Acton Institute Powerblog

Bombs, guns, and drones cannot win a spiritual war

(Image credit: Associated Press)

Forgiveness is the summit of all the terrorists’ fears, for it renders terror impotent. If only we had the strength to forgive. […]

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“[A]t 12 O’clock … our country gained its full independence, praise and gratitude be to God.”

Who said it?

An American revolutionary on Sept. 3, 1783, at the signing of the Treaty of Paris, perhaps?

Maybe a French soldier on Aug. 25, 1944, when allied forces liberated Paris from the Nazis?

How about a Romanian civilian after the execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu on Dec. 25, 1989?

An East German witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall?

No, these words were spoken (tweeted, actually) on Aug. 31, 2021, by Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban. The last U.S. forces left at 12 O’clock.

Nearly 175,000 people, if not more, lost their lives due to the war in Afghanistan, most of them civilians.

“With every atrocity, they [the terrorists] hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends.” These words were spoken by then-president George W. Bush on Sept. 20, 2001. And that’s what happened on Aug. 31, 2021. After 20 years, the United States retreated from Afghanistan, forsaking 38 million people to the return of the Taliban, known for their extensive violations of human rights, especially against women and ethnic and religious minorities.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Al Qaeda terrorists, based in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, hijacked and flew commercial jets into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing over 3,000 people. In response to the attack, despite campaigning for extensive military operations for the United States’ War on Terror, Bush at least had some sense that the sort of people who do such things do them for more than political reasons.

“Americans are asking: ‘Why do they hate us?’” Bush said to Congress. “They hate what they see right here in this chamber, a democratically elected government … They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to meet and assemble and disagree with one another.”

Whether or not that were true at the time, the means chosen to defend those ideals – bombs, guns, and drones – have not borne the banner of freedom to the nations in which we and our allies have fought this War on Terror.

During the final evacuations of U.S. forces and allies from the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, “a suicide bombing near the airport … killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 150 Afghans,” according to Ellen Mitchell at The Hill.

In response to these attacks, for which the terrorist organization ISIS-K, a regional branch of ISIS, claimed responsibility, President Joe Biden authorized drone strikes that killed two militants in Jalalabad and destroyed an ISIS-K car bomb.

To justify the strikes, Biden offered these strong words: “Let me say it clearly to those who wish America harm, to those who engage in terrorism against us or our allies. Know this: The United States will never rest. We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down to the ends of the Earth, and you will pay the ultimate price.”

Sorry, I’ve mischaracterized his words. “Strong” is the opposite of what they are.

“[T]he increased drone use, coupled with limited intelligence, also comes with a higher chance of civilian casualties,” added Mitchell. “That reality was on full display Sunday, with reports indicating that 10 civilians, including seven children, were killed by the U.S. drone strike.”

The Taliban believe that God is on their side. Al Qaeda believe that God is on their side. ISIS believe that God is on their side. All are willing to use violence, including suicide attacks, to fight for their faith, because they adamantly and obviously do not believe that death is “the ultimate price.” As such, no bombs, guns, or drones can ever defeat them, and we delude ourselves to think otherwise.

I understand the predicament this puts us in. I remember Sept. 11, 2001 vividly. An announcement was made about the attacks early in the morning, during my senior-year English class in high school. The rest of the day we did no classwork, but instead watched the news unfold on TV. We watched the first tower fall, then the second. Thousands of innocent people died as a cloud of debris lifted into the air and covered the streets of New York with dust and ash like snow.

I would turn 18 that following May, a fact I could not get out of my head. Despite demographers’ attempts to classify my generation through passing fads like technology use, which are socioeconomically conditioned in the first place, witnessing this tragic event defines my American peers more than anything.

I remember supporting the War on Terror. Few didn’t at the time. Of course, we thought, we can’t do nothingafter September 11. We all know friends and family, our peers, who fought bravely in Afghanistan or Iraq. They fought and we supported them because we believed we couldn’t do nothing.

The hard lesson over the last 20 years has been that there are worse things than doing nothing. Seven dead children at our hands are worse than doing nothing. 175,000 people dead with the undeniably terrible tyrants once again in charge is worse than doing nothing. Giving a nation of 38 million people false hope for freedom for 20 years, then skipping town in the middle of the night is worse than doing nothing. Leaving these same people in desperation to dangle off our planes and drop to their deaths or lift their infants over airport walls with no hope of ever seeing or holding them again is worse than doing nothing.

Vengeance isn’t the only something we could have done. We added locks to cockpit doors, for example. While they are not as flashy as bombs, they kill fewer children last I checked.

Moreover – and this, I know, is the hardest part – forgiveness isn’t nothing. It may even be everything.

Forgiveness is the summit of all the terrorists’ fears, for it renders terror impotent. Thus, for Biden to say, “We will not forgive,” is to continue the very error that led to our ignominious defeat, the folly of fighting a spiritual war with bombs, guns, and drones, the last of which our president is expected to continue using, despite seven children dying at our hands.

St. Paul called the forgiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ “the power of God” (Romans 1:16) and exhorted his readers, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). If only the Afghan people could have seen more of that vision of God’s power – a stark contrast to those who confuse it with jihad.

If only we had the strength to forgive.

If we can yet manage to forgive even terrorists, and say to our drive for vengeance, “Enough!”, maybe someday those whose lives we’ve devastated in the War on Terror will be able to forgive us. Maybe some would even leave the ways of terror behind because they wanted what we have, too. But we’d need to have it first.

At the very least, it would have meant – and could still mean – fewer dead children on our hands.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.