Terrorist acts are the acts of people who have given up hope that they can be heard or achieve their goals by more reasonable forms of discourse and action. Terrorist acts are not acts of first recourse. They are acts of desperation, sending messages in blood and death. They are acts of individuals whose only hope lies in the worst forms of cruelty without regard for the welfare of their innocent victims.
There is no doubt that terrorists are criminals and should be punished for their crimes, including those against humanity. International terrorism is a problem of the global community and should be punished by international tribunals established for this purpose. The international community, through the United Nations, should also be mobilized to join hands in the fight to prevent all forms of terrorism.
In fighting terrorism, though, it is not enough to apprehend and punish the terrorists. More important is to prevent the future loss of innocent lives that can occur by means of terrorism, including chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks.
We need to clearly grasp the fact that the consequences of acts of terrorism in a nuclear-armed world could grow much worse than what we have yet seen. Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists could mean the destruction of cities rather than buildings.
The vulnerability of our high-tech societies to terrorism places civilization itself at risk. The stakes are very high. We must put an end to terrorism. To do this, we must be able to offer some hope to terrorists and would-be terrorists that their lives can be made better through political discourse and action.
Thus, no one on our planet can be excluded from the hope of living a decent life, from living with dignity and justice. Each person excluded from this hope is a potential terrorist, a potential recruit as a saboteur of our vulnerable civilization.
Military power alone cannot solve our problem and make the world safe from terrorism. In fact, military power – because it is a blunt instrument likely to cause more innocent deaths – is likely to reinforce the hopelessness of those attacked and create a greater pool from which to recruit terrorists.
We must rather look deeper, and try to understand the factors that motivate terrorism: crushing poverty, oppression, and the sense that one’s grievances are not being heard and will not be heard. While our policies must not be dictated by terrorists, neither can we be indifferent to their grievances and to the conditions that spawn terrorism.
Our civilization cannot survive with a small bastion of privileged societies trying to hold out against multitudes mired in poverty and oppression, those who have given up hope for a more decent future for themselves and their children.
Hopelessness grows when some 35,000 children die daily of malnutrition and preventable diseases, when 50,000 children a year die in Iraq as a result of US-led economic sanctions on that country, when the Palestinians are increasingly marginalized and oppressed in their land.
If we in the United States want to have hope of living without fear of terrorist attacks, we must reflect upon our policies that take away hope from others throughout the world. We are connected on this planet by not only our common humanity, but by our common vulnerability.
Hopeless enemies will find ways to attack us where we are most vulnerable, and we are vulnerable nearly everywhere: our cities, our water, our air, our energy, our transportation, our communications, our financial institutions, and our liberties. Therefore, our policies must build hope by waging peace against poverty and oppression and by encouraging an open forum through the United Nations for listening to grievances and responding to them with justice.
The future of our planet will be shaped by hope, and hope itself will be shaped by the policies and leadership of the United States. We must choose hope and foster it, not only for ourselves, but for every citizen of our planet. We must give hope, to even those who hate us and, in doing so, turn potential enemies into allies in the struggle for a better world.
*David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He is co-author of Choose Hope, a Dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda, recently published in Japan.