Naming What is at Stake

[1] In her reflections on the recent terror, Karen Bloomquist writes, “An adequate response by the churches needs to begin with a clear theological naming of what is at stake.” That strikes me as insightful and fruitful for our shared deliberations. Of course these events came already named as acts of terror. Terrorism means targeting and attacking non-combatants – practices condemned by just war criteria. The word not only describes, but also condemns. As such, its use is justified to describe the events of September 11th. The condemning quality of this word necessitates alternatives and euphemisms when our military actions destroy non-military targets and kill civilians. We call that “collateral damage” and insist that such was not our intent. Even when the killing of non-combatants is intended, as in these recent horrendous events, our attackers surely used other words with different moral meanings and coloration. While the word “terrorism” is fitting for these horrific acts, it will not help us to understand why we were attacked. To understand reasoning of our attackers – not to share or endorse it – we will have to know their word(s) and justifications.

[2] If these attacks on our nation are justifiably designated as terrorism, then measures to defend ourselves might be called counter- or anti-terrorism. As best I know, this has been the practice in countries who have long suffered under such acts, in particular Israel and the British in Northern Ireland. By contrast, our own administration and press decided to use the word “war.” We are at war! And that is not the metaphorical use of the word, as were the war on poverty and the war on drugs or on cancer. Although everyone acknowledges that this war is unique, in terms of identifying our enemy, of the manner of fighting and of ending this conflict, we have declared it to be war.

[3] Our declaration of war may in effect redefine large-scale terrorism as acts of war. The continuing large losses of Iraqi non-combatant lives, women and children, to American bombing and embargo is not designated as terror. At least not by those who practice it. Our long-standing policy of nuclear deterrence threatens to obliterate whole nations, in effect obscuring any distinctions between combatants and civilians. We refuse to call that terrorism. And despite the moral limits of just war doctrine we stand ready, if we are attacked, to wage “nuclear war.” So terrorism, the indiscriminate targeting and destroying of non-combatants can be called war, if the stakes are large enough.

[4] We should stick with the words “terrorism” and “counter-terrorism” and eschew “war” for a number of reasons. First, if we and our allies prove to be successful in identifying and capturing those responsible for these acts of terror, we should treat them as criminals and not as prisoners of war. Second, we should not honor terrorists as soldiers. Only the latter legitimately honor and serve country and even God (if one does not advocate pacifism). There will be no end to our declarations of war if we identify every country that shelters terrorists as our enemy.

[5] We may well rob ourselves of flexibility, options, and limits if we insist on “war.” If we invoke “war,” we will have war. We will then need to find an enemy to confront and to fight. We will have justified major military violence against our opponents. We will have to rally to a common war effort and be ready both to inflict and to suffer the consequences of war. We will have established the priority of warfare over all our other needs and responsibilities, for the necessities of war effort overshadow all the values over which we struggle politically. We will need to circumscribe our liberties with adequate security measures. Even if all of these costs are justified, we need to ask whether our country can defend itself under a less incendiary banner.

[6] While these key words now literally become a matter of life and death, none of this seems like a theological naming of what is at stake. Perhaps the Christian calling to be peacemakers can take linguistic form. If as a people we now define what we are about and if our future is shaped by those concepts, then a Christian witness should insist on words compatible with justice and amenable to limiting death. It is not self-evident that we also should cry, “War!”