Rusty NelsonRusty Nelson on Peace and War

May Americans with some degree of accountability or any inclination for peace please agree to stop pretending that counter-terrorism is something other than terrorism?

It seems to me that the land of the free and the home of the brave used to be a little more squeamish about openly discussing our intentions to terrorize populations in other parts of the world. Today, anyone we want to call a terrorist is considered fair game for murder or torture by our counter-terrorists, and if we kill a few too many bystanders who happen to be elderly, pre-adolescent, and/or female, well, they could hardly have been less than potential terrorists. “Collateral damage” is a specious term and so last war. And if we can’t nail them as terrorists, they must be, at least, insurgents. This is all said or thought, not out of freedom or courage, but out of debilitating fear.

Not that I’m free of fear. In fact, I heard a very frightening debate on public radio the other day. The debaters differed sharply on the use of drones, as a means of gathering intelligence/counter-intelligence and as a tool to inflict terror/counter-terror. But they seemed to warmly agree that our pure and holy country must have some way to kill people who probably want to harm American grandmothers and kindergartners. I couldn’t stand to listen because both sides, like most people you and I know, seem completely unexposed to my firmly held belief that every bomb, missile and bullet expended by our counter-terrorism forces in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan can only be seen as counter-productive.

Exception alert! Counter-productive is not the same as productive.

Remember when the first oxymoron to come to mind was military intelligence? Jokes notwithstanding, intelligence, as used by the military and war fans, means information collected by spying. And counter-intelligence is obtained by spying on spies or entities who might someday want to spy on us. The difference is not worth noting.

Insurgent. There’s another interesting term which means essentially the same thing as counter-insurgent. The I-words actually wore me out, first. American troops surge into a Middle Eastern country for vague and, at best, quasi-legal reasons, tell some of the residents what to do while shooting or bombing others, and suddenly they’re attacked by insurgents. Who are the insurgents, and who are the counter-insurgents? Whose insurgency is just, necessary, constructive or just a little bit better than the last or the next? Then, we have a surge which is expected to give our insurgents/counter-insurgents an edge over the other insurgents/counter-insurgents and gain or restore some semblance of control for our side, whatever that means.

Almost overlooked in the terminology quagmire is the concept of violence and counter-violence, and that’s what brought us to the dance in the first place…and keeps us in the business of war. The United States is committed to an eternal, international merry-go-round-ride of violence and counter-violence. Lost in the over-funded shuffle is the truth that violence and counter-violence are the same thing – soulless entities that have no quarrel with each other and have maintained a symbiotic relationship since the invention of greed. When I was learning and teaching active nonviolence, there was rarely enough time to carefully define our subject. We who had studied war and subtler forms of violence throughout our formal educations found it difficult to refrain from assuming nonviolence was the opposite of violence, but we could clearly see it was not counter-violence. Ultimately, with help from observations by King and Gandhi, we understood that nonviolence must adhere to justice while violence is always less than just, no matter the justifications assigned to it. Who will argue that counter-violence is a community asset, even when it’s a struggle to re-define institutions like capital punishment and torture of terrorism suspects?

It’s hard to be candid about violence in mainstream America. For example, what could we tell the Spokane School Board after it had already decided to follow the counter-productive advice of the NRA and arm some school officials, allegedly to protect students? In this great, local example of pre-emptive counter-violence, perhaps the board feels it is being pro-active, along with small-thinking boards in hapless school districts which lack vision and leadership. And where will Gonzaga University go with its ban on firearms in student housing? The administration seems to have no more imagination than the seniors who feel they cannot possibly defend themselves in the Logan Neighborhood without an imported semi-automatic weapon like the ones packed by Spokane’s finest.

Our culture demands that we accept counter-terrorism, even when it is proved to be counter-productive, driving us into a counter-culture which isolates us from those who need to hear our message of tolerance and logic. The peacemaker’s burden, then, is doubled. Even altruistic elected officials find it difficult to listen to our logic and wisdom when our baggage includes labels, furnished by media and lobbyists, that warn: we are the last people with whom she or he wants to be associated.

The counter-reactionary counter-culture need not be a permanent cell, but we must be ready for the next visionary who can bridge the gap, lead our enlightened ideas out of bondage, and make a credible mainstream presentation to appeal even to those too self-righteous to acknowledge the violence that resides within them, much less their culpability in the deaths of thousands of innocents because of our counter-terrorism.

Meanwhile, a little education would be nice. It is sad enough that a university of Gonzaga’s stature and connections must accept students who have never been taught the ABC’s of nonviolence, but it’s tragic that it graduates whole classes, every year, who have no idea who Dorothy Day or A.J. Muste were, or how Martin Luther King managed to overcome overwhelming odds and armed racists without ever shooting anybody. Spokane schools needs even more help to rescue its students from curricula that lionize institutional violence as a first resort and lagging technology that can never overcome the perverted pleasures of video games rated M, for “Mom likes ’em, too.”

Will education turn out to be the equivalent of counter-education?

Think about having a governor who places economic justice ahead of corporate welfare for a major defense contractor, a congressperson who cares about young people before their minds and bodies are ravaged in a senseless military adventure, police officers who can buy into Dr. King’s determination to hurt no one while protecting the hopes and futures of his people, and schools that can be confident that students understand basic nonviolent action well enough to live without fear.

Come to think of it, we can turn this word play into something positive. Use counter as a verb, speaking to yourself, to loved ones, to power, say, “Counter violence! Counter terrorism! Counter bullying, greed, hatred, bigotry, and war!” – RN