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ISIS and Changing the Game

Even some of my favorite doves are advocating a mixed military response to ISIS. I can’t agree. The history of our violent response to terrorism began as a trickle, then a stream, then a torrent into Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Syria. Each and every time we “won” (deposed the Taliban in Afghanistan, “Mission Accomplished” by knocking over Saddam, the surge), the response from the terror side has gotten worse. Now, for pity’s sake, we see a genocidal terror caliphate. Our game of violence is a loser.

What are the elements of an alternative response?

Take in refugees from the wars we helped create and/or offer a great deal of compensation to them wherever they are finally welcomed.

End arms transfers of any sort to the region and work to build an international, global coalition to agree to that ban. Establish serious sanctions for any violators. Sanctions work when designed properly. Bush the Elder’s administration actually helped lead a model of that with the Montreal Protocols that succeeded in radically reducing HFCs that were destroying the Earth’s ozone layer. Those sanctions were entirely economic and worked very well.

Worry much more about creating an economy with less and less inequality. If a top executive can’t survive on 10 times what a full-time line worker makes, shame on them and shame on us for allowing greed to produce so much poverty and desperation here and abroad.

Understand that the people of the Middle East (or anywhere that was colonized by any European power during that era) will draw their own boundaries, practice their own cultures, choose their own forms of governance, and all we can do is engage with them productively or boycott them if they violate human rights.

Focus on intelligence, not on any armed reaction. Since Charlie Hebdo, France was quite heavily militarized, especially Paris, but clearly they failed to pick up signals that might have foiled the terror attacks. Use heuristics, not identity profiling. A hard-working Syrian refugee father should not be a target of investigation unless he is associating with ISIS or some other violent group. Stop alienating decent people. Someone with the name Mohammed should never be targeted for that reason alone any more than someone named Michael should be spied on for his name.

Arrests, investigations of crimes, charges, trials, imprisonment of those found guilty, and a restorative, rehabilitative approach to justice will never seem unreasonable to any objective society. Hellfire missiles into wedding parties, divisions of foreign tanks roaring across one’s homeland, or 6,000 bombing runs on one’s territory (what the US has done in the past year just in ISIS areas) will not win hearts and minds.

Losing hearts and minds is becoming a US specialty. It is due to our Big Violence, our mighty military, the strongest violent force on Earth and the weakest way to slow recruitment into the Taliban, ISIS, al Qa’ida, Boko Haram, al Shabab, al-Nusra Front, and all of their growing affiliates. The correlation between our mass violence and the proliferation of terrorism from small cells to territorial hegemons is no coincidence, it is cause and effect.

Means and ends are inseparable. We, and the terrorists, sow violence and we are all reaping it. Terrorism needs a recruitment base and far too much of what we do is granting them exactly that. We may not get a cathartic kick out of alternative, humane, nonviolent methods, but they will halt and reverse the raging river of terror instead of adding to it.

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Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and founding director of PeaceVoice

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