Thursday, September 1, 2016

Why We Can’t Kill Off the Terrorists... Or Anyone Else (3 of 7)

This is the third post in seven-part series called "A Pragmatic Case for Pacifism." For a link to the table of contents for the entire series, click here.

Many people believe that the best way to protect ourselves in this world is through the use of force [E1] and therefore that countries with the most powerful military shouldn’t have any trouble keeping their citizens safe. People who hold this view tend to be frustrated and bewildered by the fact that the United States cannot seem to defeat terrorist groups like ISIS. They wonder, what’s the problem? We have a better trained military, superior technology, and far more financial resources at our disposal. By all standards, we are far more powerful than the band of terrorists in Iraq and Syria. So they ask, can’t we just shoot the bad guys, bomb their bases, or nuke the whole area if necessary? For such people, it feels like it shouldn’t be this hard to win this war!

Those who feel this way about ISIS join a great tradition of people in world history who have been shocked and surprised that their superior military have not been able to eliminate seemingly weaker opponents. The United States first experienced this bewilderment when we went to war in Vietnam half a century ago. Although our military was far more powerful than the Viet Cong, we couldn’t seem to defeat them. The British had the same experience about two hundred years earlier, when they couldn’t defeat a meager band of colonists in America, despite the fact that they had the most powerful military in the world at the time. The mighty Romans could never quite eliminate the Germanic “barbarians” (who eventually overtook their empire) [E2]. The ancient Chinese empire could never quite eliminate the steppe peoples to their north (ditto). For whatever reason, every Empire that has at one time held the title, “most powerful in the world” has run into this problem.

Why does this happen? Why can’t powerful nations defeat their enemies by killing them?
In a nutshell: the hydra effect. [E3] In Greek mythology, the hydra was a sea monster with several heads. If you tried to cut off any one of its heads, another two would grow in its place. The “hydra effect” is something that happens when your method for fixing a problem creates more problems while you are fixing the first one. For example, some people claim that the development of pesticides has a “hydra effect,” because while it eliminates some pests from agricultural fields, it makes room for greater and more damaging pests to fill their place. In the same way, extrajudicial killings have a hydra effect. For every person you kill, you create more enemies who weren’t your enemies before.

We see this happening with ISIS. Late last year, four military officers who were engaged in drone warfare wrote to President Obama, asking him to stop sending drone strikes, as this became a major recruitment tool for ISIS. [E4] Notice: This letter did not come from naive, liberal protesters who were opposed to drones for moral reasons, but from on-the-ground military veterans who saw that they were counterproductive to their supposed aims. Here’s what they observed: whenever the United States assassinated someone with a drone, that action enraged the friends, family members, and community members of the assassinated person, some of whom decided to join the fight against the United States (including its civilians) in response.

This is hard for us to understand when imagine the world as being divided between “good guys” and “bad guys.” Many of us picture the Middle East as having essentially two kinds of people: terrorists and dictators who do evil and cause harm, and innocent people who want nothing to do with the violence but are trapped there. [E5] But the truth is there is much more of a range. On one end of the continuum, there are people who openly support the United States, but when a drone strike occurs in their community, they go from being outspoken supporters to silent supporters, for fear of offending a community in grief. Next down the line, there were people who were already silent supporters of the United States, and a drone strike might move them into a position of neutrality, believing that both the U.S. and ISIS are evil, since both are involved in the business of killing. Drone strikes can turn people who are neutral into people who believe that the U.S. is worse, and ISIS is the lesser evil of the two. It can turn people who believe that ISIS is the lesser evil into people who believe that ISIS is justified. It can take people who believe that ISIS is justified and convince them to join ISIS. Et cetera. Every act of violence tends to move people one down one more rung on the anti-U.S. scale. And this range of positions exists not only in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS is centered, but to a lesser degree in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and less still in Turkey and India, and to a small extent in the United States and Europe. The entire human community is interconnected, so when you attack one group of people, the negative response ripples outwards across the whole world.

The same thing happens on an individual level. Let’s say that someone murdered my father and got away with it. Out of anger at the injustice, I decide to take matters in my own hands, so I hunted that person down and killed them. That makes it even, right? One murder for one murder. Nope, it doesn’t work that way. Because I didn’t just kill a person, I killed someone else’s son, brother, father, neighbor, etc. So that person will then make it their mission to hunt me down and kill me. This is the well-known cycle of violence that Mahatma Gandhi referred to when he said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” [E6] Violence, in attempting to eliminate one problem, always creates more.

And this is only one dimension of “the Hydra Effect” – the effect it has on your enemies. But let’s say that somehow, you are able to completely eradicate your enemy. You kill off everyone who poses a threat so that no one is out there seeking vengeance against you. Even in this unrealistic situation, you will still feel the effects of the Hydra Effect, because you created a standard in your own community that establishes violence as the key to power. Thus, if you don’t create enemies out of the friends of your enemies, you create enemies out of your own friends. This is what happened with the empires of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, those rare historical examples of people who seemed untouchable, who defeated everyone they came in contact with. Even in those cases, the Hydra Effect eventually destroyed their empires because their own people – in dedicating themselves to violent power – turned on each other.

We have not learned the lessons of history. The United States is right on track to be the next great empire that collapses under the weight of its own violence. [E7] And yet some people suggest that what we need is to invest more heavily in our military, despite the fact that we are already the world’s premier military power – by far!!! [E8] This blind addiction to violence resembles the gambling addict, who despite being in the lead, feels compelled to make more and more aggressive bets, until she loses everything she has. Our only hope for breaking this pattern is to “cash in” on the goodwill that still exists in the world and walk away from the cycle of violence. History teaches us that violence does not work over the long haul, and that you cannot eliminate the threats to individuals or nations by killing or incapacitating your enemies.

End Notes

[E1] I think the very phrase, “use of force,” is revealing. It is a euphemism for the appeal to violence. But people are uncomfortable saying that they appeal to violence, so they abstract it and call it “force” instead.

But “force” is much broader than violence, and there are many nonviolent types of force. Economic boycotts and sanctions are a force, peer pressure is a force, argument and persuasion are forces. The great pacifist Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for the use of “soul force.” Pacifists get ourselves in trouble when we accept the premise that “the use of force” is a bad thing, because it is often necessary and appropriate to use force. Instead, we should challenge the equivocation that people make between force and violence.

[E2] Technically, the Germanic invaders took over the Western portion of the Roman Empire, while the Roman state continued to exist (as the Byzantine Empire) until 1453. But I digress…


[E5] Dividing the world into good guys and bad guys is one of the fundamental myths that justifies the use of violence. More on this later.

[E6] There is some debate about whether Gandhi himself actually said this or whether the quote originated from one of his biographers, Louis Fischer. Either way, it reflects Gandhi’s belief system well.

[E7] World War II is typically identified as the turning point when the United States emerged on the global scene as the world’s foremost superpower. We have been mired in war almost constantly since that war, and I think it can be attributed to the Hydra effect. Think about it: We defeated the Axis Powers in WWII in part due to our development of the atom bomb. But then one of our allies, the Soviet Union, acquired atomic technology and we entered the Cold War. After many decades of the Cold War, we eventually “defeated” the Soviet Union, partially through our proxy wars (such as the war in Afghanistan) and our espionage training and technological development. But these very resources equipped people like Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda to engage in terrorist warfare against us. Then, in our struggle against Al-Qaeda, we have fought Middle Eastern regimes that offered them safe haven and made alliances with other groups (such as ISIS) that could help us gain power over those regions. Yet again, we find that our partners use the very violence that we equipped them with against us once the immediate threat is removed. We can’t seem to learn the lesson.


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