THE BLOG

'Less Violent' Does Not Have to Mean 'Apathetic'

02/25/2014 10:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2014

As the United States ends its war in Afghanistan, it is a good time to reflect on American attitudes towards violence and war. A recent poll demonstrated something truly astonishing: A war that had almost unanimous American support (94 percent) at its inception after 9/11, one of the longest wars in American history, is now considered -- by over 66 percent of Americans -- a war that never should have been fought. This is after 2,289 American soldiers have died, 19,000 have been wounded, and at least 10,000 Afghan civilians lie dead. Twenty-twenty hindsight is a real killer, literally.

It is also clear that Americans are less inclined to get involved in present foreign wars, judging from polls reacting to the president's threat to use force in Syria last year.

Here is the problem. Human beings instinctively have a tendency to fight or flee when it comes to violence or the threat of violence. It is my opinion that, on balance, the world is better off with Americans who are less prone to go to war than not. There is simply too much American firepower that can be unleashed that causes unpredictable amounts of damage never anticipated by military planners, and certainly not imagined by thoughtless armchair warriors and lobbyists.

So we should flee instead of fighting? Not so fast. "Fight or flight" sums up our most basic primitive instincts. That cannot and need not sum up the human capacities for rational thinking and generous actions that we have managed to build up over the centuries.

We may be getting less violent, but we should absolutely not be getting more apathetic and isolationist. The world is a dangerous place with some very violent people in it, as well as some very unfortunate wars between groups that have been set against each other by proxies. We are also involved and implicated as Americans in this dance of death that occurs in a place like Syria, for example.

Let's look at Syria for a moment. Hundreds dying every day, horribly, 150,000 so far, half the population numbering in the millions at risk, on the move, displaced. There are hundreds of thousands starving at the hands of the brutal dictatorship, while extremists rush in across the borders, committing grave atrocities.

So it's not our fight, right? Not so fast. We are part of a destructive polarization of power, we on one side with the Arab Gulf states, and Iran, Russia and China on the other. We are in a standoff, unable to come to terms as major powers, and the people of Syria are the greatest victims of that.

What is to be done if not go to war? What is to be done if we bear some responsibility for failing to build a better relationship since the end of the Cold War with Russia and Iran while coddling powers in the Arab Gulf who gleefully fund the worst jihadis to go kill indiscriminately? We are implicated -- if indirectly. If we are implicated, we must not run.

We human beings are not just an amalgam of instincts for fight or flight. We have evolved astonishingly impressive systems of local and global governance, which become more sophisticated and elaborate with every passing year. We are using our powers of reasoning and planning to make a less-violent planet in which human beings are living longer than ever before in history, a sign of our success at the rational and compassionate embrace of human life from infancy to old age.

So why do we screw up so badly with wars of atrocity, like the one going on in Syria? We lose our rational planning and our moral compass when we face an impasse in the power structures that we have developed for international aid and law enforcement. It is at these moments that we must stretch both our compassion and our power of reason to creatively invent what more can be done.

For example, many of us are immersed in working with Syrian activists inside and outside the country who have a demonstrated commitment to human rights, to pluralism and coexistence in a future Syria. We have no idea what they will come up with as we help them network, brainstorm and help each other. Nor should we be certain of the outcome! The reigning wisdom we operate by is to invest in good people, smart people, people with demonstrably the best of intentions, and enable them to brainstorm together on new paths forward for their country.

This formula has worked many times before in history, and it works a damn sight better than throwing weapons and jihadis at a bad situation. War is not the time for apathy. "Fight or flight" is for cavemen. It is our turn now in history, and our turn must be guided by compassion, by rational planning, and by the courageous embrace of good human beings working day and night to bring peace and justice to their country. That is the best we can do, and it is not bad at all.

Dr. Marc Gopin directs the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and is the co-owner of a social business, Mejdi Tours.