War, Terror, and the Ethics of Extinction
“Violence begets violence” is a phrase famously used by Martin Luther King, Jr. And the “cycle of violence” is a well-known concept in the study of domestic abuse. In the days following 9/11, Harry Browne applied both to war and terrorism.
In those fevered days, Browne was one of the heroic few who bravely stood up to the “tripartisan” consensus among conservatives, liberals, and libertarians then baying for indiscriminate vengeance and displaying a rabid intolerance for dissent. On September 12, he wrote an editorial on Antiwar.com titled “When Will We Learn?” in which he cited the primary role of American state violence abroad in engendering retaliatory violence against the American people, which is what the 9/11 attacks were.
“Did we think the people who lost their families and friends and property in all that destruction would love America for what happened?
When will we learn that violence always begets violence?”
This drew a predictable flood of vituperation (much of it coming from libertarians), to which he responded with a follow-up editorial titled “The Cycle of Violence.” In that piece, he extended the “violence begets violence” principle to the terrorist attacks themselves.
“Terrorism may cause some changes in the short term, but it never leads to a conclusive victory, because it provokes a never-ending cycle of escalating violence on both sides.”
Browne did not mean that literally all violence begets violence, perpetuating itself in a cycle. He made this clear when he expressly called for judicious, narrowly-targeted violence to be visited upon the actual perpetrators of 9/11.
“I hope anyone responsible for the attack who didn’t die in it will be found, tried, and punished appropriately.”
So according to Browne, apparently, it is unjust violence that begets further unjust violence, and our plight is that we are locked in “a never-ending cycle of escalating” unjust violence “on both sides.” And he was right.
For the libertarian, violence is just only when it is restricted to repelling present aggressors and securing restitution from past aggressors. This kind of violence does not self-perpetuate, but, to the contrary, is by character self-containing. Fending off aggression (self-defense) and, as much as possible, reversing the effects and gains of aggression (restitution, including damages) makes aggressive violence worse than futile for perpetrators, and thereby unappealing for potential perps.
Furthermore, just violence (as libertarians define it) avoids any gratuitous inducement of retaliatory violence, because it refrains from inflicting disproportionate violence upon aggressors or “collateral damage” upon innocents.
Visiting violence upon innocents and disproportionate violence upon aggressors is precisely what unjust violence (aggression) does. In doing so, unjust violence (as libertarians define it) not only makes defensive violence necessary, but naturally elicits fear and outrage that can motivate retaliatory unjust violence, which involves still more aggrieved victims, elicits still more unjust retaliation, and so on. This is the cycle of unjust violence.
Any conception of “just violence” that includes collateral damage is an ethic of perpetual war. Does the imperative of security dictate that we sanction the slaughter of foreign innocents in retaliatory and preventative wars? Well, if this is an ethical norm for all mankind, what kind of response, then, does the imperative of security dictate to those threatened foreign innocents and their defenders? As Anthony Gregory pointed out, it would sanction their slaughter of our innocents. Our innocents/defenders may in turn respond similarly, and so on, until everyone on either side is considered “justified” in killing anyone on the other. This norm, if followed by all to the fullest extent, is a recipe for mutual extermination: an ethic of extinction.
This is why Browne was right to claim that the violence involved in both war and terrorism is self-perpetuating, since both invariably involve the lives and property of innocents being destroyed. In fact, terrorism does so by definition, for as Browne wrote:
“Terrorism by definition is the killing of innocent people in order to bring about some political or social change.
And as Browne pointed out, terrorism is perpetrated by states as well as non-state actors.
“The U.S. government has engaged in acts of terrorism over the past few decades—bombing and starving innocent people in foreign countries, supposedly to force their leaders to make changes the US government desires. Terrorism doesn’t become ‘policing’ or ‘justice’ merely because it is our government doing it.”
Indeed, “terrorism” originally referred exclusively to state policies.
What, after all, could be more fitting of the above definition of terrorism than the Gulf War, during which, while killing tens of thousands, George H.W. Bush’s announced:
“…there’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside…”
Take a second to let what he was saying sink in: basically, “I will stop spilling your blood, if you change your government.” Pure terrorism.
Or consider the US sanctions on Iraq that followed that war. In a famous 60 Minutes segment titled “Punishing Saddam,” Secretary of State Madeline Albright, when asked about the half million Iraqi children who died because of the sanctions, replied, “we think the price is worth it.” Again, let that sink in: depriving to death a half million children to punish a head of state. And with the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, those sanctions became part of an explicit regime change policy. Thus the US position became, “We will stop starving your children to death, if you change your government.” Again, pure terrorism.
As Browne pointed out, it was the terroristic, unjust violence of US foreign policy, exemplified above, that led to the terroristic, unjust violence of 9/11. This is also the basic lesson of “blowback” that Ron Paul imparted to millions during the Presidential primaries of 2007.
As Browne feared, the cycle of escalating unjust violence continued as the US government used the public fear and outrage over the terroristic, unjust violence of 9/11 as cover for the terroristic, unjust violence of the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, and all the other operations of the Global War on Terror.
These “Wars on Terror” were also themselves Wars of Terror. For example, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out to Fox News’ Shep Smith:
“When we invaded Iraq, we called our invasion ‘Shock and Awe.’ The purpose of it, Shep, was to do so much violence that we would terrorize the civilian population into submission, to surrendering.”
These wars have been replete with the bombing of civilian centers, the obliteration of infrastructure, the use of birth defect-causing depleted uranium, the indiscriminate assassination of “military age males” by robot-fired incendiary missiles, the extensive use of night raids on homes, a global archipelago of torture dungeons, and much, much more.
Browne also predicted that the cycle wouldn’t stop with the American response to 9/11 either, and that an indiscriminately and disproportionately violent response would lead to yet more terrorism. In this he was also correct. Thanks to the outrage-inducing and chaos-fostering atrocities indicated above, the number of Al Qaeda-aligned fighters has multiplied many times over since 9/11. Al Qaeda-aligned groups now run rampant in West Africa, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
One of them, ISIS, has even become a conquering incipient state with billions in revenue and more territory than Great Britain. And now, the Obama Administration has exploited public fear over its rise, and outrage over its savagery, as cover for launching an Iraq War III. The cycle continues apace.
The most diabolical among both terrorists and warmongers are quite aware of the cycle of unjust violence, and indeed count on it.
The avowed strategy of Osama bin Laden all along was to “provoke and bait” the US with unjust violence into an unjustly violent military reaction, in which it would march straight into multiple quagmires. “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” just as he and the mujahideen in Afghanistan (with US help) had done to Russia, he boasted, continuing:
“All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.”
To take a more recent example, as Juan Cole convincingly argued, the unjust violence of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris were meant to polarize or “sharpen the contradictions” between Muslims and non-Muslims in France by provoking unjustly violent oppression:
“Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.”
And as Musa al-Gharbi convincingly argued, ISIS’s immolation of a Jordanian pilot, as well as its previous beheadings of captives were also attempts to provoke and polarize:
“It is naive to assume that ISIL did not foresee Jordan’s military response or the outrage among Muslims at the burning of a fellow Muslim or the sensationalism of Western media. These were rather obvious consequences. Jordan’s deepened engagement, the heightened polarization of the Muslim community and the increasing U.S. support for intervention serves ISIL’s strategic interests. In fact, it burned Kassasbeh to death to provoke such responses.”
ISIL also felt it necessary to escalate the horror of its executions because the decapitations were growing stale, even as the group was running out of foreign hostages. (…)
ISIL’s immolation of Kassasbeh, then, was not a strategic blunder. It appears to be a well-calculated and highly successful scheme to pull its enemies into the conflict it wants.”
US warmongers also count on the cycle of unjust violence. They wouldn’t dare admit that their interventions engender blowback. But they do openly reflect on how terrorist strikes free their hands to wage war, and even seem to hope for them. In 2008 “Washington’s Blog” gathered the following quotes:
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the American people lack “the maturity to recognize the seriousness of the threats.” What’s to be done? According to Rumsfeld, “The correction for that, I suppose, is [another] attack.”
Newt Gingrich recently said:
“the better they’ve done at making sure there isn’t an attack, the easier it is to say, ‘Well, there never was going to be an attack anyway.’ And it’s almost like they should every once in a while have allowed an attack to get through just to remind us.”
The head of the Arkansas Republican party said:
“At the end of the day, I believe fully the president is doing the right thing, and I think all we need is some attacks on American soil like we had on [Sept. 11, 2001]” so people appreciate Bush.
Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky openly called for “another 9/11″ that “would help America” restore a “community of outrage and national resolve”.
Lt.-Col. Doug Delaney, chair of the war studies program at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, told the Toronto Star that “The key to bolstering Western resolve is another terrorist attack like 9/11 or the London transit bombings of two years ago.”
And an allegedly-leaked GOP memo touts a new terror attack as a way to reverse the party’s decline.
The neocons and the terrorist leaders, as Justin Raimondo put it, are “funhouse mirror counterparts” of each other. Both “see world events through a Manichean prism,” and seek to more completely realize that severe dualism by polarizing the world into two irreconcilable camps deadlocked in a civilizational Ragnarök. To this end, each pursues innocent-consuming savagery, and each counts on and even hopes for like savagery from the other.
After all, how much politically weaker and financially poorer would the neocons and their military industrial complex allies be today without 9/11? And how much smaller would ISIS, Al Nusra, and AQAP be today (if they existed at all) without the neocons’ post-9/11 wars? Both are lifted by the “escalating cycle of violence,” and each is dependent on the other maintaining its side of it.
Ostensibly mortal enemies, the warmongers and the terrorists are linked in a symbiosis of savagery. Thus in a sense, they are actually allies who share a common enemy: those of us who would adhere to justice, reject entirely the sacrifice of innocents, seek peace, and preserve civilization.