Paradoxes of Revenge

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The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have fueled calls for retaliation against whole nations. As Gene Callahan details, there were those calling for blood without regard to guilt or innocence, however embarrassing it might be to admit to such heated rhetoric now.

It is worth asking, however, why there were such calls for wholesale slaughter in the first place.

No one, for example, thought to retaliate in that way for Oklahoma City.

The reason for this is obvious. As Americans, we are able to see the silliness in holding the entire nation (namely, ourselves) responsible for the acts of (apparently) one criminal, Timothy McVeigh. Similarly, those enraged over the federal assault on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco understood that Janet Reno and other officials were responsible, but not the American people. Although McVeigh wrote off the everyday people he murdered as “collateral damage,” he did not set out to target the American people per se, but rather a federal office building as symbol of federal power.

The Washington Post reports that four U.N. aid workers have died as a result of the bombing of an office building in Kabul. Will the American press display the same outrage at this “collateral damage” as it did over McVeigh’s claim that the innocents killed in Oklahoma City were “collateral damage?”

One hopes so. Although it is the nature of war that innocents will be harmed, this is to be avoided at all costs, and to be sorrowfully lamented when it takes place.

Again, Americans are able to see the silliness in holding every American citizen responsible for the bombing of Oklahoma City. This should be no less true in the case of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or Iraq. Had a Canadian, an Englishman or an Italian been responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington, calls to lay waste to Canada, England, or Italy would be inappropriate.

The paradox of the desire for revenge on a national scale is connected to the fact that the U.S. government is sometimes unpopular overseas, and goes to show that human beings in fact are rather similar, wherever they might live.

Americans appear perfectly able to distinguish evil and sleazy Americans, say, the Clintons, from the average mom and pop, salt of the earth type of American. This, of course, is assuming that these Americans have all the facts in front of them. Many of those who once defended Clinton against the charge that he was a huckster, etc., came to realize the truth of the charge during the Monica Lewinsky affair, or rather the public aftermath of that sexual affair.

When Bill Clinton admitted to cheating on his wife with Lewinsky, then (did he ever admit that? anyway…), most Americans shrugged. They did not see Clinton’s immoral behavior as indicative of some society-wide immorality. They saw it as Clinton’s own responsibility for what he did.

When it comes to strangers, however, and in particular the sub-set of strangers generically known as “foreigners,” Americans take the famous foreigners seen in the news to stand for their entire nation. Why? Simple human ignorance. We don’t know much about other places, we overwhelmingly are unable to learn much about them due to our ignorance of foreign languages, and there is a natural human tendency to be cautious toward those who are different.

(As an aside, one of my cousins married a Filipino woman. At first, my family was shocked when her family referred to the groom as “a foreigner.” It was quickly realized, however, that where the Filipinos were concerned, he was exactly that: a foreigner. Such is the natural tendency of human thinking. Presumably the Filipinos also realized that the Americans viewed them as foreigners. For the record, in case I have raised any concerns on the part of the professional victims, such as Jesse Jackson, or the professional racial fear-mongers like the SPLC, the wedding and reception were wonderful. No American guests lynched the Filipino guests.)

Returning to the main argument, the same natural human tendency toward ignorance of foreigners appears also to influence the minds of those who hate the United States.

There are those who despise the United States because they despise Western civilization, capitalism, or democracy. There are those who despise the government of the United States because they despise the American global push for secularism and abortion rights.

And yet there are many Americans who despise their own government for the same reasons.

Lew Rockwell made exactly this point on Christmas Eve, 1999, in an open letter to the potential terrorists of the world which originally appeared on WorldNetDaily.

As Rockwell wrote,

You are undoubtedly outraged at the bombings and ongoing sanctions against Iraq. It’s true that these actions are grossly contrary to morality. It’s also true that tens of thousands of civilians have died because of them. But these actions were undertaken by the dictatorial executive branch, and with only the tacit approval of the Congress. No one asked the American people if we wanted this. Thanks to the long, progressive seizure of power by the presidency, the Clinton administration can act on its own, and pursue its own agenda apart from the will of the American people.

As Rockwell also noted, attacking the American people would be a colossally stupid thing to do:

What can be done about it? You may propose violence, but that would be wrong, and it can only lead to more bombings, more interventions, and more crackdowns on liberties, at home and abroad. Indeed, terrorism can only play into the hands of the government because it seems to validate everything the Clinton administration is saying.

In other words, Osama bin Laden has done exactly the last thing he should have ever done if he genuinely wants peace in Palestine and Iraq. Attacking the American people will not bring peace to Palestine or Iraq — ever. Instead, the attacks on America will bring a spiral of more and more violence.

Other peoples of the world react to bombing and killing in much the same way as Americans: they cry out for revenge. Americans must consider that our actions, if they are not carefully measured and limited, will also bring a spiral of more and more hatred of America, together with more innocents killed.

Such an outcome must be avoided.

Which brings us to free trade.

Apart from high level state visits, such as Bill Clinton showing up to wine, dine and bite his lip, what contact do most foreigners have with Americans? They might meet the occasional tourist. On the other hand, foreign trade is an opportunity for people from all over the world to come together for mutual gain.

Free trade is both voluntary and, by definition, mutually beneficial in the minds of the traders. This peaceful interaction between peoples of different creeds and races is to be distinguished from the type of “interaction” urged by the war hawks, namely, bloodshed, suffering, and death.

Many foreigners, then, like Americans as individuals, and perhaps like their American business partners, but they hate the American government. And, to repeat myself, there are many Americans who hate the American government, specifically, because it has shredded its constitutional limits and been transformed into the worst sort of unlimited democracy, when compared to the constitutional design.

What is the path to peace? Freedom. More particularly, freedom exercised in the marketplace. Free trade. By interacting peacefully and for mutual gain, human beings come to understand one another, and to recognize that others are needed to combat scarcity and achieve prosperity.

The United States must keep its bombing to a minimum. We must apprehend those responsible for the attacks, and then allow the private interaction of the people of the world to bring about a return to peace and normalcy.

In closing, there are those who celebrate the “unity” of America in the wake of the attacks. There are those who, in trying to find good, root for the wrong sort of teamwork, namely, the teamwork of war. Apparently lost on those who celebrate such unity is the fact that it is the least desirable form of unity imaginable. It is not at all sensible to celebrate a state of genuine crisis.

A German World War Two veteran, Bernhard Rogge, who captained the commerce raider Atlantis (also known as “Ship 16″), and who was heralded by his British opponents as a chivalrous man, wrote in the preface to Ship 16 that he wished there were a common endeavor which could bring men together in the way that they came together during war, but without the horrors of war. In other words, a way for men to work together at genuine achievements, but without the constant presence of pain, suffering, and death.

There is such a common endeavor: free commerce.

Yet another German commander, Hans von Luck (who came to be known in America through the works of Stephen Ambrose, such as D-Day and Citizen Soldiers), points out in his own book, Panzer Commander, that everyday people do not start wars. Politicians start wars. And then everyday people are made to fight the wars. By the way, von Luck was a member of the German aristocracy. He worked closely with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and was in a Soviet P.O.W. camp until 1950. He is not, then, merely a man on the street, but a well-informed observer.

Unfortunately, the intellectual framework for a free and civil society, separate from the government, was largely lost in Germany, even before the National Socialists triumphed over the Communists in the struggle to control Germany in the 1930s. Sentiments such as those of the battle veterans Rogge and von Luck were not understood by enough Germans.

The intellectual framework of the founding fathers, of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Tom Paine, must not be lost in the quest for justice.

The terrorists must be brought to justice. Long-term security, however, will not come from bombing, but from free trade. We must not lose sight of this in struggling to make sense of a world gone mad.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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