The Chronicle Review

Compassion, Not Vengeance

September 28, 2001

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, The Chronicle asked scholars in a variety of disciplines to reflect on those events. Their comments were submitted in writing or transcribed from interviews.

The images on television have been heartbreaking. People on fire, leaping to their deaths. People in panic and fear. Terror in hijacked airplanes. The scenes, the images horrified and sickened me.

Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of punishment. We are at war, they said. And I thought: They have learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from the history of the 20th century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counterterrorism, of violence met with violence, in an unending cycle of stupidity.

Will we now bomb Afghanistan? Then we will, inevitably, kill innocent people, because it is in the nature of bombing to be indiscriminate. Will we then be committing terrorism to "send a message" to terrorists? We have done that before. It is the old way of thinking, the old way of acting. It has never worked. Reagan bombed Libya, Bush made war on Iraq, and Clinton bombed Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, to "send a message" to terrorists. Isn't it clear by now that sending "a message" to terrorists through violence only leads to more terrorism?

Haven't we learned anything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Car bombs planted by Palestinians bring air attacks and tanks from the Israeli government, and then there are more car bombs. That has been going on for years. It doesn't work. And innocent people die on both sides.

We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action -- in Vietnam, in Latin America, in Iraq. We need to think about the anger of Palestinians, who know that the weapons used against them are supplied by the United States. We need to understand how some of those people will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism.

We need new ways of thinking. A $300-billion military budget has not given us security. Military bases all over the world, warships on every ocean, have not given us security. Land mines, a "missile-defense shield," will not give us security. We need to stop sending weapons to countries that oppress other people or their own people. We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children. War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times.

Our security can only come by using our national wealth, not for guns, planes, and bombs, but for the health and welfare of our people, and for people suffering in other countries. Our first thoughts should be not of vengeance, but of compassion, not of violence, but of healing.

Howard Zinn is a professor emeritus of political science at Boston University. Section: The Chronicle Review Page: B8