Violence Doesn't Work

By Howard Zinn, September 14, 2001

Violence Doesn't Work

The images on television have been heartbreaking.

People on fire leaping to their deaths from a hundred stories up. People in panic and fear racing from the scene in clouds of dust and smoke.

We knew that there must be thousands of human beings buried alive, but soon dead under a mountain of debris. We can only imagine the terror among the passengers of the hijacked planes as they contemplated the crash, the fire, the end. Those scenes horrified and sickened me.

Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of punishment.

We are at war, they said. And I thought: they have learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from the history of the twentieth century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counter-terrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity.

We can all feel a terrible anger at whoever, in their insane idea that this would help their cause, killed thousands of innocent people. But what do we do with that anger? Do we react with panic, strike out violently and blindly just to show how tough we are? "We shall make no distinction," the President proclaimed, "between terrorists and countries that harbor terrorists." Will we now bomb Afghanistan, and inevitably kill innocent people, because it is in the nature of bombing to be indiscriminate, to "make no distinction"? Will we then be committing terrorism in order to "send a message" to terrorists?

We have done that before. It is the old way of thinking, the old way of acting. It has never worked. Reagan bombed Libya, and Bush made war on Iraq, and Clinton bombed Afghanistan and also a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, to "send a message" to terrorists. And then comes this horror in New York and Washington. Isn't it clear by now that sending a message to terrorists through violence doesn't work, only leads to more terrorism?

Haven't we learned anything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Car bombs planted by Palestinians bring air attacks and tanks by the Israeli government. That has been going on for years. It doesn't work.

And innocent people die on both sides.

Yes, it is an old way of thinking, and we need new ways. We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action. In Vietnam, where we carried out terrorizing bombing attacks, using napalm and cluster bombs,on peasant villages. In Latin America, where we supported dictators and death squads in Chile and El Salvador and other countries. In Iraq, where a million people have died as a result of our economic sanctions, And, perhaps most important for understanding the current situation, in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, where a million and more Palestinians live under a cruel military occupation, while our government supplies Israel with high-tech weapons.

We need to imagine that the awful scenes of death and suffering we are now witnessing on our television screens have been going on in other parts of the world for a long time, and only now can we begin to know what people have gone through, often as a result of our policies. We need to understand how some of those people will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism.

We need new ways of thinking. A $300 billion dollar military budget has not given us security. Military bases all over the world, our warships on every ocean, have not given us security. Land mines and a "missile defense shield" will not give us security. We need to rethink our position in the world. We need to stop sending weapons to countries that oppress other people or their own people. We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children. War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times.

Our security can only come by using our national wealth, not for guns, planes, bombs, but for the health and welfare of our people - for free medical care for everyone, education and housing guaranteed, decent wages and a clean environment for all. We can not be secure by limiting our liberties, as some of our political leaders are demanding, but only by expanding them.

We should take our example not from our military and political leaders shouting "retaliate" and "war" but from the doctors and nurses and medical students and firemen and policemen who have been saving lives in the midst of mayhem, whose first thoughts are not violence, but healing, not vengeance, but compassion.

Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive.