Further Reflections on the “War Against Terrorism”

[1] In my initial article written just a few weeks following the terrorist attack on September 11, I expressed a concern that our heritage of just war thinking might help us to “grasp the underlying causes for the belligerence of the enemy” and “pursue every avenue that might contribute to understanding between the two sides.” These assertions were made on the basis of the just war thesis that going to war must be a “final resort,” following every effort to address the conflict in ways that would avoid the bloodshed of war. As I think about what has transpired since last fall, it is this point that concerns me the most.

[2] At the time I was a bit uneasy with what appeared to be some overblown rhetoric on the part of President Bush in “going to war” against terrorism; developments since last fall have more than justified this uneasiness. The dominant mindset emerging in the administration is to define the present conflict in terms of a military engagement against hostile nations that harbor terrorists or who themselves are likely to commit terrorist acts. Thus the present issue has become the prospect of invading Iraq and eliminating its ruler, Saddam Hussein. This approach to the terrorist threat must be vigorously challenged, and on several grounds.

[3] It should be challenged first on the basis of just war teaching itself, which has not only influenced Christian thinking but has profoundly shaped the wider, international community in its assumptions concerning acceptable conduct of warfare (the United Nations Charter justifies national self-defense, but only in the event of armed attack). The whole weight of this historic teaching repudiates any attempt to justify a preemptive strike on the part of one nation against another. The damning character of a preemptive strike is that it makes a nation guilty of the very act that it anticipates and judges on the part of its enemy.

[4] A preemptive attack should be challenged, secondly, for the sake of our own image and self-understanding as a nation. In today’s international community an attack of this kind would be the act of a rogue nation, no matter how eloquent its claim that the attack is justified. President Bush’s speech at West Point on June 1 was an explicit attempt to cut our moorings to just war theory and to espouse preemptive action as a necessity of the new age of terrorism. It is a fateful step, and all the more so because we are the world’s exclusive superpower whose actions generate profound consequences. Given the history of our nation and the conscience of our people, it is not surprising that the administration is encountering considerable resistance. It remains to be seen whether this resistance will be successfully eroded.

[5] A third reason for rejecting a preemptive strike relates to its geopolitical consequences. Given our moral and political status in the world, if we ignore historical restraints imposed by just war thinking, it is bound to open the floodgates for other nations to engage in preemptive actions. We can imagine India mounting a similar argument justifying an attack on Pakistan (“they possess nuclear weapons and are likely to use them”), or China against Taiwan. Without question, Israel is emboldened already now to take more aggressive actions against Palestine on the basis of President Bush’s language concerning Iraq. In short, preemptive action as an acceptable military solution to international relationships will encourage war rather than discourage it. We begin to look increasingly like a lone ranger who is out for himself, operating by his own definitions of justice and without regard for the fragile morality that operates among the nations.

[6] In addition to the above reasons for resisting preemptive action, there is the fact that the rest of the world is practically unanimous in repudiating it. The reasons given are usually based on the likely consequences: the destabilizing of the Near East, including the potential overthrow of governments in Egypt and Jordan; the precipitation of violent actions on the part of Iraq, such as firing Scuds with chemical or biological warheads at Israel or at the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti oil fields; the further hardening of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, with the U.S. losing any influence it might still have in being an honest broker between them; and the isolating of the United States in world opinion with its negative impact on the goals we seek to achieve. Overall, the possible consequences are enormous and involve far too much risk for us to ignore.

[7] The fact that up to this point (early September) there has been no convincing case made concerning the genuine military threat of Iraq to the world community, while critically damaging to the argument of President Bush, is beside the point from a just war perspective. Whatever the threat that Iraq might pose, just war thinking looks for other ways to defuse it, including the clear threat of retaliatory action should Iraq choose to initiate hostilities. Saddam is not stupid; he knows that any offensive action he might take would be suicidal.

[8] I recommend a more nuanced approach to the threat of terrorism, involving both police actions by nations throughout the world community and, more importantly, a concerted effort on many fronts to address the root causes of terrorism. The United States needs to make a clear and decisive commitment on this anniversary of September 11 to support diplomatic, economic, and self-help programs, particularly in Arab countries, that will help them attain economically viable and more stable societies. We need to be reaching out rather than turning inward and being obsessed with our own security, a posture that feeds the illusion of a military answer to this conflict. I’m afraid that our attempts at tightening security on the home front will come back to haunt us for years to come as we eventually learn about indefensible assaults on individual civil rights that even now are taking place in the name of national security–subpoenas being issued and arrests being made totally in secret, and trials and deportations also being conducted in secrecy. A very real threat in this conflict is the danger of losing our soul if we are not fiercely attentive to those political ideals that have defined us as a nation.

[9] In early August President Bush announced the creation of an office of global communication to help shape America’s image abroad. This can be helpful, but it will certainly be counter-productive if it operates on the premise that our problems with the world community are caused by a lack of public relations. It is much more than a perception problem; we need to take action to change those policies that inspire mistrust and apprehension on the part of our friends as well as our enemies throughout the world. For example, we cannot afford to divorce ourselves from the honest efforts of the international community to meet the pressing challenges of our time, whether it be through the Kyoto agreements, the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, or the International Criminal Court. We need a highly intentional effort and sustained resolve to be a genuine partner in the community of nations, something that has been seriously lacking during the past year.

[10] While the above concerns reflect a negative response to actions of the United States administration over the past year, there are any number of good things that have also been happening. The catastrophic dimensions of 9/11 have had a sobering effect on our people, causing a lot of serious soul-searching and an attempt to put issues of life and death in proper perspective. It has been a kairotic moment for the church in addressing these matters, ministering to thousands of people seeking hope and direction in the face of devastating grief, and committing itself with a new urgency to the important task of dialogue with the Muslims and other religious traditions. The challenge during this past year is that we not permit the heightened sense of patriotism generated by 9/11 to develop into a chauvinism that alienates the rest of the world, thereby squandering the compassion and good will created by the tragedy (unfortunately, a process that is already far advanced). For many U.S. citizens there is a powerful sense that we are living in a changed world that demands a critical reassessment of our place in it. These kinds of ideas pose an opportunity to recognize more clearly that we live in an interdependent world and that the destiny of one nation becomes a part of the destiny of every nation. The events of the past year should at least have taught us this truth, and the need of our nation to do something about it.

Paul T. Jersild

The Rev. Dr. Paul T. Jersild is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina