Terrorists count on their targets to overreact. Terrorism is designed to provoke outrage and calls for reprisals. Don’t fall for it.
It can be incredibly hard not to overreact, especially on a human level. Who could look on the tears of little Moshe Holtzberg, only two years old, crying out for his mother at his parents’ funeral at a Mumbai synagogue and not be both heartbroken and enraged? His parents, along with four others at Chabad House, the Jewish Center in Mumbai, were specifically targeted. They were among the 174 people killed in the three-day rampage by, it now appears, Pakistani militants.
Religion is often at the root of the most extreme and outrageous forms of terrorism and often produces extreme responses. Religious extremism and terrorism mutually reinforce one another. Religion provides the excuse, and sometimes even the targets. Terrorism provides the means, means that are getting ever more sophisticated in their capacity to enact the maximum amount of carnage for the minimum of expense.
Religion provides an ideal excuse for violence because it can so easily be seduced into absolute truth claims. In his very insightful book, When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball lists “absolute truth claims” as the first of the five warning signs he has identified that a religion has been corrupted and made to serve evil. The others are blind obedience, establishing the “ideal” time, the end justifies any means, and declaring holy war. All of these have been employed in recent years to get religion to serve terrorism. All of these have also been used to justify an extreme response to terrorism.
After 9/11, the Bush Administration overreacted. We attacked Iraq, a country that had not attacked us, on the flimsy, and now it has been established, false claim that they had “weapons of mass destruction.” The “Bush Doctrine,” the policy that we are justified in attacking a country that has not attacked us, was also a religiously motivated idea. In choosing to use the extreme language of evil in describing Iraq (as well as Iran and North Korea), President Bush fell into this same religious trap–we are “good,” THEY are “evil” and so we are justified in using any means to achieve our ends. This skewed thinking also ended up being used to justify torture.
The thing to know about using “evil” to fight “evil” is that it simply creates more evil. As “Matthew Alexander,” wrote last week for the Washington Post, “I’m Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq,” “Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there’s the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives. I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
In other words, when you mirror your enemy, you become your enemy.
Some in the media and some politicians are calling the Mumbai attacks “India’s 9/11” and noting that the “Bush Doctrine” could be used as a justification for reprisals. American officials should convince India not to go there, though it is hard. For a short time, it is a case of “don’t do as I do, do as I say.” But in an Obama administration, there can be another way.
Cooperation. Keeping lines of communication open and extreme rhetoric down. Terrorists hate that. The very thing they want is to provoke retaliation and increased violence. On Tuesday, December 2, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi extended an offer to India to cooperate as it investigates these attacks. We should do everything we can to see that this cooperation takes place.
In the age of terrorism, reason and negotiation are the only things that work. It’s also the spiritual thing to do. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”