Response to Reviews of Just War against Terror

[1] I shall respond to each interlocutor in turn.

[2] First, to Jeff Swanson, I wish to say that he has understood what I was attempting in Just War against Terror by drawing Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr into the debate. Even at this late date, there are many-including, alas, many representing our churches-who seem to think that bin-Ladenism or Islamist radicalism is a position supported by an underlying rationale that is penetrable by the usual standards of political reason. This leads to the-‘what did we do to make them so angry?’-school of analysis. But anyone who reads carefully the material emanating from Islamists recognizes that there is no specific action the United States took, or refrained from taking, that stokes their murderous rage. It is what the United States represents that they hate: political liberty, free exercise of religion, rights for women, support for Israel. The United States is overwhelmingly Christian in religious identification and, in addition to the foundational anti-Semitism of the Islamist ideology, Christianity is a religion of infidels whose adherents are fit only to be defeated, even slaughtered to the man, woman, and child if need be. Without in any way comparing myself to Niebuhr, there are days when I experience what must have been the frustration animating his many essays and interventions when he was trying to get American Christians to understand the nature of what he called “an intolerable tyranny.” Islamism is an intolerable tyranny. Paul Berman, in his important book, Terror and Liberalism, demonstrates the structural affinity between Islamism and twentieth century totalitarian ideologies, both Nazism and Stalinism. Finally, among the many things it is, Islamist fanaticism is a war against women. The gendered dimension of all this is profoundly clear and cannot be gainsaid. A number of recent books-at long last-are beginning to draw attention to this fact and to the deadly reinforcement of a quite primitive masculinist ideal of the warrior-without-remorse who is fighting under the direct orders from a god-without-mercy. This goes way beyond any ‘traditional’ adherence to Islam and the roles assigned to women within it. (On this see Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity.) No wonder so many Muslims cry-‘they have hijacked our religion!’ Swanson appears to understand this-and I thank him for it.

[3] Second, Brent Adkins, I fear, fumbles the ball a few times. In my response I am not going to sugar-coat my comments any more than Professor Adkins did. He surely knows that I respect his right to analyze my book any way he wants so I’ll not belabor the obvious. That said, I want to draw attention to several points in his analysis that repeat techniques of evasion that I indict in my book. Concerning Jameson and the magic of “dialectical reversal”–yes, Hannah Arendt and Jameson are indeed talking about the same thing. And it really demeans Arendt’s careful analysis of the role of the dialectic in teleologies of political violence to say that “her dislike of a position does not automatically make it ridiculous.” Clearly that is not what I said. As well, the use of the word “dislike” suggests some sort of tacit emotivism on Adkins’s part where our moral reactions are reducible to preferences. In her powerful essay, On Violence, Arendt unpacks the mystifying effect talk of the dialectic had on the political left historically-there were other ways the historic right found of embracing exculpatory strategies where violence was concerned-and the ways it benumbed any ability to analyze events clear-headedly. Talk of “dialectical reversal” is one way of doing that. Presumably because the United States has supported Israel historically, we are the subjects of hatred from those who want Israel destroyed, so naturally they attack us and presto! ‘dialectical reversal’ in progress. This not only assumes a rather crude theory of causality, it makes it possible to ignore what agents of action are really saying. (Of course, within structuralist Marxism what people do and say doesn’t really matter anyway given the prefabricated roles they are assigned by ‘history.’) This sort of cobweb spinning prevents careful analysis rather than promoting it.

[4] As I note in Just War against Terror, there are all sorts of positions that deserve careful consideration; all sorts of arguments that deserve a hearing. “But no such change [in American policy],” I write, “will deter Osama bin Laden and those like him….We could everything demanded of us by those who are critical of America, both inside and outside our boundaries, but Islamist fundamentalism and the threat it poses would not be deterred.” That is what we have to understand. Islamism is a totalist ideology impervious to external correction-an ideology of the sort Arendt limned so brilliantly in her masterwork, On Totalitarianism. That is why “dialectical reversal” talk is altogether beside the point. It is a mere abstraction-an artifact of discourse-that permits those who traffic in it to refuse to get down to brass tacks and to use political reason to consider what is going on.

[5] Two other points in response to Adkins. I am not conflating “explanation and justification.” I am pointing out that explanation never takes place in a neutral vocabulary stripped of a justificatory or, by contrast, critical intent. Surely Adkins doesn’t think that “the fascism of U.S. foreign policy” or “the United States had it coming,” two of the comments I cite as examples of justification of terrorism perpetrated against the U.S., count as “explanations.” And, once again, Adkins ignores the mountain of evidence we have from the 9/11 terrorists themselves about their motivations. It is no big mystery. The United States, they allege, is the primary source of decadence, given our lax sexual morals, including the fact that we don’t kill people outright simply for being homosexual, our unleashing of women on the public sphere, the fact that Jews allegedly control our finances and our politics, on and on. That is what we need to understand. Bin Laden argues that the mere physical presence of an “infidel” on the soil of the Saudi kingdom suffices to level a death sentence against such a person-no matter who he or she is or what he or she is doing. These are primitive notions of taint and taboo that are so alien to us that we simply cannot believe anyone can believe them-so, instead, it must have been something we did-or didn’t do. My argument in no way suggests citizens should not debate, argue, and criticize aspects of our foreign policy. But we cannot cease to be who and what we are. We are not going to institute a theocratic government, put women in purdah, crush infidels, and all the other things that alone constitute an acceptable policy, according to Islamist ideology. Because the United States is such a powerful symbol of all the many things Islamists hate, of course we are a target. We cannot help but be. We could withdraw behind our borders tomorrow and remain a target. That is the hard truth that we must somehow come to grips with.

[6] Finally, to call terrorism simply a technique strikes me as inadequate to the task at hand. Terrorism is a technique, or was, when, for example, the IRA used it to try to get the British out of Northern Ireland. The IRA also had a political wing that engaged in negotiations over specific policies, and so on. But when the technique-the explicit targeting of civilians for death through any means necessary-is indistinguishable from the ideology animating it, one confronts a totality within which terrorism is more than a technique-it is an identity. Islamist means terrorist: it isn’t just a technique Islamists happen to use. Terror is foundational, constitutive, necessary to the position and the identity-not something to ‘use’ to gain particular ends. Even as someone might say of an assassination band that assassination is their technique, it would be far more accurate to say that assassination is their identity-their ideology-the glue that binds them together; thus also with Islamist terrorists. It undercuts the efforts of anti-Islamist Muslims who are fighting at great danger to themselves in many sites in our world, to see Islamists as Muslims who use terrorism as a technique. (And I have participated in a number of such meetings-in Malta, in Milan, one pending in Riyadh-all this year.) Muslim moderates argue that the Islam involved is not a legitimate version of their faith, but a deformation with terrorism at the heart of it-more than a “technique” in other words. Adkins, to conclude these comments, is also incorrect in his analysis of the just war tradition. This tradition, as he surely knows, pre-dates Westphalia by many centuries, and predates, therefore, the state system. Just war does not only apply to states; it applies to “sub-state” actors as well. There is a far longer discussion that would need to go on at great length were one to deal with all of this. But I think what we are seeing at the moment is a resurgence of pre-Westphalian just-war thinking tethered to the ethical universalism embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other critical documents of the last fifty years. (On this see Lee Feinstein and Anne-Marie Slaughter “The Duty to Prevent” for example.) One ignores the entire theological framework within which just war emerged when one confines it narrowly to a state-centric system.

[7] Third, and finally, to Daniel Bell’s longer, critical comments. As Bell starts off by suggesting that perhaps the ‘just war’ part of my book title was tossed in by an editor “to attract more readers”-I will respond in kind. (Given that ‘just war’ does not come trippingly off the tongue of the vast majority of readerly Americans, I find it risible to suggest that such a title would attract more readers. If that’s what I, or an editor, wanted, a far more sensationalistic title might have been chosen.) If a critic is going to say that his views on a book’s inadequacies were confirmed by “civilians and soldiers” alike in personal communication with him, how can one respond? I have a rather formidable stack of letters from both soldiers and civilians claiming exactly the opposite. (And invitations from West Point, etc., where my book is assigned reading in classes.) That proves precisely nothing.

[8] My book assumes the just war tradition as a framework within which discussion of the war against terrorism will take place. There are by now many books that go over the tradition in detail-including my reissued, with a new introduction by myself, reader, Just War Theory. Discussing in detail why-and how-current asymmetrical warfare does not render just war obsolete but, indeed, makes it more important than ever, was not the purpose of my book. (On that see my comments above.) In a book responding to criticisms of Just War against Terror, which will be completed shortly, I include essays tackling that question that link together ideals of international justice or an international common good to the just war tradition. Interestingly enough, developments of the past few years have, I argue, enhanced rather than diminished the pre-Westphalian aspects of just war. (On this see my essay on “International Justice and Equal Regard” in Ethics and International Affairs.)

[9] Just War against Terror was intended as a brisk civic primer aimed at acquainting readers who may have never heard of the just war tradition with certain of its central features. It is not a philosophic treatise. It is a livre de circonstance. It is not particularly helpful given the medium for a reviewer to tell us that such and such 11 pages have “only slightly more substance” or that my “treatment is rather shallow.” Be that as it may, I quite agree that Augustine and Niebuhr cannot be conflated. But I disagree that Augustine regarded just war teaching as a deviation. For Augustine, the issue of use of force is tethered to an understanding of statecraft and of God’s providence. The exercise of political power, what we would now call ‘legitimate authority’, is one of the ways that God cares for the world. When Christians became responsible for that exercise, just war, or the application of force, is a central feature of that exercise of power. You cannot have social life without political authority because, Augustine insisted, without a ‘tranquility of order’, people would be victimized by a world in which they were “devoured like fishes.” Private use of force is condemned because it jeopardizes this order. The public exercise of coercive force can be undertaken at the behest of a tranquility of order of which justice is a central feature. This Augustinian moment, if you will, is part of a political theory or political philosophy that has to do with questions of prudential judgment on the parts of statesmen (statepersons) in a world that is fallen. Bell’s insistent characterization of the Gospel as a message of “nonresistant love” tout court ignores systematically the grappling in scripture concerning principalities, powers, and authority. If anyone thinks that Augustine didn’t see human life as tragic and violent-well, I don’t know what Augustine they are reading. Human life is torn in a world of “carking anxieties”, as Augustine put it. (On this see my sustained discussion in Augustine and the Limits of Politics.) I suspect Bell’s theology is all-resurrection, no crucifixion. (Clearly I mean one is emphasized; the other downplayed). A bleeding, broken man on a cross-and an empty tomb-these are the dominant symbols of Christianity-and I don’t get much sense of that when I’m told about the “non-tragic Gospel of nonresistant love.” That sounds awfully sunny.

[10] No, my account is not one of resignation, contra Bell, but of responsibility. Now I suspect that within Bell’s perspective responsibility to, within, and for political life is bound to be a counsel of resignation given the world’s wicked ways. I say nothing in my book about resigning oneself to dirty hands and lesser evils-nothing that should lead to such a reading. Rather, I indicate that to act in the world in a capacity of responsibility means that one cannot avoid dilemmas of the sort that political theorists have named as those of ‘dirty hands’. You are smudged with the things of the world even as you attempt to work your way through with hope and possibility toward a less violent, more decent, more just world. This is a counsel concerning statecraft, a counsel for Christians obliged to live in a world that is not by any stretch of the imagination ‘Christian’ in any purist or eschatological sense. Has one no responsibility for that world? The world we are in, not the world we anticipate? Bell cites pp.46-47 of my book as ‘proof’ that I banish the Kingdom from history. What I do say is that the earthly peace we can achieve is “not the perfect peace promised to believers in the Kingdom of God.” I cite Luther, in one of his characteristically mordant comments on naïve enthusiasts. Anyone who is a student of political history appreciates that there are many who have tried to institute the Kingdom on this earth as a perduring characteristic of social and political life-and the results have been pretty awful. (I am not here discussing those who try to institute a societas perfecta of a small group of believers but those who believe such a society is the aim of social and political life in its totality.) I also note that the vision of a kingdom when all is healed and we are at one presupposes what we cannot have, namely, all persons under one law. An attempt to create such would, of course, constitute an all-out assault on pluralism and religious diversity, as I note.

[11] Concerning “prospect of success”-Bell cites p. 62, so let’s look at the text. I indicate that this “prudential consideration is always tricky, and in this instance I cannot pronounce with any degree of certainty that this criterion is met.” Here I’m just being candid. In many ways, “prospect of success” is a strange criterion, because it requires that one assess the likely future course of events and these are notoriously out of anybody’s control; in another way, “prospect of success” is essential because it reminds us that just war is above all an account of statecraft, a dimension altogether missing in Bell’s critique. Just war is not a meta-ethical theory. It aims to show the ways in which war is continuous with politics—and politics is always subject to contingency. (Or fortuna, if one bows in the direction of Machiavelli.) Specifically, I argued that Afghanistan-which just held an election under trying circumstances as brave citizens traveled to the polls, including women, for the first time ever-constitutes an example where prospect of success was assumed and has been fulfilled-but such achievements are always in danger of what my mother called back-sliding. It isn’t that we have a “success” and it’s over with. That is why any “war against terrorism” is, of course, concerning. One must specify where, how, when: be concrete. When our political leaders of both parties talk about terrorism they are not, as I noted above, talking about political movements that from time to time resort to attacks against non-combatants, but, rather, about a deadly ideology whose adherents are terrorists through and through: ideology and technique are indistinguishable. That is why “prospect of success” is so difficult to access. One is dealing with an amorphous moving target. But deal with it one must, lest innocent blood be shed over and over and over again.

[12] As to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Bell says I claim it is “motivated by love for the Afghan people”-which makes my argument sound cloying and unbelievable. I speak instead of the obligations of caritas and the fact that Christianity does not allow us to put the stranger or foreigner outside the boundary of moral concern. I make it clear that self-defense and just punishment were involved first and foremost. But there is also the matter of human beings suffering under murderous and repressive regimes that destroy the lives of all persons, especially women and children. (Here I offer data on life under the Taliban and I leave the reader to that.) Should not our obligation to the stranger be animated when one is confronted with evidence of what is happening to others? Would that constitute a casus belli in and of itself? That depends. One would need to work up criteria on a threshold beneath which none should be allowed to fall. One reason former President Clinton and his foreign policy adviser, Anthony Lake, now express regret and even shame when they look back to U.S. inaction in Rwanda-when the administration even forbade use of the word ‘genocide’ because it might prompt calls for action to protect the innocent, is that the threshold conditions were certainly met and the United States did not act. (On this see Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: American in the Age of Genocide.) Would Bell say something like “U.S. involvement in Rwanda is motivated by love for the Rwandan people”-or for the Tutsis being slaughtered by Hutus, presumably-in a tone that suggests, “yeah, right…” Cannot caritas, or the criterion of equal moral regard as I have put it recently, goad us into action or form one part of a more complex series of reasons to act?

[13] Bell claims that my arguments are steps backwards in efforts to retrieve the just war tradition without offering us much in the way of criteria as to what counts as a step forwards or backwards. I suspect his understanding has been formed primarily by John Howard Yoder’s systematic distortion of the just war tradition. Yoder distorts by turning the just war tradition into a set of neo-Kantian categorical imperatives. Re-read Yoder if this doesn’t strike you as correct. Altogether missing is the political dimension, the fact that just war is an account of political reason and statecraft. In articulating his understanding of the just war tradition, Yoder sets the bar so high-and is so far removed from the realities of statecraft and politics-that it seems clear the criteria for a just war will never be met. As well, in discussing pacifism I was not, to the best of my knowledge, applying Niebuhr’s categories at all. I was thinking, instead, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Albert Camus, and Gandhi, if truth be known, and their grappling with these issues. Be that as it may, I certainly have not done a systematic blow-by-blow analysis of, say, Yoder’s distortion of the just war tradition, although I plan to. As Helmut David Baer and Joseph E. Capizzi note in their essay, “Just War Theories Reconsidered: A Rejection of Prima Facie Duties and a Recovery of Statescraft,” Yoder “has trouble providing an adequate account of political power.” Again and again, they argue, Yoder “runs into unasked and unanswered questions about government and its use of force…Yoder still must answer the question Reinhold Niebuhr put to pacifists 50 years ago: why is even the police function legitimate when it depends upon the use of force?” More along these lines would be helpful, but I wasn’t debating pacifism so much as displaying how a kind of unthinking “crypto-pacifism,” not systematically unpacked, animates so much of what our churches, especially the mainline, are about these days. That should have been clear to Bell but apparently it was not.

[14] It would be tedious at this point to respond in detail to Bell’s insistence that I am guilty of errors and distortions all over the place. But let me be absolutely clear: I never claim that church leaders wind up as apologists for terror. I argue that they have for so long been awash in a perspective shorn of any hard-headed political understanding that there is about their expressions of concern an aura of the most extraordinary unreality. One is told that the use of force is “despicable” and that “restraint” must be exercised, even against the unrestrained. So far so good. Calling for terrorists to lay down their arms is, of course, preposterous precisely because they are terrorists. But one does it anyway. At the same time, the United States must cease and resist or act in a way ‘we’ approve consistent with ‘our’ principles. It follows almost as a matter of course that any response by the United States that involves the use of force comes in for condemnation because it allegedly violates “international law”-but whose law? What law? International law, including the U.N. charter, recognizes the right of any de jure state to respond with coercive force if it is directly attacked. When the United States does that, it is attacked for not following international law. Bell knows how this works. If it were up to international law, I am hard put to think of a single dictatorial regime that would have been removed. As David Rifkin, Jr., puts it: “To the extent that any dictator has been brought to justice, this was accomplished as a result of regime change, whether effected through an internal revolution, a la Ceausescu, an internal political movement supported by outside forces, a la Milosevic, or through the use of force by other countries, a la Saddam Hussein.” The upshot if one waits for “international law” as most of those who appeal to it understand-or misunderstand it-would be a kind of stasis within which the brutal do what they will and the weak suffer what they must as the conditions will never be ripe, or the criteria met, for the use of coercive force by the United States. That is the upshot on the ground, dress it up as you will.

[15] Finally, let me address the outright misstatements in Bell’s account. A few questions to begin with: Does he think the United States is on an anti-Muslim crusade? Why, then, has the President made it clear from day one that terrorist and Muslim do not equate. Was the trip to the mosque, the observance of Ramadan, etc., all phony? If he believes that, he should say so. I do not defend the Patriot Act in toto. Rather, I suggest that some of the hysteria surrounding it is unwarranted. I do not defend military tribunals. Instead, I argue that, again, the hysterical insistence that they are outside the American tradition is historically false. That doesn’t mean they are the best option. It means that such is an option within the boundaries of American law and tradition. I do not articulate specific trade-offs that I would find acceptable concerning civil rights and the security of the social body, I simply acknowledge what any responsible social thinker must acknowledge: that there are indeed bound to be such trade-offs.

[16] Too, Bell can defend Islamism if he wants. But in so doing he undercuts all the efforts of all the faithful Muslims, including the extraordinary Muslim women I discuss in my epilogue, to counter the deadly reign of terror which, after all, has killed more Muslims than it has Christians to date. As to Bell’s penultimate summary of my view, with its tone about “liberal humanistic culture” that is “underwritten by Christianity and Jesus,” he can mock it if he wants. He can mock it and perhaps not permit his soul to shudder as he looks at Sudan and Nigeria and Congo and the ill-begotten fruits of extremism absent the “liberal humanistic” culture he belittles. He can mock it by saying that I say Jesus “initiated separation of church and state” when, instead, I refer to that “fateful moment when Jesus of Nazareth picked up a coin and examined it and said ‘Render unto Cesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” and that it has been the vexation of Christians to have to deal with such issues ever since.

[17] Perhaps Bell thinks it would be better altogether if American power were severed from American responsibility-that would at least present the hard truth of the matter. I believe that this great power must reflect on what its responsibilities are given its commitment to values that add up to a commitment to human dignity. The challenge here, even as one acknowledges that God works providentially in the world in mysterious ways that are not ours to plumb, is to avoid triumphalism as one articulates responsibility. Is the existence of the United States at this point in history the necessary a priori of any reasonably decent international ‘tranquility of order’, as Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and dozens of others have claimed? (And not just they alone; there are human rights activists, leaders of others countries, who have made the same claim.) If so, it is all the more vital that responsibility chasten what power might do. Bell is right that there is tension here between realism and responsibility; between what one should do and what one can do, and so on. One simply has to acknowledge the tension and try not to err on the side of too much complacency and withdrawal, no matter if the world goes to hell, or too much hyper-activity and action, assuming one can bring the world closer to heaven. I don’t think it serves this debate very well to deflect us from the here and now, this moment and none other, by stating that the United States “coddled dictators” in the past. In order to evaluate such steps, one would need to understand the strategic circumstances; what the options were, etc. “Coddling dictators” isn’t something severed from the density of particular historic configurations and possibilities. I and others have discussed this repeatedly and noted the new world we entered post-1989. President Bush denounced U.S. support of authoritarian regimes as a feature of U.S. Middle East Policy in his speech on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy in November, 2003. One could go over the entire panoply of American sins of commission and omission during the Cold War years and it would not add up to an argument for what we can or should do now in a post 9/11 world. As he concludes, Bell mentions abortion, health care, and the like, all subjects that he knows quite well I have addressed in detail in my work (see, e.g., Who Are We? Critical Reflections, Hopeful Possibilities). I have heard the canard mentioned a number of times by now-that defending a particular vision of America’s role in the world at this particular point in human history, and insisting that that role be chastened by certain articulated restraints, somehow adds up to American imperialism nonetheless. I can only leave the reader to sort this out because it is pointless for me to say, “No, I’m not an imperialist,” not if imperialism has any clear meaning, because Bell is clearly not open to any such discussion. Indeed, he finds that this book casts a shadow over my work and one detects all sorts of ominous murmurs in the background. Well, there are by now some 20 authored and edited books and 600 essays or so-so that’s some shadow. I can only leave that to the judgment of readers over time.