Someone wrote an e-mail…

Someone wrote an e-mail to me today asking me how I could possibly not want to retaliate -- they said that "these guys were attacking you!" And I was reminded once again of how very easy it is to fall into nationalistic frenzy, to divide the world into us vs. them, to say that if Afghanistan is protecting the terrorists, then we are justified in attacking Afghanistan. And if we have to go through a hundred villages of bewildered innocents to get to the terrorists, well, that's okay, because their national government is complicit. And after all -- they attacked civilians!

In a guerrilla war, the line between civilian and soldier becomes perhaps irrevocably blurred. What does it mean to be a civilian in Sri Lanka today, in the midst of ethnic conflict? You and your children are not safe -- and are seen as threats by your neighbors. I am willing to punish the guilty, the soldiers in this war. But I am afraid of how we will define who are the guilty, who are the soldiers.

It seems to me that when we make those choices, to kill x # of civilians in order to achieve some political aim, we are making ourselves into the same kind of people as the terrorists -- who were willing to kill all those civilians in the World Trade Center because they lived in (and therefore supported) the sometimes brutal choices of our national government. I don't think the terrorists were right -- I don't believe in killing citizens because their government commits/permits atrocities. But it shocks me how quickly people I know and love become willing to cross that line.

We're going to hear a lot of rhetoric about "America" in the next weeks. It is so important to remember that the idea of a nation is very young, and deeply problematic. That nations as such didn't exist not so long ago. That nationalism can sometimes be useful, and happens to be the way we organize the world today, but that it is also the justification for a horrible amount of violence around the world.

I'm not a pure pacifist. I'm willing to kill the people who organized the attack. But even if we came up with positive proof that the guy who did this is in Afghanistan, I'm not sure I'm willing to go through innocents who happen to live in the same country to get to him (and *especially* not willing to bomb women, who have no political power in that country and certainly didn't vote in that government). I might make that call, if I were president -- I might feel that the future safety of my countrymen depended on killing people in some other country somewhere. But I hope that I wouldn't make that call unless I were damn sure of it: sure I had the right people, sure I wouldn't be killing vast masses of them in order to protect a few of us, sure that there was no other way to bring the terrorists to justice. If all of those things were certain, then I might order the attack and send us to war -- and though the end result might be worth it in my eyes, I think I would always be aware of the blood on my hands.

I actually do love America -- as many immigrants do, I suspect I have a rather irrational passion for this country, because I compare the positives of it to the negatives of the one I came from. There are many positive aspects to being an American, and I believe in those principles. But I am a human being before I am an American; I wish to be ethical before I am nationalistic. I am hoping that others are making that same distinction.

Yes, this is all terrifying. But how far are we willing to go in the name of "protecting ourselves"?

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