good people in the world, and evil ... ” That boy had reached the stage of reciprocity on Piaget’s scale of child development, seeing the actions of others at least partly as influenced by our own, and vice versa. By contrast, the psychologist’s answer remained at the earlier stage of autism, seeing evil actions by others as uninfluenced by anything we do.

Motivation helps explain, but does not justify. Hitler’s success can be explained by the humiliating 1919 Versailles treaty, which called Germany alone responsible for World War I and imposed huge reparations for 50 years. Of course, nothing can justify what Hitler did. Understanding is not forgiving. But without understanding, we are condemned to repeat history.

Since 1945, the United States has intervened abroad 67 times, causing about 12 million deaths, about half by overt action (Pentagon) and half by covert action (CIA). These are practically unknown to most Americans, and rarely mentioned, with the notable exceptions of Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback and Bill Blum’s Rogue State: a Guide to the World’s Only Superpower. In addition, 100,000 people die daily in the world from hunger and preventable diseases in the midst of enormous luxury and waste.

The targets of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack were symbolic: the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, representing a system of world trade that amasses unspeakable wealth in a few hands while impoverishing billions in the Third World.

Terrorism (carried out by men and women without uniform) and state terrorism (carried out by men and women in uniform, a difference of little importance to the victims) have some common characteristics: Both use violence for political ends; they harm people not directly involved in struggle; they are designed to spread panic and terror to bring about capitulation; they have an element of surprise in the choice of who, where, when; they make perpetrators unavailable for retaliation or incapacitation.

There are also some surprising parallels between Wahhabism, a fundamentalist branch of Islam that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, and some of President Bush’s rhetoric: dualism, dividing the world into us vs. them, without neutrals; Manicheism (We are good; they are evil); and the inevitability of a final decisive battle to “crush” them, like vermin (Armageddon).

Islamic fundamentalists see the United States as greedy, interested in oil and military bases. Indeed, the United States seized an old Soviet base near Kandahar, and on May 30 came the signing of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline by the two presidents and the former Unocal oil company consultant, now Afghani prime minister, Hamid Karzai. The United States totally confirmed its image.

If the United States had limited itself to a military campaign, leaving policing to the U.N. Security Council and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, without U.S. bases and leaving rights to oil pipelines to the Afghan people, they might even have won their war. Now it is lost.

Imagine Bush had said on the night after Sept. 11: “Fellow Americans, the attack yesterday on two buildings, killing thousands, was atrocious, totally unacceptable. The perpetrators have to be captured and brought to justice by an appropriate international court, with a clear U.N. mandate.

“But my address tonight goes beyond this. There are serious flaws in our foreign policy, however well intentioned. We create enemies through our insensitivity to the basic needs of the peoples around the world, including their religious sensitivities. I am therefore taking these steps: withdrawing our military bases from Saudi Arabia; recognizing Palestine as a state, details can follow later; accepting President Khatami’s invitation for dialogue with Iran; pulling out militarily and economically from Afghanistan; stopping our military interventions and reconciling with the victims.”

That evening, 1.3 billion Muslims would have embraced America; and the few terrorists left would have no water in which to swim. It would have taken a speechwriter half an hour to write and Bush 10 minutes to deliver it, as opposed to, say, $60 billion for the Afghanistan operation. Psychologically, this is not easy, but the benefits are immeasurable.

Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer are co-directors of Transcend, a peace and development network in New York City. Both are professors at Pace University.

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002