Wars, assassinations, coups — the perpetrators of violence confidently believe that the consequences will be discrete and limited to their own goals. They’ll kill their enemies, raise their arms in simian triumph, and that’s the end of the story.
In reality, committing violence is like kicking a football covered in razors into history, where it lunges around, bouncing this way and that, slicing open random people across the world in a trajectory so complex that no human being can predict it.
This is frightening to think about, especially because there are thousands of these footballs caroming around the globe at any one time, occasionally smashing into each other and each then spiraling off in even more erratic directions.
But there’s good news. Standing up against the aggression of your own country or faction or “side” has effects that also travel in unpredictable waves across space and time, just more softly and quietly, without the exploding joint direct attack munitions. It often seems futile, but that’s an illusion: Just as no one can perceive the infinitely complex results of violence, no one can see the subtle effects of resisting violence. Both are equally real.
So if you’re considering participating in tomorrow’s demonstrations against the U.S.–Israeli assault on Gaza, I hope you will. You just have to make peace with the fact that you may never, ever know what you accomplished. The appalling reality is that you might not save the lives of any Palestinians. However, you will quite likely participate in saving someone’s life, even though you will never know who they are, and even though they will never know they’re alive because of you. This will even be the case if the person whose life you save is you.
Here’s one peculiar story about how violence begets more violence, far beyond what its instigator intended, setting death zigging and zagging around the earth.
On July 3, 1988, the missile system supervisor on the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf pushed a button, firing two surface-to-air missiles toward Iran Air Flight 655. By doing this, he killed my high school biology lab partner Sam 181 days later, at 3:10 a.m. on December 31.
The Vincennes had been sent to the Persian Gulf to prevent attacks against oil tankers by either side during the Iran–Iraq War. Flight 655 was a civilian airliner with 290 people aboard, scheduled for a 28-minute trip from Iran across the Strait of Hormuz to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Thinking Flight 655 was a jet fighter attacking it, the Vincennes shot it down, killing all 290 people aboard. This was, depending on who you believe, either appalling recklessness or an innocent mistake anyone could make.
Five months later, on December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland. All 270 passengers died. According to the U.S. government, two Libyans were responsible. In reality, the bombing was almost certainly carried out at the instigation of the Iranian government as revenge for Flight 655. (The U.S. has preferred to blame Libya rather than Iran for various geopolitical reasons, including a wish not to open that particular can of worms.)
Sam and three of his fellow bright friends had been thrilled by the chemistry course of one of our high school’s best teachers. Having read about the Pan Am bombing, and filled with the sense of invincibility of teenage boys, they wondered: Could we make a similarly powerful explosive? They constructed their experiment in the garage of one of their families. While working on it in the middle of the night, they accidentally set it off, killing them all.
This is just one of millions or billions or trillions of tales like it. Essentially everyone who’s ever lived has been touched by violence in some way, even if they were unaware of its origin.
But there are other stories, ones just as complex and even harder to discern, about nonviolence.
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration helped kill perhaps 200,000 people across Central America via support for our allied governments in El Salvador and Guatemala and insurgents trying to overthrow our enemy government in Nicaragua. The violence was unspeakably grotesque.
And this was, as bitter as it sounds, a great victory for peace movements in the U.S. It’s forgotten now, but the Reagan administration came into office in 1981 with hopes of waging a full-scale war in Central America. The aim of one Reagan faction was to blockade Cuba, directly overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and possibly bring the entire weight of the U.S. military to bear in running El Salvador. However, as soon as the hawks began to mobilize, the remnants of the Vietnam anti-war movement mobilized in response, and the Reaganite plans never got off the ground. As movement participants have said, as bad as the U.S.-backed death squads were, Vietnam-style carpet bombing would have been even worse.
Asking who specifically was saved is an impossible question; we will never know the answer. But given how the U.S. prosecuted the Vietnam War, the number of people is plausibly in the hundreds of thousands or millions.
A similar dynamic played out in 2002 and 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq War. Millions of people around the world came out in opposition to the war and were dubbed “the other superpower” — that is, in addition to the U.S. — by the New York Times. Then the war happened anyway, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died.
But what didn’t happen was more wars. A senior official in the George W. Bush administration at the time was famously quoted as saying, “Anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran.” And not just Tehran: Wesley Clark, onetime commander of NATO, later revealed that a senior U.S. military official told him of plans to intervene in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan.
Given the devastation of Iraq, it feels disrespectful to Iraqis, and generally excruciating, to say this was any kind of victory for the other superpower. But it was. The same may end up being true regarding Gaza. The death toll there is now over 9,000. As the things currently stand, it seems certain thousands more will be killed. Yet as horrifying as it is to say, Israel is likely restrained from killing even more by the pressure being generated by protests in the U.S., Europe, and across the Mideast. Moreover, many in the U.S. foreign policy blob are ardently pushing to widen the war to Iran. The greater the opposition to the attack on Gaza, the less likely that will happen.
Then there’s another reason for people in the U.S. and allied countries to oppose the current war: the most direct, visceral self-interest.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks and the deaths of 3,000 people, Bush told Congress, “Americans are asking ‘Why do they hate us?’ They hate what they see right here in this chamber … They hate our freedoms.”
The people who run the U.S. are well aware that this was preposterous nonsense. Al Qaeda’s motivation was America’s foreign policy, not some kind of objection to our freedom. In fact, in a 2004 statement, Osama bin Laden quasi-joked, “Contrary to Bush’s claims that we hate freedom … let him tell us why we did not attack Sweden for example.”
And a large part of Islamist hatred of U.S. foreign policy involves America’s unyielding support for Israel, no matter what it does. What was true 22 years ago remains true today, especially as the Muslim world watches President Joe Biden literally and figuratively embrace Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There are people who see this who will want to try to kill Americans in revenge.
What could plausibly give such people pause, however, is seeing large numbers of Americans turning out to say no to Biden and Netanyahu. Indeed, reporting in the 2000s found that this had happened regarding the Iraq War demonstrations. One would-be British Muslim jihadi was quoted as saying, “You’d see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think – anything is justified to stop this.” But after witnessing a million non-Muslims protesting the Iraq War in London, she concluded, “How could we demonize people who obviously opposed aggression against Muslims?”
Of course, there are Americans and Israelis who believe that obliterating Gaza will make them safer — or that even if it won’t, they support doing it anyway. For everyone else, however, this is a situation in which the moral thing to do and what’s best for you personally coincide.
If you are participating in the protests tomorrow, it is necessarily as an act of faith. Your faith will be rewarded. No such action can be wasted. But it is not given to us to understand exactly how.