Living in Southern California makes you particularly sensitive to the grief brought about by the San Bernardino massacre of innocent civilians. A Los Angeles Times report on a funeral of victims brings the anguish into sharp focus. The funeral service director spoke of “tremendous heaviness” in people’s faces and said that this is one of the first times he cried on the job. “Nobody is immune to the terror,” a family member observed.
A little girl visiting the memorial for victims summed things up through the mind of a child: “Bad people were killing people.” That’s the truth, but the truth is that her government is also killing innocent victims in distant lands. The US War on Terror is producing a multitude of similar gatherings of people in places like Kabul and Ramadi, who experience consternation and grief at the loss of innocent loved ones. This is hard for us to see—our media don’t help us with that. But facts tell the story.
American officials have to find a wise way to protect our citizens, while avoiding generating a legion of blowback recruits bent on wreaking retaliatory destruction on the American shore.
The respected Watson Institute on International and Public Affairs at Brown University reports that the toll of violent civilian deaths has reached 210,000 throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as of March 2015. These deaths result directly or indirectly from American involvement in the region. In addition to people dying in their workplace, as in San Bernardino, they perish in their homes, at markets, and on roadways. They can meet their demise at checkpoints, or as they tend to their fields, gather wood, and step on a mine.
The instruments of death are varied, including drones, bombs, bullets, and fires. Casualties often come after the violence ceases, stemming from a battered infrastructure and threats to health from disease and malnutrition. The death count has mounted through increasing drone casualties in Yemen and Somalia. Ironically, our drone operations in Yemen have killed more civilians than has al Qaeda, according to a study by the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.
The pain of San Bernardino residents has been immense. But contrast the 14 deaths inflicted by Islamic terrorists here with the many thousands of casualties inflicted in the Near East by the American military. The sorrow in San Bernardino survivors generates powerful feelings of fear, hatred, and revenge. The urge is to strike back at ISIS and bomb them into the ground.
Is there any doubt that families of our victims in Kabul feel likewise? Historian Chalmers Johnson famously referred to this reaction as “blowback.” The Southern California carnage was clearly blowback engineered by a dedicated Syed Rizan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.
American officials have to find a wise way to protect our citizens, while avoiding generating a legion of blowback recruits bent on wreaking retaliatory destruction on the American shore. This isn’t easy, but a true understanding of San Bernardino dictates that it’s necessary. We command the advantage and the high ground to the degree we make this primarily a contest between ideas—representative democracy vs. the Islamic caliphate—rather than organized violence.