Friday, December 03, 2010

Revenge: Slippery slope to hell

One week ago in our town of Portland, Oregon, a young man who apparently saw his mission as revenge allegedly tried to blow up more than 10,000 friendly families and individuals who were at Pioneer Courthouse Square for the annual Christmas tree lighting. The FBI sting operation produced an affidavit in which the young man is reportedly on record as saying he has been wanting to join jihad since he was 15.

This is called passive-aggression, that is, we formulate vengeful ideation and plot or hope to gain enough power to strike back at perceived wrongs. It's how we operate as individuals and as groups when we are at our worst. It's natural and we can override those impulses but part of that depends on our social norms, which are less stable than ever, thanks to a globalization of everything and therefore an instantaneous validation for virtually everything.

The best revenge is to live well, not to seek to hurt others. If I crush someone, they naturally will want to hurt me. If they succeed, I naturally will want to try to crush them again. A young Muslim watches television and sees US troops in a mosque in Iraq, shooting unarmed and injured Iraqis. He reads about US troops raping a Muslim girl and killing her and her family. He sees countless images of US soldiers smashing in doors in cities in Iraq and Afghanistan, screaming in English at terrified Muslim civilians as little Muslim girls in hijab cry. He learns about the death toll of Muslim civilians mounting in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and he feels his rage rising. Maybe he even decides to give up all his easy privileges in the US and tries to go to Yemen to join jihad. When he does, he has entered the cycle of revenge and it's a matter of time until he does something that will likely fuel more conflict, more desire to kick down the doors of more Muslims, and the spiral of destructive conflict continues.

And so after the 1999 end of the Shining Path 30-year terrorist insurgency in Peru, the Shining Path is back. How odd? No, how normal. Conflict recurrence is the norm, not new armed conflict, for the majority of armed conflicts on Earth. It is almost always largely due to unresolved grievance and revenge.

Indeed, by the latest published data analysis, Peace and conflict 2010, active armed conflict remains at levels well above the Cold War period, when we had the standoff of the imperial peace of Pax Americana v Pax Sovieticus, when 7-35 armed conflicts were in play from year to year, trending upward from eight in 1946 to 38 in 1987. We are at approximately 26 now and most are recurrences. 2005 was the most striking example of a jump from 20 armed conflicts in 2004 to 27 in 2005, entirely because of seven recurrences of armed conflict that had been 'settled.'

Sometimes fresh offenses trigger recurrence. Often it happens because all the stakeholders were not at the negotiating table and the peace was unstable enough so that spoilers succeeded in unraveling the agreement. Often the fighters have literally no other way to survive than to pick up the gun again, and society can either become rampant with crime or revert to armed struggle, the impacts of which are similar for the citizenry. War crimes? How redundant. War is crime.

At the end, the lesson is that signing a peace of paper declaring the peace is a very nice thing to do and ought to precipitate a big celebration--but the peace requires harder work than did the war in some emotional ways, including most importantly the new social norm of the end of retribution. As long as we value vengeance, and act on that value, we will pay dearly and so will our children and our grandchildren. The costs of war are intergenerational, lingering, and increasingly insurmountable as we make those mistakes repeatedly without correction. It is emotionally easy to do and it is literally a slippery slope to hell.

Nonviolence requires redacting revenge from our menu of emotional options. That is harder and is a seemingly Sisyphean climb out of our difficulties, but the alternatives to nonviolence are all worse. Kicking down countless doors or fantasizing about blowing up Christmas tree celebrants are ultimately so costly to all that we will be required to rethink revenge. Unlike our Hollywood consequence-free conquests, reality revenge has a pricetag that requires periodic payments and payback, and usually turns our loved ones into targets. "There ain't but one way out." Nonviolence.

Hewitt, J. Joseph; Wilkenfeld, Jonathan; Gurr, Ted Robert (2010). Peace and conflict 2010. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

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