Reality of terrorism calls for fresh look at just-war tradition
(Reviewed September 20, 2001)
The Catholic Difference, a syndicated column
On Sept. 11 itself, and for days afterward, few reporters, commentators or
public officials resisted the temptation to describe the attacks on New York and
Washington as a "tragedy." The sentiment is understandable. But the usage is
mistaken. And the results of that semantic error could be profound.
A tragedy, we remember from the Greek dramatists, is an inevitability, a fate
that is unavoidable. What happened on Sept. 11 was an act of aggression, indeed
an act of war. There was nothing inevitable about it, and some experts argue
that it could have been avoided.
Whether they are right or wrong is somewhat beside the point, though. Sept.
11, 2001, was no more a "tragedy" than Dec. 7, 1941. And here the analogy to
Pearl Harbor really does work. What happened at the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon were acts of war against the United States, every bit as much as the
events of Dec. 7, 1941.
Why fuss about semantics? Here's why. For many years, U.S. policy has treated
international terrorism as a species of crime. Terrible crime, yes. Tragic for
its victims, to be sure. But essentially crime, committed by criminals, who are
to be dealt with like robbers and murderers—by the criminal justice
The vocabulary of "tragedy" has reinforced the notion that what's happening
here is crime writ large. It is not. The terrorists who hijacked and then drove
fuel–laden jetliners into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were not
"tragic" actors, any more than were the German infantry who attacked the U.S.
First Army in December 1944 in the Battle of the Bulge. The terrorists were
combatants; those who trained, paid for, equipped, and provided them with
logistical support are combatants. And what we are engaged in is a war.
Which means that the appropriate moral categories in which to think through
our policy, post–Sept. 11, are the categories of the just–war
tradition. This will require a serious intellectual effort by scholars, military
leaders and public officials. For while the just–war tradition once
evolved amid the anarchic politics of the Middle Ages, just–war theory,
like every other way of thinking about international affairs for the past three
centuries, has long assumed that the state is the only significant "unit" in
The smoldering ruins in lower Manhattan have made unmistakably clear that
non–state "actors"—like terrorist organizations— are crucial
units–of–count in the world. States are not all there is.
The just–war tradition needs to be "stretched," or developed, to deal
with this new reality. In confronting terrorism, "just cause" cannot be limited
to repelling art "aggression already under way"— as some current Catholic
thinking has it. When facing terrorist organizations, pre–emptive military
action is not only morally justifiable but morally imperative. How to articulate
the moral case for preemption without turning the world into a free–fire
zone is something much in need of discussion.
Given the nature of terrorism, the contemporary tendency to think that the
U.N. or some other transnational agency is the "legitimate authority" for
sanctioning the use of armed force must also be revisited. If someone is making
war on us, as the terror network surely is, we do not require the permission of
others to defend ourselves or to take the war to the enemy in order to defeat
him. Allies in that enterprise are welcome. Their approbation, while
prudentially desirable, is not morally necessary. But here, too, is an important
subject for debate.
Just–war thinkers are also going to have to reconsider what we mean by
"last resort." Terrorists, by definition, do not play by the rules, diplomatic
or otherwise. I can't see how it makes moral sense to argue that one must first
attempt to negotiate with people who regard negotiation as weakness, who think
of the "other" as vermin to be exterminated, and for whom acts of mass murder
are deemed religiously praiseworthy. Yet again, a thorough sorting–out is
The Christian realism of the just–war tradition has tried to bring
reason into the realm of the terribly irrational since the days of St.
Augustine. We have neglected it, intellectually, for too long. Its development
will be crucial in the decades of struggle ahead.