Commentary: Don't let them push our buttons

Special to McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 10, 2011 

Sometimes I have the feeling that Osama Bin Laden and his people are laughing at us.

They pushed our buttons through their attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. And we reacted in just the way they had hoped --we launched a trans-national war with bombers, tanks and missiles.

Since then, U.S. troops have been killing jihadist fighters -- but also, tragically, innocent Muslim civilians as well -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. We are backing governments fighting Muslim extremists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Gaza, Indonesia and the Philippines.

In the 1980s, we faced a miniscule handful of nutty extremists. But we let them push our buttons and now hundreds of millions of Muslims think we are the enemy. A well-educated Egyptian interior ministry official with perfect English and access to the Internet asked me on my last visit to Cairo: “Ben. Is it true what they say – that Mossad and the CIA were behind the 9/11 attacks?”

I was speechless. If this educated Egyptian guy in a button down collar and pin striped suit thinks it is possible the U.S. government launched the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks so America could start a war on Islam, then what chance is there that we can persuade millions of less worldly Muslims that it is a lie? By overreacting and over reaching – thinking we can change the politics, security and cultures of nations as foreign as Iraq and Afghanistan – we have alienated so many people that we are losing the battle for hearts and minds.

Pushing the buttons of the big power so it will lash out violently is an old and proven way for small people to become kings in a tiny pond. Provoke the powerful to overreact.

When I was in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1983, the Tamil Tigers had pushed buttons to start a civil war that lasted 27 years. In Pettah Bazaar, where everything from rice to cloth to refrigerators is wholesaled and retailed, every other building was a gutted ruin of bricks and burnt timbers.

“Those were the Tamil shops,” said a Singhalese merchant with shame.

The separatist Tamil Tigers from Jaffna wanted to be dictators of their own state so they killed more than a dozen soldiers – nearly all of them from the Sinhalese, Buddhist majority. Nationalist Sinhalese thugs reacted by burning Tamil shops and burning alive anyone who spoke with a Tamil accent.

These fine Sinhalese patriots let their buttons get pushed and played into the Tiger plans. Tamils fled Colombo to join the Tigers or to England, Canada and America where they gave money to the Tiger’s war of liberation, leaving 60,000 dead before the army finally crushed the Tigers in 2010.

If you think Sri Lanka is obscure, recall that the Tigers pioneered suicide bombings.

When Palestinians and Israelis talk about peace, Hamas fires rockets or kills a few Israelis, hoping to push Israel’s buttons. War weary Israeli civilian and army leaders wisely hold back, saying: “We will respond in the time and manner of our own choosing.” That means “we will not let our buttons be pushed” even though men, women and children are blown to bits in a Jerusalem bus.

America’s leaders, however, let desire for revenge suck us into the Spanish American War, provoked by a mine that hit an American war ship in Havana harbor in 1898. Similarly, the First World War was sparked when buttons were pushed by the murder of the Austrian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

America rightfully reacted to the attack on Pearl Harbor by declaring war on Japan since it was a powerful nation openly intent on continuing to attack us.

But when 241 U.S. soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in Beirut in 1983, Ronald Reagan’s buttons were pushed and he began firing massive naval shells that helped polarize the Shiites of South Lebanon against us to this day; soon, however, he “redeployed” or withdrew from Lebanon’s hornet’s nest of terrorists, guerrillas and militias.

One might say that George W. Bush was a perfect candidate to have his buttons pushed. He had never been tested in battle and he was the spear point for a small team of rather arrogant officials who actually believed that we could do whatever we wanted because we are the most powerful, wealthy, organized, democratic and holy nation on earth. It’s as if a Texas ranger striding down some windblown Texas town got kicked in the shins by some dirty little kid.

Ten years later we are supposedly getting better at killing the Muslims of Afghanistan. And we’ve stopped killing them in Iraq. But we are increasing our killing in Pakistan, Yemen appears headed for more U.S. attention and Somalia is a disaster.

President Obama, for all his shortcomings, chillingly and wisely noted recently that we may be unable to catch all the terrorist plots before they take a human toll at home. His administration called on people to be ready for such an event. The New York Times also recently wrote about how to reduce tens of thousands of casualties – stay indoors or in your car – in case of a nuclear explosion.

Letting our buttons be pushed has led us into wars that we never sought and which we may never win. We must seek other ways to fight terrorism without alienating millions of people: better intelligence collection and sharing; operating through clandestine services; using local allies; and providing foreign aid for education, media and the voices for peace and reason.

We must answer evil, unprovoked attacks with cool hearts and cooler heads.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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