Here we go again, with another war against an “ism.” Not that exterminating extremism isn’t a great goal for those who aspire to civilize humanity, but “ism” isn’t exactly a “thing” that can be shot. More, this particular “ism”– extremism–pops up in the most embarrassing places.
Those who advocate the extermination of ethnic or religious groups are extremists against whom war may or may not, in a given case, happen to be necessary for our survival or the most effective approach. Indeed, war is likely to be exactly the response that such extremists want, for wars are messy, and it is in that mess that extremists flourish. Nonetheless, war against these people who call for, and certainly against people who engage in, efforts to exterminate ethnic or religious groups is justified. Perhaps the following statement is not too curt: those who prefer war, deserve it, though even when morally defensible, war may well not be the answer for those who prefer peace.
To avoid the impression that one is using fancy language to conceal an effort to exterminate a whole society or culture, the distinction between “extremist” and some ethnic or religious label is critical. Thus, Obama is correct that we should not make war “against Islam,” but it is important to continue by spelling out that we also oppose Jewish extremism (e.g., stealing Palestinian homes for illegal settlers, terror attacks on Palestinian olive groves) but have no intention of making war “against Judaism.” The war is against one who beheads a journalist or one who burns an olive grove or one who leads a cavalry charge into a Sioux village massacring women and children or one who drops white phosphorus on urban civilians or one who drops a nuclear bomb on a city. Yes, this discussion is embarrassing.
It is also critical to understand that extremist wars against cultures, societies, minorities need not be accompanied by shock and awe. In fact, as Australians regarding bushmen; Americans regarding…well, the Sioux and the Cherokee and others; Israelis regarding Palestinians; Chinese regarding Vietnamese and Tibetans all clearly recognized in certain eras present or past, a very slow war—taking at least a generation—against the culture/language/self-identity of the enemy can be considerably less expensive and more effective than actually killing them all. The moral distinction is…indistinct. The moral right of the minority facing extinction to fight back seems rather solidly grounded.
If “war against extremism” is one buzz phrase for the negative, then perhaps it is worth taking just a moment to identify what we are fighting for: a “war for….” I suggest that the real goal should be to maximize the range of human cultures sharing the planet. Speaking just for my own society, the cultures that U.S. society has exterminated over the past three centuries form a sobering list and their loss has made us far poorer than we might have been. Iroquois ideas about government were arguably among the most advanced in the world in the 1700s, while contemporary American society still today falls far short of appreciating the sophistication of First Nation concepts of man’s place in nature or the moral superiority of sharing (be it sharing the commons or sharing possessions) as opposed to capitalist greed or the definition and rights of leadership as a privilege rather than a right and a privilege to be removed as soon as the leader fails to work for the common good. The process of civilizing ourselves should not be a process of winner-take-all but of becoming sophisticated enough to appreciate the particular contributions of each culture. So that’s my take on the positive view.
But back to the negative side of laying out a strategy for destroying that which we oppose. Wars to “take the hill” are at least conceptually straightforward. Wars against “isms” are a conceptual nightmare. Clear thinking and honest self-criticism are the two legs on which a war against extremism might stand tall enough to have a prayer of success.