Not long after 9/11, when the horror of that day was still vivid to the mind, I was playing pool with a young friend, Sundown Walker. In the middle of our game, we began talking about our possible response to the attack, and Sundown asked me a question that has haunted me now for almost a year and a half now. It was simple, sincere, and heartfelt.
"Why don't we just bomb them?"
Now let me hasten to point out that Sundown does not work for State Department. He owns and operates a window tinting business, does the job of six or seven men, is a superb father, a wonderful husband, and normally expends little time puzzling over international politics. But 9/11 changed all that, and, for the first time in his life, he wanted to know why those in charge of protecting us were not following the most obvious rule of self-defense-when you are hit, hit back, and hard. This rule had worked for him. Why shouldn't it work for his country as well?
Naturally, I immediately set Sundown on the correct path, explaining to him that things are not that simple. We could hardly decide to hold a whole country responsible for the actions of just a handful of men; and, even if we decided to do this, which country would we choose to visit our revenge upon?
Sundown frowned, half-heartedly pretended to be satisfied with my answer, and we finished our game. But I knew that I had not really answered his question at all. Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more I saw that not only had I not answered it, I had not even understood it.
I assumed he meant, Why don't we discover who was responsible for this act and punish them? But in fact what he really meant was, They got some of our guys, so why don't we just get some of theirs-and it doesn't matter which ones?
That was Sundown's real question-to which my first response is, probably like yours, How utterly barbaric! Such an indiscriminate response would make us just as bad as the terrorists.
Yet that was precisely Sundown's point! Why hadn't we shown them that we were just as bad? And weren't we aware of the dangers of not showing them that we were just as bad?
This was part of the street smarts that had allowed Sundown to survive through adolescence was that often far from idyllic. It is fatal to let people without a conscience suspect that you are incapable of rising to their own level of nastiness, because once they know this, this is the level that they will always operate on with you-and they would be fools not to.
People who do that kind of thing to you must know that you are perfectly willing to do that kind of thing back to them-because once they know that you are not willing to play by their rules, you are lost. You have shown your weak spot-and it is to that same weak spot that your enemy will return, over and over again-just as a bully always figures out his victims' vulnerabilities.
The logic of "Us versus Them" offends our moral sensibility, but this does not change the fact that this is the logic of the Arab Street. To them, we are all simply members of the enemy gang-and that makes all of us fair game-while we, on the contrary, do everything in our power to assure our enemies that we will not behave as they do. "You can kill our people indiscriminately," we tell them, "but, trust us, this will never lead us even to think of killing your people indiscriminately."
Is that a message that we really want to send to the people who brought us 9/11? No, Sundown does not work for the State Department. But I often wish someone like him did.