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Win the Battle, But Lose the War?

Yes, we are at war. But it’s a different kind than some think.

This is a battle for the heart and soul of humanity. If we lose, our grandchildren will inherit a world more miserable than our own.

How the United States responds to the atrocities it has experienced will have a big impact on that future world.

There was a time when individual retaliation for offenses was the norm in all societies: tit for tat, eye for eye; tooth for tooth.

Gradually, societies throughout the world have recognized this as barbarity. Most nations of the world now have legal frameworks and a state system for dealing with crime. The whole society carries the responsibility to hold members accountable, and mechanisms of the state are employed to accomplish this. For this system to work, individuals must be forbidden the right to retaliate.

A century ago, nations lived independently. Today, we are linked hourly by communication, transport, and commerce. We cannot escape each other. Thus, the only hope for peace and security is to make the world a global society. All must together shoulder the responsibility to respond to atrocities when they happen.

So long as individual nations are free to alone retaliate for offenses, the cycle of violence and retaliation will be endless.

Massive retaliation by US Armed Forces is precisely the response most sought by terrorists. After all, terrorist organizations are relatively small and weak, and a primary goal is publicity and recruitment of new supporters. Their best hope is to provoke a reaction that earns new enemies for us and new sympathizers for the terrorists.

Whoever did this knows that the families and friends of whoever dies in the US response will provide the next generation of supporters for them and their cause. Retaliation may make us feel better. But do we really think that terrorists will thoughtfully respond, “Hmm, that was very painful. Now we have learned our lesson, and we will never do that again?”

Too much is at stake to be guided by indulging what “feels good.” This moment of unprecedented horror presents us, ironically, with unprecedented opportunity. The world waits expectantly for our response. Now is a time to think long-term, to be guided by values that support the kind of world we want our children to live in.

Do we want the rule of law among nations? Do we want a world where nations share collective responsibility for confronting outrageous behavior?

Let us demonstrate moral leadership by refusing to be drawn into the ancient cycle of revenge and retaliation, and by instead inviting the world community to shoulder the responsibility to respond to these terrible acts.

Let us recognize further that the only long-term solution to terrorism is a world free of desperation and the resentment it breeds. Rather than respond at the same level of debased values with which we have been assailed, let us offer our best moral and economic resources to address the desperation and resentment that fuel terrorism.

We can win this war, but only if we recognize that the enemy is not the terrorists; it is the divisions human beings create among each other.


Ronald S. Kraybill

Dr. Ronald S. Kraybill is a facilitator, consultant and trainer in conflict resolution based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was Senior Advisor on Peacebuilding and Development for the United Nations in Lesotho and the Philippines, 2009-2014, Professor of Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University, 1996-2007, Director of Training at the Centre… MORE >

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