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What Would Jesus Do About Terrorism?

[NOTE: I support the "Listen for Peace" proposal.]

What would Jesus say and do about September 11? The situation is bad and could easily be much worse. One wonders why the terrorists have not already hit a major metropolitan area with a wide dissemination of anthrax spores. Itís also possible that terrorists have a crude atomic weapon, but no one has yet attacked a city with nuclear weapons (well, not since 1945, anyway).

The immediate driving force behind terrorism is anger and hatred. The underlying force behind hatred is a destructive relationship with nature. The link between a destructive relationship with nature and a destructive relationship with fellow humans is not obvious but is extremely important.

It is not always possible to separate our attitudes towards nature and our attitudes towards our fellow humans. Species are going extinct at a rate 100 to 1000 times faster than normal today, and a cavalier attitude towards animals and nature often goes hand-in-hand with a cavalier attitude towards humans as well. But there is a far more straightforward problem. We are exploiting the resources of nature with great technical ability, but the soil, water, forest, energy, and mineral resources of the earth are being rapidly depleted. These resources are finite, and are being used today at a greater and greater price. Groundwater tables are falling both in North America and in Asia; soil erosion takes valuable land out of production; tropical forests are disappearing at an alarming rate.

This leads to a situation in which some people have control of these resources, while others donít. A significant minority in the richer countries are living a lifestyle which is ecologically unsustainable, while the rest of the world is left with a choice of somehow emulating this overconsumption ó with increasing difficulty, as much pressure has been brought to bear on natural resources ó or subsisting with much less. This creates inequality within the framework of ever-diminishing resources.

If we do not alter these basic facts, terror will triumph in one form or another. Even if the terrorists, and their network, are completely eliminated from the face of the earth ó down to the last person ó the roots of terror will have been left intact. Terror will change shape and re-emerge, learning from the lessons of the past, and confront us in an even more horrible shape.

Western civilization is not entirely innocent of terror. Itís true that there are many delightful and positive features of our way of life: the availability of hot and cold running water, basic sanitation, housing and heating, health services, steady employment, the widespread presence of public libraries, and an unusual degree of civil liberties. But on the other hand, the Western world, with about 15% of the population, uses over two-thirds of all the economic output ó in a world in which resources are being rapidly depleted. No important figures seriously suggest practical measures to reduce consumption or preserve nature. This is a civilization which annually butchers billions of innocent animals to support a meat-eating habit which is not only unnecessary but is the major cause of the rapidly rising medical expenses to treat heart disease and cancer. When you approach other Americans, even your friends, with these facts, you get a puzzled look. They donít get it; they donít see a problem. They donít want to talk about it, they donít want to think about it, and they continue their behavior. Of course, they also canít understand why September 11 happened.

Ambiguity about Terrorism

It is disturbing to Americans that some people see the terrorist actions in a very ambiguous way. This varies all the way from the Palestinians who joyfully celebrated the September 11 attacks in the streets, to others in Arab countries who say casually and privately, "Sure, what the terrorists did was wrong, but the United States had it coming." How can we understand the point of view of such ambiguity? Why canít everyone agree that killing innocents is immoral? Isnít there an absolute moral divide between those who tolerate terror, and those who do not?

Let us put aside pacifist objections for the moment and assume that war, provided it is conducted in a reasonably honorable way, is an acceptable, though not desirable, option. Doubtless, the terroristsí actions are absolutely evil ó but the United States cannot condemn the killing of innocent civilians, in itself, without a broader context.

Hereís an example: suppose the U. S. had the atomic bomb much earlier in the Second World War ó say, in 1943. Suppose, further, that it was possible to drop the bomb in such a way that it would kill Hitler and most of his generals while they were meeting in Berlin. Even though the overwhelming majority of people killed in such an attack would probably be civilians, the military value of the target, for most people, would justify its use. Indeed, its demoralizing ó shall we say terrifying ó value would have been so great, that even if Hitler and his generals not been present, it probably would have been militarily justifiable. It might very well have brought the war to a much quicker conclusion, and saved millions of lives. The ultimate use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was much more controversial, because the war was almost over and the outcome was pretty much a foregone conclusion; but it would be much harder to fault such a use of such a terror bombing in 1943. If the enemy is evil enough, terror becomes legitimate.

Germany in 1943 had no large civilian jet airline industry. But suppose there had been such an industry. And suppose there had been some Americans who somehow had managed to get behind the enemy lines, hijacked a German airliner and crashed it into the Reichstag, destroying the building and resulting in thousands of casualties. Would we not have saluted these Americans as heroes? The number of civilians killed in such an attack would probably be far fewer than if an atomic bomb had been dropped on Berlin. Yet is this not exactly analogous to the tactics used by the terrorists on September 11?

If the war against Hitler was justified, then we cannot reach the conclusion that the killing of civilians is automatically wrong. It is usually wrong, but there is a larger framework to be considered, in which terrorism ó while certainly not the weapon of choice ó is only one in a range of possibilities. We must evaluate terrorism in the light of the ultimate objective. If we object to the tactic of attacking civilians per se, we must do so consistently, condemning it on our side (and accepting the consequences) as well as condemning on the side of our enemies.

Therefore, it is not sufficient to say about September 11, that killing innocents is pure evil. Look at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden: three terror-bombings which together were 100 times worse than September 11. Did we see war crimes tribunals convened to deal with American war leaders, just as we dealt with the far more serious war crimes committed by the Nazis? What about the war in Vietnam, where it was quite clear that our policy, while arguably not targeting civilians, was nevertheless resulting in countless civilian deaths with no other demonstrable military effect? Either actions which clearly cause civilian deaths are always wrong no matter what the cause, in which case we have to reopen the case of American actions in the Second World War and the Vietnam War; or we have to admit that the current cases of terrorism cannot be automatically condemned. Terror must be examined in the context of its objectives.

For an even more recent example, what about the sanctions on Iraq? Since these sanctions have been in place, it is estimated that tens of thousands of people have died, perhaps to a total of over a million. Here, the situation is complicated because of the brutal and repressive Iraqi regime; and many of the deaths have been only indirectly due to the sanctions, more a consequence of the crushing poverty brought about by the sanctions rather than because of the literal lack of food on store shelves. Nevertheless, there is no question that many of those deaths can be attributed to the sanctions themselves, rather than to the Iraqi governmentís reactions to the sanctions. Of course, Iraq could comply with the demands of the U. S. and end the sanctions. But the point is, that civilians of a foreign country are not supposed to be targets because the U. S. disagrees with the actions of such a foreign government. The sanctions have the effect, in practice, of targeting civilians. This is not to necessarily say that the sanctions are wrong ó again, if war is justified, then perhaps the deaths of civilians is sometimes unavoidable, if the cause is important enough.

And this is precisely what makes September 11 more problematic in the rest of the world. To Americans, our own innocence and basic goodness is obvious, and therefore our enemies appear simply as the incarnations of evil. But to Muslims who have over the past half century witnessed the bombing of Vietnam, the bombing and sanctions imposed on Iraq, and the persistent American opposition to Palestinian aspirations, the situation is more ambiguous. That is what makes the question of how to respond to September 11 a dangerous political question as much as a moral question.

Many people have varying opinions of the United States. They see the terrorist acts as bad, but not quite so bad as Americans see them. The difference is not in the moral significance of the terrorist actions, but in the evaluation of the end for which these actions were committed. Those, of course, who see the U. S. as the Great Satan ó as diabolically evil, perhaps, as Nazi Germany ó may actually approve of the terrorist actions. But it does not necessarily follow that they have different moral principles from Americans on the question of killing of civilians. They might have the same basic moral principles concerning targeting civilians in warfare, but differ as to the evaluation of the end for which the taking of life was committed.

It is completely incorrect to compare the United States to Nazi Germany, which is basically the scale of comparison youíd have to make in order to justify the September 11 attacks. But you donít need to read the news reports from the Middle East to see that people are angry. And when people become angry, comparisons between the United States and other evil countries become more plausible. We should therefore recognize the ambiguity of evil, especially since our own country is not completely innocent itself.

Consumption as terror

There is something odd about the richest and most powerful nation in the world making war on a country ó Afghanistan ó whose poverty is comparable to that in medieval times. This does not mean that whatever the reactionary brutal government of poor country does is justified, and that it can resort to any sort of violence it wants. We canít say, "O. K., youíre poor, so go ahead and crash airliners into our buildings." Moreover, let us state at the outset that some economic inequality in the world is not only inevitable, but probably a good thing.

But there is a principle of proportion involved. When gross inequalities exist, this makes further violence more likely. Gross inequalities have a "terrifying" effect on the subject population. The U. S. A. has less than 5% of the world's population, but consumes 30% of its resources. In the meantime, 78% of the world, in developing nations, consumes 16% of the output.

This disparity in resource allocation applies even to resources for food, a basic human need. The American style of life requires at least 3.5 acres of agricultural land per capita. (About 90% of this agricultural land is going for livestock agriculture, by the way). Even if all the other resources (fertilizer, water, energy, tractors, and agricultural "know-how") were all present in abundance, we still would need to more than double the amount of arable land in the world to raise the rest of the world to the American standard of living. Even maintaining our current level of food output is severely eroding our agricultural resources. And what about starvation and world hunger? A conservative estimate is that on the order of 250,000 people starve to death each year. Other estimates of hunger-related deaths range from 11,000 to 25,000 per day.

Do the math: how many airliners would we need to crash into public buildings to approximate this sort of terror? Do we have outrage? Do we urgently demand retaliation against the perpetrators? Do we seek out the leaders of this network of starvation, seeking to arrest them as war criminals?

Of course not. There is both a political reason and a practical reason. The political reason is that the victims of September 11 were in the richest and most powerful country in the world, and we saw the crimes committed on TV. The victims of this agricultural system are in the poorest countries, and die quietly out of sight of the TV cameras. The practical reason is that, even if we were so inclined to be outraged, there is no readily identifiable immediate cause for starvation. True, the Western system of agriculture is partially responsible, but so are the local governmentsí corruption and inefficiency. No single individual or individuals can really be clearly blamed. But because the responsibility cannot be as clearly allocated doesnít mean that people arenít dying or that we canít do something about it. The world needs the reassurance that we are really all together in our struggle for a better world. Overconsumption does not provide this reassurance.

Overconsumption creates a strong presumption of injustice. While it may be that Americans are more hard-working and smarter than the rest of the world, it stretches the limits of credulity to say that they work ten, twenty, or one hundred times harder than those in the developing nations. Think of the difficult and very strenuous work involved in planting rice, gathering wood, and carrying water: this is the daily life of many in the developing nations, no matter how intelligent and hard-working they may be. Our "freedom" which we hear so much about is certainly responsible for part of this increased productivity, but there is a heavy element of control of physical resources which is just as important, if not more so. This creates the strong presumption that only the strong rule, and therefore the only real crime is defeat.

Overconsumption creates inequality between humans, which is itself violent. There are always those who live at the edges of the social order. In the United States, the poor are relatively well off ó there is rarely any danger of death or starvation, even for the homeless. But for other nations, the whole society is poor, and those at the lower edges of the social order may actually die. Is not this a kind of violence?

Overconsumption loots the earth of resources for others and for future generations; and looting the earth also harms all the other non-human creatures who inhabit the earth. In short, it is violence towards the earth. Now, of course, many people donít think that non-human creatures have "rights." Nevertheless, two things hold true: (1) billions and billions of innocent animals are needlessly slaughtered each year, and species are going extinct at a rapid rate; (2) this systematic, if unconscious, pillaging of the earth will eventually have repercussions for humans.

Eventually, we will start to run out of resources ó in fact, it is happening already. The supermarket shelves are hardly bare, but behind what we see when we visit the supermarket is a reality of soil, water, energy, and other resources which make the U. S. agricultural system possible. We in the United States have no immediate shortage of these agricultural resources, though they are being increasingly depleted. But that is because the U. S. is rich in agricultural resources. The United States has over twice as much arable land per capita as the rest of the world, not to mention vast stores of energy and water resources. The so-called "civilization" as we know it today has only recently arrived in North America, so even after three hundred years of exploitation of the earth, much still remains.

But for those in the developing countries, the situation is different. Agricultural land per capita has been declining world-wide for over a decade. For those in the rich countries, it will hardly matter; they will have to pay a little more for their oatmeal, one supposes. But elsewhere, this will create a tight situation for those at the lower end of the social order in the developing countries, and often it will mean a lower standard of living or death.

How to fight terror

How can we resolve the conditions which promote war and terror? Letís put aside for the moment the specifics of a comprehensive Middle East settlement or how to deal with Palestinian refugees. Letís not ask what we should do, but just what Jesus would do and would want us to do. The gospels describe Jesus as saying things like:

"Do not violently resist one who is evil." (Matthew 5:39)

"Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:44)

"You cannot serve God and money." (Matthew 6:24)

The early Christians lived together sharing everything they had:

"And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need." (Acts 2:44-45)

 Itís true that the world of Jesus was different from our world; but we should certainly learn something from these words.  The first is to live as simply as possible, both as individuals and as a society. There is an environmental crisis and the growing shortage of natural resources. Overgrazing by cattle is tearing the topsoil apart. Cropland per capita is declining, year after year. The era of oil-dependent vehicles is coming to an end. The resources simply arenít there to feed the entire world a meat-oriented diet; the resources simply arenít there to supply one billion Chinese with cars and freeways.

Simple living is a complex issue, because there are some areas of our lives in which the infrastructure for a simpler or more environmental lifestyle just doesnít exist. American cities are designed with the automobile in mind, mass transit is largely a joke, and bicyclists take their lives in their hands when they venture out onto the open road. Even for those who have cars, it is dangerous ó about 40,000 people die in automobile accidents each year, over 10 times worse than the September 11 events. On the other hand, there are other areas where the individual can change his or her lifestyle, such as in regard to diet. A meat-oriented diet requires a lot of land use; it requires 5, 10, or even 20 times as much land to produce meat as to produce the same nutritional value in plant foods. Switching to a vegetarian diet, or at least reducing meat consumption, is something that Americans can do today. Therefore we must change our lives where we can, and to work for and advocate in the political arena the infrastructure for a simpler lifestyle in those areas where it is more difficult.

The second thing we can do is to live as nonviolently as possible. We need to recognize that the roots of the problems we are now experiencing lie in the Middle East ó and as of September 11, the U. S. is part of the political map of the Middle East. The disputes between the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs have gone on for over a half century, with no end in sight. As a practical matter, as long as there is no comprehensive political settlement of this issue, there will be no end to the war on terrorism. At an individual level, we can further nonviolence through interreligious dialogue. Many of the disputes between people these days have their origins in religion. By increasing understanding, even if it is only at an intellectual level, we can gain a greater sense of what it means to be human. When people of different religions eat and pray together, then we will be making progress.

The American way of life is, in its present form, destructive of the earth and cannot be maintained merely by force of arms. Guns cannot make the earth more productive; we cannot eat gasoline, money, or bullets. The evil will not go away; it will simply change shape.

For the purpose of peace it is essential that we turn our society around and live much more simply. Anything else is madness. We will probably have to endure madness for some time more, but we cannot delay too long. If we do, we will be faced with an environmental, economic, and political collapse in the face of which the events of September 11 will appear as a footnote in history.

ó Keith Akers