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The Difference Between Ideology and Revenge

March 15, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky


(Photo: New York Times)

Here is investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, writing in The Nation last year:

The October drone strike that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes. “I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,” says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist. The strikes “have recruited thousands.” Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, “which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.”

This gets to the heart of what many foreign policy hawks fail to understand: there is a world of difference between hatred based on ideology and hatred based explicitly on revenge. It’s one thing if a group of Islamist radicals hates us because of our culture, our economics, or our secularism (to the extent that we’ve embraced it, something for a separate discussion). Ideology can be fought on the battlefield of ideas and through a policy that stresses vigilance at home and reasonable intelligence strategies to protect American citizens and our allies. It’s also one thing to have a policy that stresses international law and the ability to try suspected terrorists and theocratic fascists  in court and convict them of the crimes they are guilty of. We must be able to do this.

However, it is VERY different when you encounter someone who’s hatred of you is driven purely by revenge for a specific wrongdoing. Of course, Al Qeaida’s ideology is somewhat revenge based, but the sentiment here revolves around more historical grievances like ones related to Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, East Timor, and a variety of other cases. More to the point, there’s a big difference between someone who says:

“I hate you because of your decadence, your infidelity to my prophet, and because of your support of Israel.”


“You destroyed my home, and you killed my parents.”

What can you say to someone like this? Especially if the attack was carried out by an unmanned drone, in an undeclared conflict, where the gravity of the threat posed to our security wasn’t even subject to the scrutiny of congress, a FISA court, or any other oversight; what do we say?

“I’m sorry, we were just protecting our interests.”

“I’m sorry, there MAY have been a jihadist planning to engage in some unspecified act of hostility towards us at an unspecified time in an unspecified manner.”

One can barely imagine the reactions to statements like these. It WOULD be reasonable however to say “I’m sorry, I know one section of our government pursued this policy and it’s awful, but as an average citizen, there wasn’t much I could do at that moment to halt that strike.” But unfortunately, I don’t think this would end up satisfying the visceral thirst for revenge in the eyes of the victim. This unyielding hatred and desire for retribution is what our drone policy is creating in the Arab world. The real tragedy here is that many of the people who have died in drone strikes are not even remotely involved with terrorist organizations. For all we know, before our drone strikes killed their loved ones, the families of the victims could have been very friendly to America, and were completely non-ideological in every sense.

I am not arguing for a completely dovish, dormant policy here. Conflict will always be a feature of human life (even in a very minimized sense). We do indeed have enemies who, if they had the chance, would inflict realm harm on civilization (or tell cartoonists they can’t do their job). But although our ends, the safety of our citizens and culture, are very sound, equally important and inseparable from those ends, are our means. To be ignorant of the real human impact of our policy on other nations is to invite the same level of apathy towards our own.

Oftentimes, when I’m arguing this point with the more hawkish conservatives I run into, and I address the fact that our current policy may actually be making us less safe and causing considerable harm to innocent people, I’m almost always given the same response:

“You know what Drew? The only thing that matters to me is that Americans are safe. And all those people out there who you talk about?

Fuck em’.”

As much as I hate cliche’s, I can’t help but think of an old saying: You Reap What You Sow.


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