“Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that in Notes from Virginia. Those words came to mind as I listened to the announcement from our government that it had bombed the city of Tripoli. We live in a world in which we are asked to make a moral choice between one kind of terrorism and another. The government, the press, the politicians, are trying to convince us that Ronald Reagan’s terrorism is morally superior to Muammar Khadafi’s terrorism.
Of course, we don’t call our actions that, but if terrorism is the deliberate killing of innocent people to make a political point, then our bombing a crowded city in Libya fits the definition as well as the bombing - by whoever did it - of a crowded discotheque in Berlin. Perhaps the word deliberate shows the difference: when you plant a bomb in a discotheque, the death of bystanders is deliberate; when you drop bombs on a city, it is accidental. We can ease our conscience that way, but only by Iying to ourselves. Because, when you bomb a city from the air, you know, absolutely know, that innocent people will die. That’s why Defense Secretary Weinberger, reaching for morality (his reach will never be long enough, given where he stands) talked of the air raid being organized in such a way as to “minimize" civilian casualties. That meant there would inevitably be civilian casualties, and Weinberger, Schultz and Reagan were willing to have that happen, to make their point, as the discotheque terrorists were willing to have that happen, to make theirs.
In this case, the word "minimize" meant only about a hundred dead (the estimate of foreign diplomats in Tripoli), including infants and children, an eighteen-year old college girl home for a visit, an unknown number of elderly people. None of these were terrorists, just as none of the people in the discotheque were responsible for whatever grievances are felt by Libyans or Palestinians. Even if we assume that Khadafi was behind the discotheque bombing (and there is no evidence for this), and Reagan behind the Tripoli bombing (the evidence for this is absolute), then both are terrorists, but Reagan is capable of killing far more people than Khadafi. And he has. Reagan, and Weinberger, and Secretary of State Schultz, and their admirers in the press and in Congress are congratulating themselves that the world’s most heavily-armed nation can bomb with impunity (only two U.S. fliers dead, a small price to pay for psychic satisfaction) a fourth rate nation like Libya.
Modern technology has outdistanced the Bible. “An eye for an eye” has become a hundred eyes for an eye, a hundred babies for a baby. The tough-guy columnists and anonymous editorial writers (there were a few courageous exceptions) who defended this, tried to wrap their moral nakedness in the American flag. But it dishonors the flag to wave it proudly over the killing of a college student, or a child sleeping in a crib. There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable. If the purpose is to stop terrorism, even the supporters of the bombing say it won’t work; if the purpose is to gain respect for the United States, the result is the opposite: all over the world there is anger and indignation at Reagan’s mindless, pointless, soulless violence. We have had presidents just as violent. We have rarely had one so full of hypocritical pieties about “the right to life.” In this endless exchange of terrorist acts, each side claims it is “retaliating.” We bombed Tripoli to retaliate for the discotheque. The discotheque may have been bombed to retaliate for our killing 35 Libyan seamen who were on a patrol boat in the Gulf of Sidra - in international waters, just as we were.
We were in the Gulf of Sidra supposedly to show Libya it must not engage in terrorism. And Libya says - indeed it is telling the truth in this instance - that the United States is an old hand at terrorism, having subsidized terrorist governments in Chile, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and right now subsidizing the terrorism of the contras against farmers, their wives and children, in Nicaragua. Does a Western democracy have a better right to kill innocent people than a Middle Eastern dictatorship? Even if we were a perfect democracy that would not give us such a license. But the most cherished element of our democracy - the pluralism of dissenting voices, the marketplace of contending ideas - seems to disappear at a time like this, when the bombs fall, the flag waves, and everyone scurries, as Ted Kennedy did, to fall meekly behind “our commander-in-chief.” We waited for moral leadership. But Gary Hart, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis and Tip O’Neill all muttered their support. No wonder the Democratic Party is in such pathetic shape. Where in national politics are the emulators of those two courageous voices at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam - Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening - who alone in the Senate refused to go along with “our commander-in-chief" in that first big military strike that launched the ten-year shame of Vietnam?
And where was our vaunted "free press"? After the bombing, a beaming Schultz held a press conference for a group of obsequious reporters in Washington who buttered him up, who licked at his flanks, who didn’t ask a single question about the morality of our action, about the civilians killed by our bombs in Tripoli. Where are the likes of I.F Stone, who did in his little newsletter for so many years what no big American daily would do - raise hard questions? Why did Anthony Lewis and Tom Wicker, who sometimes raise such questions - melt away? Terrorism now has two names, world-wide. One is Khadafi. One is Reagan. In fact, that is a gross simplification. If Khadafi were gone, if Reagan were gone, terrorism would continue - it is a very old weapon of fanatics, whether they operate from secret underground headquarters, or from ornate offices in the capitols of the superpowers. Too bad Khadafi’s infant daughter died, one columnist wrote. Too bad, he said, but that’s the game of war. Well, if that’s the game, then let’s get the hell out of it, because it is poisoning us morally, and not solving any problem. It is only continuing and escalating the endless cycle of retaliation which will one day, if we don’t kick our habits, kill us all.
Let us hope that, even if this generation, its politicians, its reporters, its flag-wavers and fanatics, cannot change its ways, the children of the next generation will know better, having observed our stupidity. Perhaps they will understand that the violence running wild in the world cannot be stopped by more violence, that someone must say: we refuse to retaliate, the cycle of terrorism stops here.