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Sunday, June 2, 2002

Conflict and control.

Doug M. wrote:

Lying behind the "find the root causes of terrorism" argument is the assumption that we are in control, that we can change the way we are perceived by changing our patterns of action. I'm not sure I believe that any more. Do the rest of you believe it? Why?

No. Every society is a conflict of interests. Liberal societies have found relatively effective ways to minimize the internal level of violence arising from these conflicts. Sometimes, no matter how we try to change the context of a conflict, you and I cannot both have what we want. If we're lucky, we live in a society with customs, laws, and enforced limits that keep us from escalating our differences into violence, and that keep us in the game even when we lose. But innocence doesn't make someone safe, and the U.S. doesn't have the luxury of pretending not to have a whole range of complex interests in the world. Some people resent or hate the U.S. for reasons that I can understand and even sympathize with but some people hate the U.S. for some of the reasons I love it. I don't see a way around this.

The "international community," though, is not a liberal society. Persuasion only gets you so far, and then bargaining, manipulation, and force come into play. (This is true inside liberal societies, too, or we wouldn't need an executive branch of government to enforce a certain degree of fair play.) The U.S. can influence others' perceptions of American society, but only up to a point. Thomas L. Friedman has made it quite clear that much of the animosity toward the U.S. in Muslim societies is generated by their own governments and institutions for essentially local reasons. I want the U.S. to overcome its own corrupt and anti-democratic behaviors, but we would still have enemies and conflicts, and they wouldn't go away simply because we asked nicely.

Mark Juergensmeyer writes in Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence:

One of the first rules of conflict resolution is willingness to accept the notion that there are flaws on one's own side as well as on the opponent's side. This is a sensible stand if one's goal is to get along with others and avoid violence. But what if that is not one's goal? . . . A warring attitude implies that its holder no longer thinks compromise is possible or just as likely did not want an accommodating solution to the conflict in the first place.

Liberals must be alert to the fact that some conflicts cannot be solved by accommodation without sacrificing fundamental principles. There's a proverb that says that any kind of peace is preferable to any kind of war, but I don't think that's true. Peace at any price may be too costly. The Rev. David Rankin once wrote (on the little red card about "Ten Things Unitarian Universalists Believe") that "no idea is more valuable than a single human life" but I can think of at least one idea that is worth defending forcefully: the idea that no idea is more valuable than a single human life. The threat liberal societies faced from Nazism, fascism, and communism, and the threat that Islamic extremism represents today, is the denial of this fundamental belief in the inviolable dignity of individual human beings and in the preferability of a liberal society. The painful paradox is that we sometimes have to defend this ideal by violating it.

[Originally posted to UUS-L 6.5.02]

Copyright © 2002 by Philocrites | Posted 2 June 2002 at 8:36 PM

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