By Ron Kraybill
We read recently of yet more findings about torture conducted by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. One wonders about the sickness of people who use dogs in a competition to make boys wet themselves in fear. But of course, we are re-assured by other news. The atrocities were committed by a few individuals; only 66 substantiated cases of abuses. A few bad apples. Discard them and get on with the show . . .
Would that it were so simple.
I have clear memories of a popular attitude in the U.S., regularly fed by some media commentators, that we are in such grave danger from ruthless people that it is now time to “take off the gloves,” set aside all restraint and do whatever is necessary to find and eliminate them. Right-wing columnists openly advocated use of torture against suspects. One had the impression that many ordinary people would not have objected. The Bush administration mounted an aggressive effort to contain the ability of courts to protect rights of individuals suspected of terrorism.
Cautions against the dangers of disregarding longstanding principles of fair process were met with derision. When such attitudes are rampant both at the level of national leadership and popular culture, it is inevitable that individuals in the Armed Forces will act on them in moments of fear and exhaustion.
Who can blame fearful people traumatized by 911 for wanting to set aside the restraints of principles in a struggle to survive? But in Abu Ghraib we see the consequences of yielding principle to emotion. The damage that has been done to our national credibility globally is vast.
What we claimed to seek was worthy: democracy for others, security and the diminishment of threat for ourselves. But our willingness to set aside principles that for generations helped create a national tradition with many elements of greatness has now put us in more long-term danger than ever.
Today it is easy for extremists to paint us to the masses of the world as hypocritical and ruthless. In such an environment, those prepared to scheme against us will multiply. That the extremists exaggerate and are hypocritical themselves is undeniable. That our actions have assisted them in their goal of discrediting us and rousing vast populations globally against us is also undeniable. Our actions have contributed to our long-term risk.
How then to reduce the risk? Until a few decades ago, national security was achievable by simple strategies of destroying enemies. That era is now gone forever. Weapons of today are tiny, powerful and relatively cheap. Modern life depends on permeable borders, unrestrained communication and vast quantities of imports.
Terrorists capitalize on this, blending in with ordinary people on the move. And their guerilla strategies are actually assisted by our reliance on methods of search and destroy. Though relatively few in numbers, terrorists depend on a massive and invasive response from us to do that which they are incapable of doing for themselves: bringing large numbers into active sympathy for their cause. Because we fail to recognize the limitations of our out-dated strategy for security, our response has played into the hands of those scheming against us.
Our only hope for security lies in draining the swamps of enmity that breed the crocodiles of terror. This does not rule out measures in defense against the ruthless individuals now roaming. But the longer we rely primarily on elimination of threatening persons for our security, the longer we postpone getting to the root of the problem.
Terrorism thrives on human misery. Until we make a global campaign against misery itself the foundation for our security, until we invest in addressing it as aggressively as we currently invest in strategies of search and destroy, our vulnerability will increase. Construction, not destruction, must be our primary strategy for security in today