Monday, August 18, 2014

Should We Use Violence Against ISIS?

An essay in by Derek Flood Sojourners titled Is There a Non-Violent Response to ISIS? holds out the promise of an answer to the question posed in the title.

I have enormous respect for many of the people who share Flood's desire for a non-violent world because many of them practice what they preach and are deeply committed to living a life of peace-making and non-violence. So what I hoped for in Flood's piece was some insight by an advocate of non-violence into what should be done right now about the plight of the Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar and Christians everywhere in Northern Iraq.

I thus found Mr. Flood's column disappointing since his answer to the question posed in the title of this post was "no, but maybe."

Mr. Flood delayed an answer to whether violence should be used to stop the horrors perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq (and Syria) till near the end. Most of his essay was given to urging policy-makers to think long term and plan for 40 to 50 years down the road.

This is sound but trivial advice that any American foreign policy-maker should heed, but it doesn't answer the question what we should do at this moment about the genocidal threat that ISIS presents to the Middle East in the immediate future.

Here's an excerpt from the Sojourners article:
Let me therefore begin by saying that I agree that we cannot stand by and do nothing. The practice of nonviolence and enemy-love cannot entail accepting abuse. It cannot entail neglecting to protect ourselves or our loved ones from harm. This is where we must begin. The goal of nonviolence is to stop violence and abuse, not tolerate it.
Okay, but how do we stop it in the specific case of a terror army beheading, crucifying, and burying religious minorities alive? Mr. Flood offers us nothing concrete:
What's crucial to understand is that nonviolence is not simply a refusal to add to harm (whether that harm is physical or spiritual/emotional), but more importantly it involves acting to restore, heal, and make things right. So in the case of the Islamic State, the question we need to ask is: What can we do to make things right? What can we do to protect the vulnerable? What can we do to stop the violence?

Jeremy Courtney, who started the hashtag #WeAreN — which became a symbol rallying cry worldwide expressing solidarity with their brothers and sisters in suffering Iraq — had this to say in an interview with with Huffington Post's religion editor Paul Rauschenbush:
We need a long-term plan, not just a short-term fix. There are agencies helping Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabak and others, and those services are necessary. But this isn't only about what Obama or Maliki must do now. The Christian church needs to reconsider its relationship with violence; that is part of what has landed us and others in this dire situation. We cannot carp about Christian persecution and not talk about violence and our use of violent solutions. We need a 40- to 50-year plan so that when the time comes to overthrow the next dictator, we are not as blind to our own complicity and stuck with short-term gains.
Yes, but telling this to the people hiding their children from ISIS is to tell them, in essence, that they're on their own. I'm sure that neither Mr. Flood or Mr. Courtney would state it this way because it sounds pretty callous, but that's what their counsel amounts to.

Mr. Flood then persists in avoiding the central issue:
The fact is, there may not be a good short-term solution to a situation that has gotten so out of hand that people are describing it in terms of Frankenstein monster, but what we need to face is our complicity in creating that monster. The fact is, violence has not only failed to create stability, in many ways it has acted to exacerbate the situation of instability and injustice which fuels terrorism. Violence does not stop violence, instead it causes it to escalate like a wildfire burning out of control.
This last sentence is simply silly. It was the violence employed against the Japanese and Germans in WWII that stopped the violence they were perpetrating on the Chinese and the Jews. It's the violence employed by armed citizens and police officers against would-be mass murderers who stop the violence of these psychopaths. It's absurd to say that violence does not stop violence. Surely what Mr. Flood intended to say is that violence does not always stop violence, but then this would be to acknowledge that there are some uses of violence that are warranted and proper, an acknowledgement which Mr. Flood is doubtless loath to make.
So what can we do?... If we truly wish to find a way out of the escalating cycle of violence we are caught in, we need to start at the roots and we need to think long term. We need to deal with our complicity in creating the mess and work toward making it right — not with bombs and drone strikes, but by working long term toward humanitarian goals such healthcare, poverty, and education, which work to create stable and safe societies.
Yes, yes, but what do we do now? While ISIS continues their gruesome slaughters we need to work on long term peace-making? Are we to say that those who are fleeing for their lives even as you read this are simply out of luck and shouldn't look to us for help because we deplore the use of violence to save innocent people's lives?

Mr. Flood persists in ignoring the crisis at hand and continues his focus on the long term by urging that we adopt the following three "commonsense pathways" to long-term peace:
So thinking long term, what can we do to prevent the next ISIS or al Qaeda from being born out of the soil of violence? Erin Niemela proposes these three commonsense pathways to peace:

1) Immediately stop sending funds and weapons to all involved parties.
Another way of saying this is, stop giving the Kurds and others the ability to defend themselves against those who will butcher their children, sell their women into sex slavery, and behead and crucify them. I'm certain Mr. Flood is not so cold as to stand by while such horrors happen and tell the victims that we can't rescue them because we have to make things more peaceful a century from now, but, on the other hand, that's what he is saying.
2) Fully invest in social and economic development initiatives in any region in which terrorist groups are engaged.
What social and economic development initiatives in northern Iraq should we be investing in? How can we do any investing at all while ISIS is murdering every non-Sunni who shows himself? Moreover, we can get an idea of how economic aid is put to use by these people by looking at how Hamas used their social and economic development aid in Gaza. Forty percent of it was spent on building tunnels into Israel and most of the rest was spent on weapons. Giving aid to people like this doesn't seem to be an effective way to promote peace.
3) Fully support any and all nonviolent civil society resistance movements. Whoever is left - give them whatever support is needed the most.
I wonder if the editors at Sojourners just missed the terrifying irony of this statement. "Whoever is left"?! Is the non-violent response to wait until the genocide is over and then move in and offer any survivors the promise of our full support? This sounds like something from a Monty Python skit.

Flood goes on to quote from a study that shows that from 1900 to 2006 non-violent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as successful as their violent counterparts. He links to the study in his column, and although I haven't read the study I wonder how many of the successful exercises of non-violent resistance it cites occurred in situations where the oppressing government was that of a Western nation with a long Christian tradition of democratic tolerance and human rights (like the civil rights movement in America, or Ghandi's pacifist resistance to the British in British-run India) and how many of them took place in countries where the oppressing power embraced a vicious genocidal ideology like Naziism or a mutant form of Islam. It makes a difference, I should think.

At any rate, having said all of this, having avoided the relevant question which is what to do in the short term, Mr. Flood one vague bow toward the question almost in passing. He writes:
This is not to categorically rule out the use of violence in the short term, although we certainly do need to be careful that in using violence we do not act to make things worse than they are.
He doesn't seem to realize that that one sentence completely undoes everything else he has said. The gravamen of his piece is what non-violent people should do about ISIS now. His answer appears to be: Maybe they should use violence.

What a reader might have been hoping for was a treatment of the principles governing when a fundamentally non-violent person would be justified in using violence, or answers to questions like: What makes the use of violence acceptable in this situation and not, say, in 2003 when Saddam Hussein was seeking to exterminate the Kurds and his own people? Or, would it be acceptable to supply weapons to the Ukrainian military? Or, is it acceptable to use violence in Africa where non-Muslims are being exterminated? Or, if force is justifiable against ISIS to what extent should it be used? Or, should we seek to totally eradicate this plague? Or, what if American bombing kills a couple thousand ISIS fighters and no Americans are killed, will the people at Sojourners complain about the disproportionality of the casualties?

These are questions that anyone who adopts the non-violent stance, a stance I would sincerely wish to be sympathetic to, needs to answer. Mr. Flood's decision to avoid addressing them in an essay whose title implies that they would be answered is disappointingly unhelpful. It's also a tacit admission that absolute non-violence is an unrealistic aspiration for those who choose to live in the modern world.