ISIS strikes again. Politicians posture. People of faith pray. Survivors grieve. Analysts parse French President Hollande’s words, “an act of war.” Less often of late have I discussed the application of my own faith to such matters. It’s time to do so again, it seems. But first, some observations on which responses are appropriate and which not predicated on other perspectives.
If a terrorist attack is “an act of war,” then the Western tradition of a “just war”–beginning with Cicero, moving through Augustine and Aquinas may be instructive. The concept assumes that while war is to be avoided, some evils justify it. Nonetheless, the conduct of war must be just as well–despite the injustice of those on the other side. Clearly attacking civilian non-combatants is excessive. It’s the evil that justifies war. But then, is it ISIS or ISIL? The latter is the would-be state description; not necessarily the reality. Can there be a war against a non-state or a war by a non-state? An American president referred to a “war on terror”–similar to the non sequitur “war on drugs.”
How about the legitimacy of self-defense? That, at least, has a semblance of rational accuracy. To the extent it is a war, is symmetrical or asymmetrical? For the most part, it’s the latter. With terrorist acts committed by those devoted to the ostensibly religious (albeit perversely distorted) faith of the members of ISIS it’s clearly asymmetrical. Yet the political posture of many is to assert or (in some cases deny) the value of a military response including airstrikes, drone strikes and ground attacks on concentrations of ISIS. While this response seems plausibly appropriate and probably necessary, it won’t in the end, be sufficient.
Witness the Machiavellian realism or Realpolitik, if you will, of Henry Kissinger leading Richard Nixon’s war and diplomatic policies in Vietnam. Those culminated in the farcical Paris Peace Accords 40 some years ago for which Kissinger and Le Duc Tho jointly received Nobel Peace Prizes. Kissinger’s realism ignored the ethical constraints of a just war in saturation bombing of North Vietnam to get them to the bargaining table. Le Duc Tho at least had the integrity to refuse the award, since the North had no intention of living up to the accords.
Whether it’s highly motivated guerrillas or misguided religious fanatics, battlefield victories alone are not sufficient. The principle of winning the “hearts and minds” of the people is just as valid today with respect to ISIS recruitment as it was with the people of Vietnam. What does that mean? It means that people of faith will make the meaningful contribution to stopping the prevalence of terrorism–not just by ISIS but by all the groups around the world that find the methodology of terrorism their tactic of choice.
In the short term (decades, not months or years) military responses may sometimes be necessary. In the short term no amount of human intelligence, surveillance, imprisonment or reactive strikes against terrorists will protect everyone throughout the world from death or suffering. This is where the faith comes in. From the Buddhist perspective, individuals have karma–karma that may include injury or even death at the hands of others. That doesn’t excuse those who inflict those injuries or death; they create their own karma that will sooner or later result in a just reward. Nor does the pacifistic humanism of Buddhism preclude self-defense against those perpetrators. However, the individual and societal karma is what it is. For that reason, in the short term, attacks like those in Paris will persist. Again, no amount of surveillance or human intelligence can prevent all of them–that is the reality of the world in which we live.
What then will make a lasting impact to change this situation? People of faith offering prayers within their own systems of belief. Prayers to treat others as they themselves would be treated. This concept has many names or descriptions but remarkable similarities among most major religions. It implies humanism, not religious absolutism that some believe justifies oppressing or killing those who don’t follow their extreme fundamentalist views. Is this a naive or Pollyanna like view of human nature? No, it’s the only real way to make the world a happier, safer place. Converting others to fundamentalist beliefs won’t help. Killing them won’t help. Taking personal responsibility for one’s own happiness, well being and security is the answer. It won’t happen overnight. Humans have been at war with one another for millenia; we still are. If there were easy answers we would have solved this problem a long time ago. But if we are ever to get off this merry go round, we must stop looking at them as the problem and reforming the tenets of our own hearts. Yes, there are evil people in the world. Yes, we must sometimes kill them. But we must start making the world in which youth are recruited to groups like ISIS more appealing than ISIS. Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2015 John Maberry