The National Catholic Review
John Langan
Devising a Response to Terrorism
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On Tuesday, Sept. 11, the United States was stunned by terrorist acts that exhibited the audacity and cunning of the terrorists and dealt a grievous symbolic blow to the power of the United States of America. The reaction in this country and almost everywhere else has been abhorrence and condemnation. Politicians of all parties and ordinary citizens agree that acts of this sort must be punished and must be brought to an end.

President George W. Bush has promised a war on terrorism and has threatened the destruction of states that support terrorists. From one end of the political spectrum to the other, there is agreement in attitudes and in ultimate objectives. This broad agreement is not merely political. It rests on the moral foundation of respect for innocent life, which is a central tenet of just war thinking and of civilized legal systems. It also rests on a culture that has affirmed the exceptional character of the American experience and has taken for granted, until now, an invulnerability from the crueler blows of history.

But the task that confronts President Bush and his advisors cannot be satisfied by merely repeating our national agreement on attitudes and objectives, however strongly this agreement may be felt and however compelling may be the moral arguments for it. Rather, our national leadership must formulate and execute a plan for dealing with terrorism or, to use the language preferred by the president, for waging war on terrorism. The current enthusiasm for the language of war arises from a desire to express the intensity of our commitment and our readiness to use deadly force. It also reflects the conviction that judicial or quasi-judicial models of response, with their emphasis on evidence and the achievement of certainty, are inadequate to the present reality. It does not reflect a clear analysis of who the adversary is or how the antiterrorism campaign would be like and unlike war waged against a state.

The concept of a war against terrorism is actually an umbrella beneath which different projects are likely to be advanced by different people. Some will argue for increased intelligence budgets and heavier reliance on gathering intelligence from human sources (also known as spies). Some people will argue against a national missile defense system on the ground that it is clearly irrelevant to terrorist threats. Other people will lobby for heightened security and surveillance in the air traffic system. Others will stress the value of increased international cooperation among police and intelligence agencies. Some will promote a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, still others will argue for intensified support of Israel’s hard line against terrorism. Yet others will argue for the removal of the Taliban or of Saddam Hussein or of Yassir Arafat. These proposals, which vary in merit, will all stand to gain by being presented as measures against terrorism. In all likelihood, the U.S. government’s response to terrorism will incorporate elements from a number of these projects.

Our present concern focuses on proposals that call for the use of deadly force beyond the borders of the United States. These proposals must be scrutinized for their conformity to the principles of just war thinking. These principles, we should recall, formed an important part of the previous Bush administration’s efforts to provide public justification for the Persian Gulf war. Just war thinking, as the Rev. Bryan Hehir has reminded us on many occasions, provides both a basis for moral assessments and a pattern for raising questions about statesmanship and public policy.

In the present situation, there are three questions from the just war tradition that must be answered by proposals for the use of force. They are:

1) Does the proposed use of force observe the principle of discriminationthat is, does it aim at military targets and persons actively involved in the terrorist network, and does it attempt to minimize harm to civilians?

2) Does the proposed use of force manifest a morally acceptable intention to bring about justice, or is it designed to satisfy desires for revenge and feelings of hatred?

3) Is the proposed use of force likely to achieve morally important objectivesthat is, will it meet the test of proportionality; will it bring about results that are sufficiently reliable and valuable to outweigh the harm that is inherent in the use of lethal force?

These are the areas in which responses to terrorism are most likely to go astray. In particular, the most difficult issues arise with regard to the third question: how are we to find means to respond to terrorism that will enable us to have a realistic confidence that terrorism will not be quickly resurgent? There must be a prudent plan of action for achieving specific goals and for strengthening the security of the United States and its allies, a plan that will be more than a politically attractive stage in what threatens to become a downward spiral of violence.

Coming up with such a strategic plan is normally a complex and uncertain process, since war is an adversarial activity in which the enemy attempts to break up those nice adjustments of means to ends that military planners like to make. The enemy retains the ability to change the terms and techniques of conflict. But it is made more difficult when we recognize that resolving the contemporary problem of international terrorism involves at least three concentric circles of calculation and activity.

The first circle is centered on Osama bin Laden, who is widely believed to be the paymaster and organizer of the cells that carried out the operations of Sept. 11. Even if we grant that this is so and that he is for this and other reasons (such as the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa and on the U.S.S. Cole) a legitimate target for retaliatory violence, we are probably a long way from determining what other groups and perhaps states may have contributed to this crime. If we fail to deal with these groups, killing bin Laden is the most temporary of solutions. Those responsible for the use of force face the difficult tasks of not only tracking the people who planned and organized the attacks, but also overpowering them without needlessly destroying innocent lives.

The second circle focuses on Afghanistan, a remote and inhospitable land in which bin Laden is thought to be hiding and which is currently ruled by the Taliban, a militant Islamic group that has closed the country to Western political, economic and cultural influences. Since the Afghanistan regime has chosen to harbor known terrorists, it has made itself a legitimate target for defensive, retaliatory and pre-emptive strikes. But any plan that calls for the United States to exercise control over the territory and people of Afghanistan for any length of time is unwise and dangerous. The warriors of Afghanistan have in the past administered stinging defeats to both the British and the Russians. The United States can concentrate enormous firepower and materiel against its adversaries; it can use its technological advantage to inflict grievous damage on a semi-industrialized society like Iraq; but it cannot achieve omnipresence in hostile territory and, as the case of Vietnam shows, it cannot make its will prevail against sustained local resistance. It may be necessary to override Afghan sovereignty and to use military forces in ways that take Afghan lives, but these should be no more than temporary emergency measures.

The third circle is the Islamic world, which encompasses a broad swath of Africa and Asia extending from Morocco and Nigeria on the west to Indonesia on the east. Many Muslims live outside this area, and not all states in this area are Islamic states in the sense that they are governed by Islamic law. There are, in fact, important nations in this area in which Muslims are no more than an embattled minority (Israel, India, Thailand).

The Islamic world is not homogeneous, and generalizations about it are dangerous. Even while it is marked by certain broad currents of anti-American and anti-Western feeling, it is divided by many political, economic, cultural and religious conflicts, some of them of very long standing. It lacks open and stable governments that enjoy democratic legitimacy. At the same time, it has resources that are extremely important to the industrialized world.

The United States and the West have interests and allies throughout the Islamic world, but the complexity of the situation means that allies will often be halfhearted in their support of our initiatives and that the play of interests will get in the way of particular projects. U.S. policy toward the Islamic world and, more specifically, to the Middle East is not reducible to an antiterrorist campaign. Honesty also requires that we recognize that certain U.S. commitments to the security of Israel, to limiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction and to promoting human rights will put us at odds with significant elements in the Islamic world. The continued existence of our culture ensures that we will be regarded with disapproval and anxiety by many parts of the Islamic world. Our aims should not be pitched so high that they imply the elimination of the bases of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world, which is not a realistic objective. Nor should our aims be pursued in such a way that they damage our overall position in the Islamic world. Disregard for the values of Islamic culture and attacks that kill large numbers of Muslims would clearly be counterproductive.

I am writing at a time when it is impossible to do more than guess about the shape of the U.S. plan for dealing with terrorism. The urgency of the problem and the depth of our feelings should not make us think that those plans are best that inflict the most damage on the adversary or that resolution is enough to solve the problem. Our adversaries have taught us the effectiveness of perseverance and careful planning and have achieved a stunning success in the short run. We will need no less if we are to prevail in the long run.

John Langan, S.J., is the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.