Sally Kohn: It's futile to respond to terrorist violence with more violence in a way that creates more terrorists
If we really want to fight terrorism, we must re-examine our own actions
Editor’s Note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
In spring 2013, a then 22-year-old man named Farea al-Muslimi testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about an American drone strike on his small village in Yemen. Muslimi, the beneficiary of a U.S. State Department scholarship that allowed him to learn English and study abroad in California, considers himself one of America’s greatest champions in the region.
Yet the attack “terrified thousands of simple, poor farmers” and, as Muslimi put it, “tore at my heart.” He said the attack made his “passion and mission in support of America almost impossible” and did more to empower anti-American terrorists than weaken them.
Many Americans who think their own hatred of radical Islamists is a logical consequence of the violence that Islamists commit fail to grasp that Islamists may hate the United States for the violent acts of our nation. This is a failure of reciprocal compassion — not that we should have compassion for terrorist leaders, but for those ordinary villagers Muslimi describes.
Just as those of us in the United States and Europe feel terrorized by the attacks in Paris, and provoked to respond with violent retribution, so, too, do villagers in Yemen and Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq feel terrorized by American airstrikes and provoked to respond as well.
If we think it’s irrational, immoral or plainly reckless for ordinary Arab citizens to respond to violence with violence, then we should stop doing so ourselves.
I’m not saying the scope and severity of the violence from the two sides are the same. And I’m not drawing a moral equivalency between the actions of one side versus the other. Instead, I think it’s futile to respond to terrorist violence with more violence in a way that creates more terrorists.
You don’t have to be a peacenik to realize this is a vicious cycle. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn says the drone war is creating more terrorists than it’s killing (and that the United States invasion of Iraq created ISIS in the first place). Previously, the National Intelligence Estimate confirmed the Iraq War created more terrorists than it killed. Just as we are provoked by their violence, they are provoked by ours.
Moreover, it’s a dynamic that inherently favors ISIS. For starters, ISIS wants to be seen and treated as “a state” and France or the United States or any major nations declaring war against ISIS reinforces its claim to power and position. Second, by increasing the likelihood the West will turn away Syrian refugees (as for instance, half the United States governors have now vowed to do), these refugees may become increasingly resentful of the West for not helping them.
Terrorism in our world today is fueled by ideology. Terrorists believe the West is the enemy of Islam. The more the United States turns its back on the refugees and demonizes all Muslims because of the insanity of a radical few, the more we play into that ideology.
Even anti-Islam dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali said, “You can’t bomb bad ideas out of people’s heads.” And, in fact, the bombing may make the idea spread.
So what should we do? Saying we should not engage in a protracted bombing campaign that will kill innocent people and enrage others is not the same as saying we should just sit back and do nothing.
We should act without replicating the violence and provocation of our enemy. We should make every effort to find those behind the Paris attacks, and all those connected with it, and not kill them outright just as ISIS would do to us but bring them to justice under the rule of law — a core American value that makes our nation just and democratic.
Our civil liberties and freedoms define us as a nation and make us proud. If we allow ourselves to be provoked by ISIS into violating our own principles, we’re handing them a victory. Moreover, our best chance at ending Islamic terrorism is supporting progressive religious reform within Islam. We do precisely the opposite when we use isolated terrorist incidents to implicitly — or explicitly — demonize all Muslims.
Farea al-Muslimi says of the American bombing campaign in Yemen, “It was the worst feeling I ever had. I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants.”
It’s a hard reality to face – the fact that America’s actions and foreign policy help create the anger and devastation that can lead to terrorism. But if we really want to fight terrorism, we must re-examine our own actions.