What Violence Doesn’t Achieve (Second version)

Donald Trump has been sounding off about terrorism calling for tougher measures. We have his call for more stringent border controls, for more violent treatment of potential terror suspects including use of torture and even his advocating killing members of the terrorists’ families. From the reaction in the polls, his diatribe against terrorism reflects a popular misconception.

Given the support for this aspect of his policies, perhaps it is time to remind ourselves his recipe for violence against those who rise up against the West is hardly compatible with the principles for which Christians claim to stand. We may not like it but the reality is that in the US the large percentage of Republicans who support Donald Trump strongly suggests that there are many who agree with Trump’s recipe of grim punishment. Regardless of those among his supporters who self identify as Christian, on this teaching at least, perhaps they should be reminded their brand of Christianity does not extend to accepting the Sermon on the Mount. Can we be certain New Zealand Methodists are more Christian on this viewpoint?

On the surface, at least in this instance, the Trump followers are responding to a persuasive argument. Terrorists, who stop at nothing to frighten civilized people into submission, have chosen the despicable tactic of surprise attack on the most vulnerable. A common reaction in the West to such action is in believing that the perpetrators will only give up their terror tactics in the face of the strongest possible reprisals. And after all isn’t that what is intended to happen when drone strikes or bombing raids are launched on ISIS strongholds or terrorist enclaves?

Against that proposal we might reflect on Mohandas Gandhi’s caution about violence where for example he claims:

“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”

Given these alternate Trump versus Gandhi world views it is fair to ask which view is most plausible in terms of what we know about outcomes.
Presumably every person’s actions are at least partially chosen to deliver desired outcomes.

ISIS members for example have made it clear that they feel their mission is to create an ever widening region in which their favoured form of Islamic conservatism will gain ascendancy as a step towards a world-wide Islamic religious state. Because terror tactics are a cheap and accessible alternative to the expense of conventional warfare, all too often a surprise attack on a soft target can and does produce a maximum disruption. Where terrorism fails is seen in the Pew surveys on attitudes to ISIS among the Muslim nations. In the most recent surveys, in each of the sampled nations (apart possibly from Pakistan) there is a distinct and in some cases an overwhelming rejection of ISIS and their tactics. Maybe terrorism and violence will gain temporary power in some towns and cities particularly in Iraq and Syria but if the actions turn even Muslims away from sympathizing with ISIS such acts are likely to be counterproductive to the ISIS aims in the long-run.

If we turn the argument around and look at the current Western responses to terrorism, again the actions rarely have the desired effect. Each time there is a reprisal raid or drone attack by a Western power, because this is seen by local people as a foreign incursion, when the inevitable collateral damage occurs and innocent bystanders are killed or injured this strengthens a terrorist organization like ISIS because their cause feeds on resentment.

I have a suggestion. If instead of focussing on the punishment of terrorism we were to press for the use of the Pew surveys on the low level of support for Muslim terrorist groups to highlight the current disillusionment of observer Muslims, the terrorists should feel more reason to moderate their strategy.

The surveys are also useful to remind the rest of us that ISIS in no way stands for mainstream Islam.

If indeed we want money spent on fighting terrorism, instead of the incredibly expensive bombing raids which we know foster resentment, why not give practical aid to the very areas under contention. Even from the point of view of simple economics, pre-emptive non-military aid to friends and enemies alike would be cheaper than assisting with the rebuild of towns where Western weapons are used to turn buildings into rubble. We may need to acknowledge all the damage done in our reaction to terrorism to give us a sense of proportion.

For example the latest terrorist outrage in Pakistan was unforgiveable yet the total civilian casualties in Pakistan is currently averaging less than 1000 a year.   The total civilian casualties in Iraq as a consequence of the US intervention would exceed 20 times that figure.   Communities losing family members to military action are likely to be just as aggrieved as those who lose family members to terrorist acts.

We may also need reminding that the cost of resettling refugees displaced by punitive action far outweighs the potential cost of being good neighbours, particularly when the refugees include radicalized potential terrorists. Who knows, if the aid was overtly given in proportion to areas where there was a reduction in terrorism then there might be some motivation to win the advantage of aid by reducing the violence.

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