A Thought Experiment: What If We Had Responded Differently?

Fifteen years ago, the Fall 2001 edition of Shalom!, a publication on peace and justice issues I edit for the Brethren in Christ Church, was on “Restorative Justice.” As I said in my introductory editorial, I had originally planned to apply the concept to the criminal justice system, prison and offender ministries, situations of abuse, and so on. But in the middle of my planning, September 11 happened and almost immediately, I also began to think about what a restorative justice response to the terrorist attack might look like.

To define restorative justice, I quoted Howard Zehr, an expert in restorative justice theory and practice: “A restorative approach to justice would understand that the essence of crime is a violation of people and of harmonious relations between them. Instead of asking first of all, ‘Who done it? What should they get?’ (and rarely going beyond this), a restorative approach to justice would ask, ‘Who has been hurt? What can be done to make things right, and whose responsibility is it?’ True justice would have as its goals restoration, reconciliation, and responsibility rather than retribution.”

In my editorial, I went on: “So how might we apply these ideas to September 11? Clearly, the attacks were crimes that violated people and their relationships. But what is justice in this situation? How might we identify the needs of the victims and the obligations of the offenders (terrorists) so that things can be made right? How might it be possible to create a process that would achieve more justice?

“My understanding of justice involves more than judgment and meting out punishing that may be deserved. Justice includes making things right; in fact, in the Bible the same word is often used for both justice and righteousness. In the Old Testament, the call to justice (or righteousness) is often in the same context as calls to goodness, love, kindness, mercy, and peace (Micah 6:8 is just one example). To what extent is the response to September 11 motivated not only by the desire for some kind of justice in the sense of appropriate consequences for behavior, but also for what will make things right over the long-term, that will consider the needs and obligations of everyone involved, that will restore relationships rather than further fracture them?

“Admittedly, these are difficult questions with no easy answers. I’m well aware that this situation feels different than many others for various reasons. However, I still yearn for more thoughtful consideration of how things could be better if we worked harder to apply restorative rather than retributive justice principles to the situation.”

Fast-forward 15 years, and I’m still wondering what it would have looked like if we had responded differently to the September 11 attacks, and done a better job of taking into consideration the principles of restorative justice. One of the questions that was frequently asked in the aftermath of the attacks was “Why do they [terrorists] hate us so much?” and it’s a question that continues to be asked. When I googled the question while I was writing this post, I found lots of responses from 2001 all the way up to 2016. In the aftermath of 9/11 before wars were launched, many countries around the world supported the U.S. as we sought to recover from the devastation and loss of life, and we had the opportunity to think creatively together about how we might address the underlying causes for people hating us so much that they would plan and execute such an horrific attack. Instead, the U.S. government launched first the war in Afghanistan to go after Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, and then manufactured reasons to invade Iraq as well.

In that same Fall 2001 edition of Shalom!, I reprinted a talk that Terry Brensinger, my pastor at the time, gave at a peace rally in Harrisburg called, “Sowing the Seeds for Peace: Prayers and Petitions for Nonviolent Action.” He offered three possible nonviolent seeds for peace in the aftermath of 9/11:

  1. Develop meaningful channels of communication with all members of the Arab League and Muslim countries through which we can begin to understand the obvious hostilities toward the U.S. and its policies in those regions of the world.
  2. Aggressively pursue a viable and long-lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Although this conflict seemingly centers on a relatively small piece of land and directly involves but a few million people, it serves as an arena in which American foreign policy is widely displayed. In the eyes of many observers, our involvements here in the past have served to worsen relationships with much of the Muslim world.
  3. Use our multiplicity of resources – financial, educational, and social – to assist the struggling and underdeveloped countries in the Middle East and Asia. Rather than answering violence with greater military force, the U.S. has the opportunity to respond with a wide range of creative initiatives in the region. In so doing, we might begin to undermine the very conceptions that breed terrorism.

Terry concluded: “In short, America faces a strategic moment in its history. This world of ours has for so long lived with…violence that we now consider [it] normal. We have this opportunity to break the cycle. We can begin converting enemies into friends.” (You can read Terry’s whole speech, as well as the rest of the issue of Shalom!)

Here’s the thought experiment: What if we had responded differently, more along the lines of what Terry suggested and in keeping with the principles of restorative justice rather than retribution? What if we had not gone to war in Afghanistan and then invaded Iraq under false pretenses? What if we had not spent trillions of dollars on endless war, putting the U.S. more deeply in debt? How might things be different now? Is it possible that we might have prevented future terrorist attacks and not helped create the conditions for entities like the Islamic State to take root? Could a different approach in 2001 have changed the mood of the U.S. so that we wouldn’t currently be facing what feels like increased levels of hatred toward the other, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, racism, and generalized anger?

Obviously, I can’t answer those questions, and I have no way of knowing how a different response would have worked. But when I think about what has happened in the intervening years – endless wars, the loss of tens of thousands of lives (American, Afghani, Iraqi, and others), ongoing political instability in the Middle East, more acts of terrorism, brutality on a massive scale, repeating cycles of violence, and so on – I wish we had made the effort to see how creative nonviolence might have changed the trajectory.

A few closing caveats:

  • I have not been directly affected by terrorism nor am I personally connected to any of those who died, were injured, or lost family members on 9/11, so I know my musings may ring hollow. I really don’t want to demean their experience and their ongoing pain and feelings of loss.
  • I also don’t want to minimize the sacrifices many people have made doing what they believed was right to fight terrorism and try to make the world safer. Many have lost family members in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many veterans continue to live with debilitating injuries and significant mental health issues.
  • “What ifs” can seem a little like armchair quarterbacking and a luxury not available to everyone. But I also believe that thinking about the “what ifs” is sometimes a useful way to help us imagine more creative alternatives.

So what if we had responded differently 15 years ago? What might that response have looked like? What can we learn now from asking these questions that will help us respond differently in the future?

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