On September 11, 2019, President Trump warned about what America would do if attacked again. “We will go wherever they are and use power the likes of which the US has never used before and I’m not even talking about nuclear power.”
This reminds me of an essay I wrote in 2002, as the Bush administration, equally confident in the efficacy of its superior arms, was moving towards war against Saddam Hussein.
The analysis is even more true now than it was then. So with only minor editing and an update to the present at the end, I republish it now.
My prayer in this week of mourning is that we recognize the danger of trusting blindly for security in the effectiveness of overwhelming force. If we do not learn from history we are doomed to many repeats of the tragedies we and others have endured since the first 9/11.
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A bear hunter gets stung by hornets. Angry, and confident in his firepower, he follows them to their nest. Boom! Lookout, feller!
Defense strategies of the past assumed a world full of bears. But today we are surrounded by hornets’ nests. We could drop any bear in our sights, but who wants to live in a woods full of hornets enraged by flying bullets and an invader on the prowl?
Humanity crossed a chasm in the last 50 years. Technology has placed weapons with destructive capabilities once available only to nation-states in the hands of individuals.
As the mightiest state on the globe, we benefited by being an early developer of these weapons. But now that means of mass destruction have grown portable and cheap and ridiculously accessible, the numbers will increasingly work against us. The smartest bomb will not secure us against a dozen determined terrorists who smuggle in a biological or atomic device inside, say, a shipment of dope. The woods is full of hornets, and their stingers are growing by the year.
Today’s threat is less from leaders of nation-states, who are dedicated to the trappings of power and whose palaces, armies, factories, and infrastructures have nowhere to hide. More and more it is from small bands of ideologues with little to lose and no footprint on our radar. We can handle bears. It’s the hornets we’ve got to worry about.
But why not at least pick off the bears and the deadliest of the visible hornets? The problem with terrorists is that they come from communities who share the resentments of the terrorists. Lucky for us, those communities usually reject the extreme tactics of the terrorists, so the terrorists remain at the fringes. But if outsiders move to engage and destroy the terrorists, community support for the terrorists multiplies.
We’d do the same thing in their shoes. Take an analogy: There are scattered Americans who advocate nuking Saddam. Most of us recognize this as illegal, immoral, and dangerous. We despise the dictator, but we distance ourselves from our extremist patriots and their tactics.
Suppose, however, that Saddam had the military means to go after those American extremists. Suppose he mobilized a large military force nearby and with surgical precision, destroyed the extremists and their families, and accidentally, a few neighboring houses.
Would we say, “Oh, those extremists had it coming, good riddance?” More likely, Americans would rally massively in their support. Saddam might have eliminated certain individuals, but he also would drive an entire nation towards the extremists and their ways of thinking. The principle: External threat increases internal unity and arouses support for those threatened.
It is possible to live well and securely, even in a woods full of hornets, but only if we get out of the bear hunt mentality. Every time we fire a weapon we rouse the entire woods. Even children know the first rule of survival with stinging insects, move slowly and let them be. Beekeepers know something else: you can actually develop a rewarding relationship with dangerous critters if you treat them with respect and see that their needs are met.
Survival in the woods requires us to fully live in it, not just venture out for bear hunting. As our fellow critters come to see that we truly belong among them and hold their best interests at heart, we will benefit from a source of security essential in an environment of multiple threats: friendship and goodwill.
Yes, we can keep our weapons at hand. Bears still lurk here. But we will be wise to see the danger we create from the hornets aroused with every shot at a bear. We will be wise to occupy 95 percent of our energies with the less dramatic but ultimately more security-building tasks of building trust with our fellow creatures.
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Update in 2019: The insight that has often eluded American policy planning in the post 2001 era is that current struggles will be won or lost not just at a military level between the US and the “bad guys”, but at a relational level. Responses that are only – or even mostly – focused on military destruction of extremists backfire. Collateral damage of military responses is almost always high, not just in property and lives, but also in outrage at foreigners waging war on domestic soil. And after the bombs, then what?
Rather than once again grabbing sledgehammers, what would it look like if world leaders applied the full toolkit of human strategies for change and development to the complex web of dynamics that have birthed extremists? Suppose our principle were that for every dollar invested in military responses, another dollar also will be invested in economic, educational, health, and human rights advancement among relevant populations, and that leaders in religion, business, education, youth, and women will be key consultants and targets of influence?
It would be slow, messy, and often wasteful, like every strategy for change. But if we rely on sledgehammers, it will all get worse and worse and worse.