Recently I heard a PBS interview with Matt Miller, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress about his new book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. In this book Miller focuses on ways Americans think about economic issues that have become outmoded and even counterproductive. While Miller focuses on six myths that pertain to our ways of thinking about economics, I would like to take Miller’s notion of a “dead idea” and apply it to the way we as North Americans think about how to resolve conflict both in our individual lives and around the world.
Events both in my personal life demonstrating and getting arrested in front of a gun shop, as well seeing the decisions of the new Obama administration regarding U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have made abundantly clear to me again, how much we as a culture our caught in the myth that conflict can be resolved through violence. This is a myth that is not only false, but literally deadly.
While like many people I am hopeful for change with the new Obama administration, I was troubled to learn that within the first week of his new administration, Obama ordered unmanned Predator drone missiles to be directed at sites in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As reported on Bill Moyers Journal, these drones were directed at al Qaeda terrorists and killed about twenty people. Most of those killed were innocent bystanders, including children. Moyer’s’ guests, Marilyn Young, a history professor at New York University, and Pierre Sprey, former advisor to Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War, pointed out that using such bombing to “break the will” of the “enemy” only creates martyrs and encourages more recruits to the terrorist cause. They insisted that we needed to pursue more of a political approach, rather than a military strategy in addressing the problems in Afghanistan. To pursue a policy of increased bombing and military buildup is not only to repeat the errors of the Russians in Afghanistan during the 1980’s (which led to the Taliban coming to power) and the delusions of the Iraq War, but also to repeat U.S. errors in Vietnam (which led to a defeated withdrawal). Their fear, expressed by many other like-minded thinkers in a recent New York Times article, is that in Afghanistan, we will end up in a quagmire much like we did in Vietnam forty years ago.
As I watched the interview, I was reminded of how unconsciously we as a culture our caught in thinking that the way to peace and reconciliation is through war and violence. This way of thinking has confronted me on a personal level as well. On January 16 I was arrested for demonstrating in front of a local gun shop. Despite the fact that the police must deal daily with the presence of illegal guns on the streets of Philadelphia, they vehemently supported the gun shop owner’s right to continue doing business without proper oversight of straw purchases. The small flurry of articles and op-ed columns about our action provoked comments by readers that reflected that many people believe they not only have a right but also an inherent need to carry weapons to keep themselves safe. Yet these guns, whether legally or illegally purchased, don’t keep people safer, but do just the opposite. Two-thirds of all victims of gun violence are between people who know each other. Nonetheless, we persist in this self-destructive way of thinking to our own detriment. Through this experience I have seen how dependent as a culture we are on guns and other means of violence for our sense of identity, security and safety when in fact those guns make us less safe and secure.
We can also look at popular movies (“Defiance”, “Grand Torino”), and television shows (“24”, “Prison Break”, “Heroes”, “Lost”, “The Shield”), and the message is the same: we can resolve problems by literally “blowing away” our adversaries. Violent images pervade our language. Sports contests, competition between businesses, political campaigns, and even the recent economic struggles are “battles” and “wars” and the people involved are referred to as “warriors,” “soldiers” and “collateral damage.”
Even when we respond to events, we are prone as a culture to cast them in war-like language. In an article written shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Stanley Hauerwaus pointed out that responding to the attacks with a “war on terror” was self-defeating. He wrote: “I simply did not share the reaction of most Americans to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Of course I recoil from murder on such a scale, but I hope I remember that one murder is too many. That Americans have hurried to call what happened “war” strikes me as self-defeating. If this is war, then bin Laden has won. He thinks he is a warrior, not a murderer. Just to the extent that the language of war is used, he is honored.” (Performing the Faith, p. 205)
Pierre Sprey in the interview with Bill Moyer made the same point when he commented that the bombing of the World Trade Center and Pentagon were “criminal acts” and should be treated as such, rather than war. By calling on the language of violence and militarism, we give justification to our actions while we wrap ourselves more tightly in a downward spiral of self-destruction as a culture to our own detriment and to the detriment of millions of people around the world.
As Matt Miller points out in his book, the power of myths is that they are accepted as foundational truths without question. Miller’s point is that such myths must be seriously examined and rejected, if we are to find healthier, more productive ways of living. I would say the same about the myth of peace and safety through violence. While I might argue against violence from a moral or religious point of view, I believe that even the non-religious and the pragmatic thinkers need to ask themselves, is the myth of peace through violence accurate and true?
The challenge is that as a culture are so wedded to the way of violence and war that many will be afraid and resistant to ask those tough questions. They will castigate people like me as “liberals,” “do-gooders,” “impractical,” and “wimps” (some of the terms we have been called for protesting at the gun shop). To detractors I would say, there are none so blind, as those who will not open their eyes and see what is happening right before them.