A momentous decision confronts us as a nation: Do we define the violence of Sept. 11 as an act of war or as a crime against humanity? If we define it as war, it couches the issues in nationalist sentiment and separates us from the people of other nations. If we define it as a crime against humanity, it holds the potential for uniting humankind against the scourge of terrorism.
Defining our national stance as "war" takes us more in the direction of the garrison state. We are already one of the most heavily armed societies in history. Need we go further in that direction -- killing innocent foreigners and restricting our own freedoms -- before we realize it is the wrong direction for our country?
Rather than relying on the failed policies of the past and pushing the world into a descending vortex of violence, we need to help people move forward to a world of justice and peace.
Much as we may want to demonize the people who organized the mass violence of Sept. 11, we must admit that the sophistication of the attack tells us these people are capable of rational thought. If we attack indiscriminately and kill innocent people, the photos of those dead Muslims will be the greatest recruiting tool the terrorists could ask for. Do we want to strengthen their outreach capabilities among the 1 billion Muslims of the world?
The twin pillars of U.S. power in the world -- money and weapons -- have spawned many enemies. And now that we have been wounded, to lash out with more violence will only throw fuel on the fire. Just imagine events like those of Sept. 11 happening on a regular basis, and the warmongers calling for more and more retaliation as the horror escalates. If violence were capable of ending violence, we would have had a peaceful planet by now.
Instead of relying on the money values and weapons that got us into this trouble, we should rely on the greatest source of U.S. legitimacy around the world: our belief in the inherent right of all human beings to speak their minds, to assemble freely to petition government for change, to worship as they please and to participate actively in running their government. These human rights -- and being the most diverse population in the world -- are the pillars upon which we can rebuild U.S. credibility in the world.
Yet, if we reject the call for more violence, how do we go about the process of eliminating terrorism from the planet? First we must remember that we are not the only victims of terrorism. When terrorists massacred tourists in Egypt, that country could not declare "war" against the world. Algeria has been tormented by terrorist violence for decades, and it has not attacked other nations.
Many countries have suffered from varied terrorist acts, some perpetrated with U.S. weapons (American companies are the largest arms merchants in the world), and the people of those countries would love to end terrorism once and for all.
So let's redefine the attacks of Sept. 11 as a crime against humanity. Do we want to be seen by the world as a violent bully, mainly concerned with consuming a disproportionate share of the world's resources, or do we want to be seen as a global promoter of even-handed justice?
The perpetrators of the recent attacks can be apprehended and brought to justice without killing innocent civilians if we have the support of the world's governments. If America were to engage the world in setting up an effective international criminal court system, the support from other nations would be so strong it would be impossible for any country to shelter the perpetrators of mass violence.
Yes, a long trial exposing information on who these people are and where they learned their deadly craft would be embarrassing to some people in our government. But God help us if we are unable to criticize our public servants and rectify mistaken policies of the past.
As citizens, we cannot sit back and assume that our current policies and our current leaders will rectify the problem. We are now in uncharted waters, and the ship of state is being steered by some of the same people who got us into this mess in the first place. This is a time for the citizens of America to stand up and demand internationalism rather than isolationism, justice rather than revenge, and love rather than hate.
As the father of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, once said: "The only safe way to destroy an enemy is to make him your friend."
The writer is co-founder of Global Exchange, an international human rights organization.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company