Combating Plagues

I wrote my Senator, Angus King, to register my judgment that further military American intervention in the Middle East was a catastrophic mistake. His response was measured and thoughtful. Principles which will guide his future votes on policy include: “there must be a vital national interest to justify any intervention; specific goals must be established; any action we take should be as one component of a coalition strategy whereby other nations, particularly those in the region, are actively involved and supportive; no commitment of ground combat forces; and the establishment of an open and inclusive government in Iraq that unites the country’s diverse ethnic and religious communities.”

It’s what Senator King doesn’t include in his response that troubles me, and what even the liberal media isn’t asking in talk shows on NPR and elsewhere: what are the creative alternatives to militarism and arms sales that won’t merely create more extremists? Instead, there is this extraordinary rush to consensus that bombs and bullets are the only way open to us.

This consensus stands in schizophrenic contrast to the vital religious infrastructure of our country, where church members contribute money and volunteer time to feed the hungry from food pantries, deliver meals on wheels to the elderly, and build housing for the indigent. But this benevolent model doesn’t seem to translate into our foreign policy initiatives—except, just now, in Africa. At this moment the US military is setting up staging areas in Liberia to rapidly train medical personnel to limit and reverse the runaway Ebola epidemic. No doubt there is an element of self-interest in our generosity—we want to ensure that Ebola does not come to our own shores.

Ultimately what ails members of ISIS young and old is also a plague, a plague of hatred and ignorance, infecting people who like all humans including us began life as innocent children. Our national conversation about what motivates and intensifies this hatred has been superficial and inexcusably incompetent (Senator King, to his credit, has urged that we look more deeply into the root causes of Islamic extremism)—with the not unexpected result that one symptom of the plague, vengefulness, has snuck across our borders like the 9-11 conspirators and infected our own minds. As one of our American heroes said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

In spite of our outrage at videotaped beheadings, what if we thought of ISIS more on the model of a typhoon, or earthquake, or plague—like Ebola? Our soldiers in Africa are not there to kill those with Ebola but to save them. Are there ways to apply that model to the plague of extremist hatred? We won’t know until we open our minds to what might lie beyond knee-jerk shock and awe. We did this (the “we” here including Russian diplomats) when we negotiated the peaceful destruction of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons instead of bombing.

I was speaking about war prevention at the Rotary Club of Boston a few years ago and suggested mildly that it might have been a mistake not to have made more of an effort to bring Osama bin Laden back alive. A woman, eyes darting with indignation, walked out in protest. The infection of hate assumes that murderous obliteration of the adversary is the only possible resolution of conflict. Unfortunately, that is our own national policy goal for ISIS, explicitly stated by the President himself—as if he somehow forgot how hard he has tried to extricate us from two other fruitless campaigns of obliteration. Our challenge is to discover how best to fight the plague of hatred without being contaminated by it ourselves. In the nuclear age, unless we find an effective vaccine, catching this plague could lead down the time stream to the extinction of us all.