Them’s Hornets, Fellers, Not Bears!

by Ron Kraybill, October 2002

the author

Ron Kraybill, PhD

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 a power to destroy once accessible 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. It’s Osama, mama, not Saddam, who can spoil our picnic.

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 ultimately, 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 arouse 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 highly 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 the only source of security strong enough to protect us in an environment full 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 great 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.

Among the most dangerous myths of American self-perception is that we give generously to our fellows and they ought to recognize it. Look at our pile of donated goods, opinion shapers say: We rank second only to Japan in amounts of development aid given to others. So why the global reputation for stinginess?

Look a little farther in the fine print of the “Human Development Report,” studied by analysts around the globe. Here we see that the U.S. ranks last among the 28 major donor countries in terms of the percentage of our GNP that we donated for development. On this scale we were less than half as generous as the Japanese; less than one-tenth as generous as the Danes. To be precise: we gave one tenth of one percent of our GNP for development.

People in the slums of Cairo, the West Bank, Jakarta, Nairobi, and Peshawar view the fantastic decadence of Hollywood daily on TV, think that it is real life in America, and compare this to their daily struggle to survive. When they see that the most powerful nation on earth offers them no more than the crumbs of our affluence, can we blame them for considering us grasping, immoral and ultimately a threat to communities of integrity?

Surely Americans would do better if they knew the truth! We constantly see ordinary citizens open their hearts – and their wallets – to others in need. It is time now for us to ask our government and media to tell us the truth about our omissions and how we are perceived around the world, not what they think we want to hear. There’s too much at stake to indulge in feel-good myths.

Wild and wooly though it is, the woods can be a wonderful place.

Let’s just get one thing straight. This ain’t a bear hunt anymore, it’s a journey for survival. We’ve got hard work and lots of learning about our fellow critters to do if we’re gonna make it.

At the time of publication, Dr. Ron Kraybill was a professor in the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University. He has lived and worked in South Africa and India and consults with peacebuilding initiatives throughout the world.

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