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Second Thoughts on a Third World War: An American Professor's Analysis

Professor Jay Demerath offers five reasons to rethink the concept of waging war on terrorism.

In the numbing aftermath of our terrorist attack, the U.S. has shown its true colors - patriotism, faith, altruism, resilience, heroism, plus a strong demand for retribution and putting the world right. President Bush has issued a rallying call for a "world war" to "eradicate terrorism," "rid the world of all evil-doers," and wreak vengeance upon those who have inflicted their hate upon us "because of their opposition to freedom and democracy."

Much of this is the stuff of American folklore. But some will remember the iconic Henry Fonda in such Hollywood classics as "The Ox-Bow Incident" (about a lynch mob) and "Twelve Angry Men" (about an impatient jury in a murder trial). In both cases, Fonda was the hero because he opposed the quick resolve of an aggrieved majority, instead of being swept along by it. As one who has spent time in many spots around the world where religion and politics are entangled and inflamed, I want to suggest five reasons why I hope cooler heads will prevail in what is currently a white-hot White House.

1. As much as we Americans want to see ourselves as the embodiment of good and the singular fortress of freedom and democracy, there are many who see us oppositely, especially in countries such as Afghanistan, the Balkans, Chile, China, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, and Sudan. Our opponents include Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists as well as Muslims. It is not our values they reject but rather our hypocrisy in using self-serving economic, military, and political power to frustrate their own efforts to create a good society. Rightly or wrongly, terrorists hate us not for what we are proud of, but for things many Americans would deplore if they knew more about them.

2. There is a great deal of rhetorical potency in referring to "the first war of the 21st century" and to September 11 as "the Pearl Harbor for World War lll." Surely this is a time for strong words and ringing phrases to rally the nation. But there is also considerable danger in what some may see as war-mongering. War is exactly what terrorists such as Osama bin Laden hope for. Our innocent collateral victims would provide further justification for their jihad to end all jihads. Leaders such as Israel's Ariel Sharon would also welcome war as a "turning point" in the struggle "between the good and the bad, humanity and the bloodthirsty" - in this case, as a license for a much more aggressive assault upon the country's Palestinians.

3. It is one thing to engage in wars between opposing nations where both the enemy and the criteria of victory are clear. It is quite another to go to war against chronic constants of the human condition such as terrorism specifically or evil in general - much less to hold out expectations of "total victory." Generals have told us from Vietnam forward that a country should only put its forces in the field when it has a clear notion of how, when, and why to get them out. A well-coordinated legal and police action against known terrorists makes sense; a vaguely conceived offensive against terrorism does not. We must be wary of playing Sancho Panza to a Presidential Don Quixote wandering into battle against one windmill after another, while inflicting a degree of destruction that turns ludicrousness into outrageousness.

4. If the President and his advisors fail to understand what a total war entails militarily, some may understand too well what such wars entail politically. There is nothing like a war to boost a President's sagging popularity and respect in the nation's public opinion polls - if only in the short-run as the President's father discovered after Desert Storm. But the long-run downside may be considerably greater for the President, the nation, and the world at large. An all-out campaign not only against terrorists but "any country that harbors, supports, or encourages them," could become a true third World War spiraling beyond even our control. The ultimate nightmare of any global strategist is a full-scale nuclear confrontation between the globe's North and West, on the one hand, and its South and East, on the other.

5. Confronting terrorism, as we must, requires two changes. First, we need a world-wide network of cooperative prevention, detection, and prosecution. This must include not just our usual allies but some of the very countries now most ambivalent and even hostile towards us. Virtually every Third World country needs our aid but cannot afford to seem our lackey. Second, we must find a way to reduce those alienating actions by which we create our own enemies. Of course, no country can end all conflict with others by ignoring its own interests or caving in to every foreign faction's political demands - competing as they are. But the U.S. can be more forthright and less duplicitous in its policies and dealings. It can avoid confusing its bully-pulpit with a bully's behavior. It can learn to see itself more as others see it, and make appropriate changes. In moments of crisis, great nations lift their heads to expand their global vision rather than bow their necks to fight blindly ahead.

Jay Demerath
Amherst, MA.

(The author is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is the author of the just published work, Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics, Rutgers U. Press)

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