Lutheran Peace Fellowship

Blinded by the Darkness
Three neglected stories of the post Sept. 11 world 

by Glen Gersmehl

It’s been almost two months since the Sept. 11 Tragedy. While headlines on other topics have returned to the front pages, and most people are struggling for a sense of normalcy, nobody believes everything is normal again. For one thing, after three weeks of U.S. bombing the situation looks pretty murky in Afghanistan. For another, it looks like fears of biological threats will keep us on edge for some time to come.
In the past weeks we’ve seen firefighters and rescue workers, counselors and teachers perform heroically in difficult circumstances. It is equally important for the press and we citizens to step up to the plate. We face a daunting challenge. In many ways, we are no more prepared for the new world after Sept. 11 than we were for the tragedy itself. In fact, we run a real danger of being “blinded by the darkness” of this tragedy.
What are some of the issues we need to face? Here are three examples. Each deserves serious public debate. Each merits not just a single article that presents another point of view, but sustained media investigation and reporting to ensure appropriate attention and response from both the public and from policy-makers.

1. What are the priorities for the administration’s effort to fight terrorism? How are they reflected in budget allocations? The beginning doesn’t look good. Military procurement officials and corporate lobbyists are gearing up to urge Congress to throw massive amounts of new tax dollars at weapon systems that are too costly, ill-suited to 21st Century conflicts, or plagued with problems. These include the Crusader artillery system, the F-22 fighter plane, and of course, missile defense, according to defense analyst William Hartung.
He cites an article in the September 17-23 issue of Defense News which indicates that roughly $12 billion of the $40 billion emergency package is slated to go to the Pentagon, but it quotes a Pentagon official as saying that the emergency funds "will have nothing to do with rescue and emergency efforts…or with retaliation in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The funding will go to the [military’s] wish lists for things that we'll have several years from now." As Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observes, "tragically, some are using the terrible tragedy to justify their existing programs, slapping an 'anti-terrorism' label on missile defense and military budget increases." And as Clinton administration budget official Gordon Adams told the NY Times, "Capitol Hill is prepared to do whatever the Pentagon wants."
This surge in Pentagon spending is good news for major military contractors, asserts Hartung, who were among the few companies whose stock prices jumped in the weeks after September 11; he cites 22-37% increases in the stocks of companies like Raytheon, EDO, Alliant Tech, and Northrop Grumman. And of course, the flip side of Pentagon budgets in the $375 or $400 billion dollar range is tremendous waste and no money for any priority that can’t find an “anti-terrorism label,” from struggling farmers to domestic abuse.

2. What led up to these terrorists being willing to kill themselves for their cause? Is there anything that the U.S. has done that might have wittingly or unwittingly encouraged terrorist movements like bin Laden’s? In all the press coverage, it is remarkable how little we’ve heard about these questions, yet as Ched Meyers observes, “it takes courage to ask…and even more courage to consider possible answers.”
The NY Times on Sept. 16 answered these questions by asserting that the terrorists acted out of "hatred for the values cherished in the West such as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism and universal suffrage." Ched Meyers notes that “This self-congratulatory line of the dominant media pretends no know-ledge of U.S. policy and practices over the last two decades that might be at issue.” To begin with, terrorists are most easily recruited in places where conditions are desperate, where poverty and inequality have been endured for so long as to have led to widespread hopelessness: conditions experienced by hundreds of millions.
Now the U.S. has done many admirable things in the world: the Peace Corps, disaster relief, and support for emerging democracies to name just a few examples. It is not unpatriotic to want to examine the ways in which U.S. policy may have helped sow the seeds for terrorism in the world. For one thing, the U.S. ranks last among industrialized nations in the percent of our federal budget devoted to development assistance. Moreover, in recent decades the U.S. has supported a dozen brutal dictators such as the Shah of Iran, Pinochet in Chile, Mobutu in Zaire, and Marcos in the Philippines. It is no secret that it was the oppressiveness of the Shah’s rule that led to the takeover by an anti-Western, anti-American regime that held U.S. hostages for 444 days.
The U.S. has had its hand in a disturbingly large number of ruthless guerrilla groups around the world. The U.S. recruited, trained, and funded the Contras in Central America who destroyed hundreds of schools and health clinics and killed an even larger number of teachers and medical workers. We helped organize Hamas in Palestine, now seen as a major obstacle to peace. Through the Pakistani intelligence agency, ISI, we funded, trained and equipped the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Since their decade-long war against the Soviet Union, they have been found training terrorists all over the world, and the CIA has spent millions unsuccessfully trying to retrieve the arsenal we left behind including Stinger missiles and other weapons that terrorists only dreamed of obtaining before. Most people know by now that Osama bin Ladin was himself among those trained and supported by U.S. tax dollars. But like Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein before him, the press has managed to accept that he is now the devil incarnate which ends the discussion of our role in building up his power… and what we can learn from the experience. Ironically, bin Ladin has been helped in recruiting supporters because he has been able to portray himself as a champion of the people in opposing U.S. support for the authoritarian regime in his birthplace, Saudi Arabia, and our huge military presence there.
In every one of these cases our government’s policies and use of military and covert forces made matters worse for countless innocent civilians as well as for U.S. credibility in world affairs. And they made matters worse using exactly the kind of military and covert options that we have read about in the past three weeks. Why is it that scarcely a single newspaper or magazine has even suggested a little humility might be in order in their consideration of the Bush administration’s proposals for military action, let alone called for a full-scale examination of the kind of policies and tactics that have proved so disastrous in the past?

3. Why is the most serious alternative perspective for dealing with conflict and national security being dismissed without even a hearing? This alternative is widely understood throughout the world as well as in many communities in the U.S. but has been mostly presented in a distorted form in the past three weeks. That alternative goes by names like Satyagraha, Truth Force, or active nonviolence. Before that final word moves you to stop reading, consider this: Over a third of the world’s population, in just the past twenty years, have experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations in every case but China.
They succeeded against some of the most ruthless regimes of the 20th Century: Marcos in the Philippines, Ceausescu in Romania, apartheid in South Africa. Most were completely nonviolent - on the part of the participants. If you stretch the time frame back 50 years to include the liberation of India, the anti-Nazi resistance in Denmark and Norway, and the U.S. civil rights movement, the number of people affected rises to two-third’s of the world’s population. “All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that non-violence doesn't work in the ‘real’ world,” as Walter Wink puts it in his path-breaking book, Engaging the Powers.
It’s hard to pursue productive responses to terrorism if our only starting principle is vengeance and our only concept of power is military or “power over.” Our public discussion is greatly strengthened by seeing past the stereotypes of nonviolence to its real strength and sophistication. For example, nonviolence is not passivity, but a wholly different way of struggling against injustice and violence. It takes as much planning and discipline as military options. It offers a markedly different way of approaching conflict, a whole different grasp of the nature of power (e.g. “power with”), and a much broader menu of tools and tactics than those available to military force.
The tradition of nonviolence offers many insights relevant to a response to terrorism: In general, excessive force backfires. Work to discover the roots of conflict and to craft ways to interrupt, not feed, the “cycle of violence.” Don’t create enemies; in particular, don’t make it any easier for terrorists to recruit or grow. Seek broad international support (as Powell has assembled but has been largely bypassed). Utilize and strengthen international institutions, to give legitimacy to our response and to erode the sources of support for terrorists. Put more attention and resources into preventive than corrective measures. End criminal activity, not declare war.
Such insights have been painstakingly assembled into strategies that have shown success in the most challenging arenas of conflict today, from gang violence and domestic abuse to international violence. What has been lacking in media discussions of Sept. 11 is any portrayal of the coherence of this perspective on power and conflict that might help us craft a spectrum of responses that stands some chance of actually working.
The concept of nonviolence as described here is also a rich theme in the major religions of the world. In fact, it is at the heart of the spiritual traditions we know best. Spiritual values are useful not just for coping with trauma, but can inform our nation’s policy responses to this tragedy. Many Hebrew, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, and Muslim thinkers lived in violent times. While ideas like “do not repay evil for evil” (Jesus) or “violence, even well-intentioned, always rebounds on itself” (Lao Tsu) are often dismissed out-of-hand as fuzzy-minded or sentimental, they were actually formed in situations no less conflicted than our own, and are remarkably practical as well as morally powerful. As we discuss our nation’s move into military action, it is crucial that we address issues like these and not allow ourselves to be blinded by the darkness - of this tragedy, or of our own making.


See also: War on Terrorism, Budget Priorities, Path of Hope, Culture of Peace

Glen Gersmehl is national coordinator of Lutheran Peace Fellowship and serves on the Planning Committee for the UN Decade for Peace in the USA and Canada. He has a masters degree specializing in conflict and international security from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. To comment, or for more information: 206-349-2501 More articles are on and

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