It is getting to be frightening to watch the news. Terrorism is everywhere, and daily we appear less capable of protecting ourselves against it. Still fresh in our minds is the recent hijacking of the TWA jet by Lebanese Shiites, but that was merely one incident, resulting in just one death. Terrorism itself is spreading like a mushroom cloud, ominous, out of anyone’s control, a new kind of ultimate threat.
Lebanese shiites, Palestinian nationalists, Irish IRA extremists, Indian Sikhs, Central American death squads, Italian Red Brigades, German Baader-Meinhof gangs, Spanish Basque Nationalists, Filipino insurrectionists, Iranian extremists, Tamil separatists and their Sri Lankan counterparts, all of these groups bomb, kill, kidnap, and deal death and terror daily. This is not to mention hundreds of other groups, less internationally prominent, who do the same. Then there is still the isolated terrorist, the guy who goes berserk and shoots himself and his family, or who shoots people indiscriminately at bus stops or at a San Diego MacDonald’s. Violence of this kind is always wrong and we are right to be angry. But we are not right when we naively believe that terrorism is the work of a small number of sick and deranged persons. Too common, and spreading, is the belief that if a few Ayatollahs, Khadafy could be eliminated, then all would be peaceful. Terrorism, in this view, is seen as the product of individual fanaticism, a small accident of history, the product of isolated and deranged minds.
But terrorism is the natural by-product of our present way of life and the economic and social system upon which we depend. Like pollution, breakdown of relationships, sexual promiscuity, economic greed and high blood pressure, it is the inevitable result of a world structured like our own. As Russell Baker puts it, it is “one of the many embarrassing by-products of our blessings.” Bottom line, our way of life is based too much upon greed. We live believing that whatever we can attain, providing it is done lawfully, is ours by right and that the accumulation of excess is itself a sign of success. Everything within our culture exalts that idea and thus greed, like cancer, continues to grow. Crassly put, we try to suck as much out of life as we can get. The fact that others get less, are weak or have less access to the good life is not important. Then, after we have what we want, we want peace, we want to be protected, we feel enraged that anyone would dare take from us what is ours. But the problem is that we took from someone else and we are taking more than our share. There can be no peace without justice. Terrorism flows from that. As violent, frightening, morally abhorrent and wrong as it is, it is a voice of the poor; perhaps, at times, the only voice they’ve got left.
Because of this, our response to terrorism must be both compassionate and nuanced. Our reaction, in fact, must include resistance. The demands of terrorism should not be met and all precautions should be taken to prevent it. But such measures, while demanded in the short range, must be sharply dissociated from our natural instinct to silence terrorism by brute force, namely, by revenge, by brutal retribution, by counter violence and by excessively increasing security, police and security measures. Frightening in this regard is the stunning popularity of the movie Rambo, a film about terrorism which crassly depicts the triumph of good over evil in terms of a superman counteracting terrorists by brutally crushing them. The popularity of this film (not the least of whose fans is Ronald Reagan) shows how deeply engrained is the feeling that the roots of terrorism lie within a few very wicked people and that the answer to terrorism is simply to eliminate those few. Frightening, too, is the idea that our crushing of those few amounts to the triumph of good over evil. Rambo could be a good film, if there were justice in the world. As it is, it feeds what’s worst in us.
Terrorism may never be stopped by brute force. Perverse as this may sound, it has too many moral roots. It stems ultimately from injustice. Moreover, it can never be stopped by brute force. Terrorism will stop only when the poor are given enough to live for, so that they do not need to give up their lives in suicidal martyrdom. Terrorism will stop only when the poor have another voice that is actually heard. Terrorism will stop only when peace is secured on justice. None of these will happen if our present greed continues. As long as we feel we have a right to milk from life as much as we can take, we will always live in fear, in a fragile peace.