In the real world, “love your enemies” doesn’t hold a candle to the use of ultimate force. Which goes far to explain why the real world is in such a mess. Yet “love your enemies” remains the most startling and most original of all Jesus’ precepts for living. The greater part of his teaching, including the golden rule to act towards others as you would like them to act towards you, is anticipated somewhere in the Hebrew scriptures he knew.
While hating your enemies is easy and natural, it also keeps anger, resentment and hostility stoked. Turning enemies into friends changes the ballgame – and everyone gains from that. History shows this repeatedly, as when England and France buried centuries of hostility, or nations once at war joined to form the European Union, or President Nixon met Chairman Mao and set US-China relations on a new course.
The current war on terror presents a visceral new challenge. A grass-roots Islamist enemy has mounted a lethal challenge to the West. The US is retaliating with ultimate force, using unmanned drone aircraft to blitz suspected terror nests. And Prime Minister John Key confirms that New Zealand is helping through our participation in the Five Eyes spy network.
This aspect of the war on terror has crept up on the world almost unawares. It came sharply into focus last month with revelations about the killing by drone in Yemen of a New Zealand and an Australian citizen. Similar assassinations outside any war zone have also become regular in north-west Pakistan and Somalia.
Mr Key says he is comfortable with the way the US is pursuing “very bad people”, adding: “For the most part drone strikes have been an effective way of prosecuting people that are legitimate targets.” This is not only a novel use of the word “prosecuting”, but assumes the infallibility of intelligence that will never be tested in a court of law. That is why some very good people in the US question both the legality and morality of these “surgical strikes”, which also cause carnage among the innocent.
In 2011 a drone killed a grandfather, father and 16-year-old boy who were eating outdoors in Yemen. Whether they were the intended targets or dead unlucky is an open question. But they were all American citizens (the boy was born in Denver). The family of the dead trio appealed to an American court to uphold human rights, the rule of law and the US constitution, which inconveniently guarantees against the deprivation of life without due process.
The court dismissed the suit on the grounds of national security. In the war on terror, apparently, unproven allegations of evil intent outweigh any right to a fair trial, and may even carry the death penalty. This is a dangerous power to place in the hands of the modern surveillance state.
Sometimes the surgical strikes go wrong and innocents are killed. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that in about 400 drone attacks in Pakistan in the past 10 years somewhere between 416 and 957 civilians have died, including 168 to 202 children. Sometimes this “collateral damage” is deliberate, as when the US sends a follow-up missile to deter rescuers and mourners, the so-called “double tap”
Mr Key notwithstanding, it is discomforting that this new form of warfare fights terrorism by adopting the methods of the terrorists, inflicting death and destruction on a battleground without borders.
About 50 countries have drones, including Israel (which produces them) and Iran. Who can guarantee they will never use them? The US precedent would seem to open the way to bypass the intent of the Law of Armed Conflict, pleading “imminent threat”.
There will be no end to terrorist violence and counter-violence until some authority is able to bring the foes together to talk their way through to some sort of understanding rather than simply blow each other up. A huge gulf separates them, but they share a common humanity and both want a better world in which their children can flourish.
The parties don’t have to like each other, but it should be possible, even in a war on terror, to bring a steady direction of the will toward the lasting good of the other (which is a Christian definition of love). Most Muslims would not demur – and Muslims have a central role in re-educating the violent fringe who are debasing their religion.
In the real world, “love you enemies” holds far greater promise than ultimate force. The latter can only compound the violence.