The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has put American political leaders in the awkward position of at once demonizing the enemy’s barbarity and applauding their sophistication. The so-called terrorists have come to occupy a strange place in the collective imagination—a place where backward Neanderthals coordinate elaborate operations and create slick propaganda. Last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel effusively complimented the militants at a press conference:
“[ISIS] is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”
And, on Friday, Senators John Mccain and Lindsay Graham echoed his praise in a Times Op-Ed:
“ISIS is now one of the largest, richest terrorist organizations in history. It occupies a growing safe haven the size of Indiana spanning two countries in the heart of the Middle East, and its ranks are filled with thousands of radicals holding Western passports, including some Americans. They require nothing more than a plane ticket to travel to United States cities.”
That last line is the real kicker. ISIS isn’t just a wealthy, well-organized, and scary organization; it apparently poses an immanent threat to the United States. In case the insinuation wasn’t quite overt enough, Mccain and Graham spell out the implications: “Americans need to know that ISIS is not just a problem for Iraq and Syria. It is a threat to the United States.”
With regard to this direct threat from ISIS, The only evidence on offer from Mccain and Graham is the aforementioned group of “radicals” holding “Western passports.” A recent report from the International Business Times says defense officials have “identified nearly a dozen U.S. citizens who have traveled to Syria and joined ISIS.” Due to their ability to reenter the United States undetected, these dozen or so Americans pose a significant enough threat for the Department of Homeland Security to issue a bulletin urging “all state and local authorities to promptly report suspicious activities related to homeland plotting and individuals interested in traveling to overseas conflict zones, such as Syria or Iraq.”
To date, government officials had only invoked humanitarian and regional strategic considerations in their rationale for attacks on ISIS. Specious or not, these explanations had their limits: there is only so much latitude government leadership gains when fighting a war of choice, even one of virtuous motivations. This change of tune—though not yet emanating from the President himself—is significant. And it centers around a dozen men. Yes, a dozen. The rationale for fundamentally shifting America’s posture toward instability along the border of Iraq and Syria comes down to a handful of people who may or may not attempt to attack the United States.
Of course, this rationale for intervention raises a slew of tactical questions. For instance, could US airstrikes and special forces units measurably reduce the threat that these men pose to the United States? Maybe, maybe not. But, more importantly, this reasoning for increased intervention should prompt a larger conversation about American foreign policy’s attempt to rid the earth of anyone anywhere who seeks to do the country harm. Undoubtedly, to some this objective appears the very point of having a military and state department in the first place. Isn’t it their job to keep us safe?
Yes it is—at least partially—but at what cost? From the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the extensive drone attacks throughout the Middle East and North Africa to the refusal to close Guantanomo Bay prison, the United States has taken aggressive action to ensure that the country remains unexposed to any threat. Some military officials, most notably four-star Marine General James Cartwright, have argued that the ensuing blowback from this offensive will actually make America less safe. But that is a tactical argument. It lends itself to a conversation dominated by military experts and marked by the fear mongering that has shaped American national security discourse since 9/11.
The more important question than What policy will optimize American safety? is What policy will do the least harm? In our maniacal effort to protect ourselves, we have incurred unfathomable pain upon hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. Since the American invasion, at least 174,000 Iraqi civilians have perished as a direct or indirect result of US military action. The civilian death toll in Afghanistan, meanwhile, has ticked up to 21,000. These statistics don’t include the hundreds of thousands more wounded in those countries, or the hundreds of civilians killed by US drone attacks, or the 79 prisoners recommended for transfer from Guantanomo yet still toiling in that ungodly prison.
A simple question lingers: is it worth it? In order to protect our future safety, we incur very real and severe damage upon innocent people. Sure, many of us condemned the Iraq war, but primarily because its rationale of protection proved bogus—not because of anticipated harm to civilians. Many have tired of the Afghanistan war and occasionally chortle about drones, but these contestations never strike at the core issue of whether the United States should be taking such drastic measures to protect itself, even in the case of a legitimate threat.
Buddhism teaches that our fundamental delusion lies in the misperception of a solid, enduring self. When we believe in that fiction, we take great pains to protect the ego and oftentimes cause unnecessary harm unto others when doing so. We seek out pleasure and avoid pain—all in the name of satisfying this illusory self. These greedy impulses thus inhibit our ability to extend genuine compassion to those suffering around us. What better metaphor of that self-concerned, protective person than America itself? We avoid confronting the repercussions of our economic and military aggression by snuffing out any perceived threat to the illusory entity that is our nation. Rather than risk vulnerability, we lash out at even the most minimal real or perceived threat to our ego-security.
I do not advocate for radical pacifism or the abandonment of international diplomacy, but we must take a sober look at the untold terror that we’ve imposed upon so many. We must entertain the possibility that at times the prudent choice will be to make ourselves less safe, while allowing for the untarnished security of innocents around the world. We must, in the end, stand prepared to take on additional risk. And if Buddhism can help relieve us of our attachment to the security of self and the expectation of long life, we best mind its wisdom.