Retaliation is giving back in kind. We are struck, we strike back. Both President Bush and Osama Bin Laden believe in retaliation; both argue that their strikes are answering attacks, that they are protecting and avenging their people. Both anathematize the other as ruthless and evil. And both are far from the forgiveness and peace their religions preach. In the Koran Allah says “My mercy embraces all things.” In the Christian Gospel Christ says “Do not resist evil with evil. If someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” Israel also is very righteously into retaliation, answering the abduction of two soldiers with war. Are Bin Laden, Bush and Olmert, reigning leaders who affirm the great monotheisms, more than warriors? The fusion of political and religious leadership in these figures is volatile-they license crusades without check.
The Pope, the moderate imams, the pacifists in all camps, seem pretty impotent. Is it that they lack legions, as Stalin might observe? Or is potency only in striking?
The sense of the lex talionis, the law of the talon,is proportionality: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The idea is to limit the escalation of violence, to balance strike for strike. Christian apologists often treated the Judaic principle as cruel, and felt superior with the ideal of Christian forgiveness and turning the other cheek, though Christian history is full of terrible violence, excessive cruelty and no mercy to Jews and infidels. All the histories have violence, cruelty and no mercy to the others.
Political leaders seem terrified of mercy, of looking weak. John Kerry’s sad repackaging of his life in the 2004 presidential election is the perfect example in US politics. A war hero who came to reject the Vietnam War “reported for duty.” He presented himself as a soldier ready to fight to defend the homeland, not someone who saw the lies and futility of preemptive combat firsthand, someone who would pursue peace and diplomacy. Strength was being willing to kill. Hillary Clinton is the same. While she is forgiving in personal life, she plays the warrior publicly, no doubt remembering that her husband helped his 1992 bid by returning to Arkansas to execute a murderer, Ricky Rector (executed January 24, 1992), to demonstrate his toughness. It is not just others who crave strongmen.
In her recent documentary on Bin Laden Christiane Amanpour relates that Bin Laden received a religious go-ahead for killing millions. He sought that religious ruling and he gave the requisite warnings required by Islamic law — giving the enemy a chance to surrender and convert– to demonstrate his religious conformity. Bush’s parallel gesture is probably his Western-style warning to Saddam and his sons to get out of Iraq. While Bush confided to reporter Bob Woodward that he consulted “a higher father” than his own, and while he told many that God wanted him to smite Saddam and so he did smite him, Bush’s own Christian check on war (say Christ’s command not to resist evil with evil) seems non-functional. He’s riding to Apocalypse with a figure identified with but never called Christ. Israeli policy seems like the American, battle-and-ballot-driven rather than explicitly religious-ruled. The suffering of the holocaust justifies all.
All these leaders invoke religious authority to strike preemptively. They cast their escalations of violence, their abandonment of proportionality, as righteous retaliation for evil past and righteous retaliation for evil coming in the future. Retaliation for them can now be preemptive because the other/the enemy/ the infidel wishes evil to us and would destroy us if able. ‘They ‘must be destroyed because they hate us. Their hate is the strike which our wars answer in advance. The circularity and mania of the position are lost in the fog war creates.
Retaliation in the law of the talon requires time and measure. You cannot imagine the strike and have that count as real as Bush does when he argues that having weapons of mass destruction and having the intent to make weapons of mass destruction are equivalent and that either justifies preemptive attack. By this logic we, as the only nation which has used nuclear weapons, are fair targets for all who think we hate them.
Retaliation most often licenses brutality and self-righteousness — doing unto others not as we would be done to, and blaming them for it.
Retaliation, justified as moral, remains in the realm of violence, and theoretically muzzles the appetite to escalate. It echoes, matches, is proportional to provocation. It reminds us that striker and the struck are different, until they become the same. The struck one who retaliates imitates the striker of the offense; they then become twins in their striking and being struck. Whether that mutuality ends the violence or ups it is the real issue. Retaliation enters the compulsion of violence. It does not break free as does mercy or forgiveness.