Why must vengefulness be the default strategy for humans—the very thing we dislike and fear most about our adversaries? Mob rule is a temptation we assume we have grown beyond, but have we? The media hounds and the war lovers like Senators Graham and McCain bay for blood, putting enormous pressure on the President to get suckered into a third Middle East war. To avoid the label of wimp, Mr. Obama had to say what he said in his speech to the nation on his strategy against ISIS, but what he said was only a palatable version of the vengefulness paradigm.
The agony of loss the parents of Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff must feel is beyond comprehension. But is their pain any different from the universal pain of violence and war that has been felt by the parents of murdered children time out of mind?—the pain of Aleppo, the pain of mothers in Gaza, the pain of innocents in Baghdad who found themselves on the wrong end of Shock and Awe, the pain of wedding participants in Afghanistan blown up under the pitiless eye of US drones, the horror of people having to jump from the twin towers to avoid being burned alive.
When we refuse to get sucked into the vengeful mob mentality, we see the cycle of violence objectively, including our own role in it—as colonial powers that created arbitrary borders in the Middle East at the end of World War I, and more recently as equally ineffective neo-colonial occupiers with ambiguous motives. We see the Hobbesian atomization of conflict that has overtaken the region: the U.S. and Iran support Iraq. Iran, Iraq, Russia and Shia militias support Assad. The U.S. and the Gulf States want to contain Iran and prevent it from going nuclear. The Gulf States, the U.S. and Sunni militants want to defeat Assad. The Kurds, Iran, the U.S. and Iraq want to defeat ISIS, even as the Kurds have benefited from the chaos created by ISIS. For the United States, never seen as a disinterested party, to intervene militarily in this stew is madness.
We do not know enough about the motives of ISIS to be sure what they wanted to accomplish with the beheadings. On the face of it, such abhorrent acts appear to be an ongoing response in an endless cycle of eye for eye and tooth for tooth—like 9-11 itself. The leader of ISIS was mistreated at Abu Ghraib. The U.S. dropped bombs on ISIS soldiers. And it is also possible that they assume strategic advantage might be found by luring in the U.S. and its allies—perhaps to unite fragmented factions against a common enemy—us, if we choose to get suckered once again.
What is more certain is that thought-systems of violent revenge can take on a bizarre life in an endless cycle of hate and fear, preventing us from thinking outside the constricting box of compulsive military reaction. However tired of war we may be, we feel insulted and helpless—and that leads us to assume we have no alternative but to try war again.
We know from hard experience we will end up spending much more to defeat ISIS by military means, assuming any so-called defeat does not create more enemies than it destroys. We have alternatives. Extrapolating from our feckless campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, imagine some arbitrary sum roughly equal to a quarter of what we spent on those wars becomes an available resource to do something outside the box of war. In this alternative paradigm, weapons sales, to any party, would be an automatic no. That only pours gasoline onto fire.
One alternative model is Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Global Marshall Plan, the preamble of which goes: “In the 21st century, our security and well being depends on the well being of everyone else on this planet as well as on the health of the planet itself. An important way to manifest this caring is through a Global Marshall Plan that would dedicate 1-2% of the U.S. annual Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty years to eliminate domestic and global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care and repair damage done to the environment . . . ”
Such common-sense generosity helps undercut the motives of ISIS to attack Western targets and isolates extremists by building relationships with a majority of people who would be grateful for genuine humanitarian help. It is past time for the U.S. to abandon its knee-jerk assumption that pouring in yet more raw military force can end, rather than intensify, the tribal enmities tearing apart the region. George W. Bush in 2002: "Fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can't get fooled again." We’d better hope not.