“An Inescapable Network of Mutuality”: On 9/11 and Nonviolence

By John Thatamanil

Twenty years ago, in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, just weeks after the events of 11 September 2001, I urged rhetorical rather than military restraint. I felt it best to issue a limited call for Americans to refrain from invoking God’s name to bless our causes and to caution against President George W. Bush’s arrogance in launching “Operation Infinite Justice.” The last thing we needed was crusade talk to rival jihad discourse.

Although I referred to Jesus’ call to love our enemies and invoked Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., a call for principled nonviolence seemed futile as the drumbeats of war were already deafening. Who would listen? After the obscene destruction of that day, there was little chance that the United States would refrain from military action.

But now, two decades later, after the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and the expenditure of trillions of dollars, as America departs Afghanistan in abject failure, the futility of violence is more apparent than ever before.

When practitioners of nonviolence like Dr King proclaim, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,” they risk sounding merely pious and utterly naïve. Violence is realistic, and nonviolence is idealistic—so goes the conventional narrative. But now that President Joe Biden has pulled out US troops out of Afghanistan, the purported realism of violence doesn’t seem very realistic at all.

A recent AP report tallies up the financial costs of US campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq as follows:

  • Estimated amount of direct Afghanistan and Iraq war costs that the United States has debt-financed as of 2020: $2 trillion.
  • Estimated interest payments on that $2 trillion so far (based on a higher-end estimate of interest rates): $925 billion.
  • Estimated interest costs by 2030: $2 trillion.
  • Estimated interest costs by 2050: $6.5 trillion.

To appreciate the weight of these numbers, consider the German government funded research, published last year, which estimated the cost of eliminating global hunger by 2030 as $330 billion. For a fraction of our initial military outlay, the United States could have eliminated global hunger, and in the process, garnered global goodwill instead of destabilizing the entire Middle East. This is to say nothing about the number of precious lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimates that at least “801,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan.”

The United States wasted two precious decades in fruitless military activity at the very moment when humanity faces its gravest collective threats: species death and ecocide. We sunk precious resources into killing each other rather than investing in an all-out attempt to save ourselves from self-destruction.

After twenty years, what have we learned? Very little, it seems. Judging by one tangible number—the ever-increasing size of the American military budget—national confidence in the powers of violence remains undiminished. In 2001, the US Defense Budget stood at $331.81 billion; in 2021, that number is $705.39 billion. According to these numbers, we are now more than twice as confident in what the military can accomplish as we were two decades ago. With what evidence?

Proponents of nonviolence, by contrast, are convinced that violence is self-defeating. Why? Virtually every prominent theorist of nonviolence sees the world as richly interconnected. Dr King famously put it this way in 1963: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In a world of such mutuality, it is impossible for me to strike out at you without ultimately injuring myself. The boundary between you and me is blurry at best.

Worse still, the more dramatic the violence, the greater the risk posed to the entire network. Violence rests on a metaphysical error—the presumption that I can injure or oppress or even eliminate you with little consequence to me. That is naïve. Within a relational worldview, confidence in violence is obtuse and foolhardy. I am only because you are. As the philosopher Judith Butler puts it:

If the self is constituted through its relations with others, then part of what it means to preserve or negate a self is to preserve or negate the extended social ties that define the self and its world. Over and against the idea that the self will be bound to act violently in the name of its individual self-preservation, this inquiry supposes that nonviolence requires a critique of egological ethics as well as of the political legacy of individualism in order to open up the idea of selfhood as a fraught field of social relationality.

Twenty years after 9/11, we cannot afford further delay on the path to nonviolence. Ours is a time in which Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 declaration must be reaffirmed and intensified: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom”—but to which we could now add, “is hastening ecological catastrophe and planetary doom.” The putative realism of violence now lies buried in the blood-soaked fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. We must find another way.


John J. Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary. He is also Volunteer Curate at the Anglican Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, BC, and Theologian to the Diocese of Islands and Inlets. He is the author of Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity. He teaches courses on comparative theology, theologies of religions as well as a course on Gandhi and King. He is a past-President of the North American Paul Tillich Society and current Chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Theological Education Committee. His Op-Eds have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and a variety of sites online.

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Photo: PH2 Jim Watson, USN, Department of Defense (DOD 010914-N-1350W-002)

An earlier version of this piece was published on The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion & Ethics https://www.abc.net.au/religion/thatamanil-9-11-and-retaliatory-violence/13536580


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