Many are, no doubt, surprised that the Vatican took the stance that it did on the right and duty of a nation under direct attack to defend itself and to remove a present and abiding threat to repeat the attack. This is a return of the classic just-war doctrine, a return made simpler because no weapons but knives were used in the most bloody single day in American history.
Recent anti-death penalty discussions in modern circumstances no longer seem apt. The argument to use peaceful means, always and without exception, suddenly seems naive. The horrifying slaughter of noncombatants, after all, was carried out right in front of us. The killing of our friends, neighbors and relatives was actually planned by a definite and organized enemy working for years on the project. As the full gravity of this reality sinks in, some nagging questions come to the fore: What is the morality of those who left us so unprepared? How ethical were the policies of leaders who gutted our security and defense capabilities and sold surveillance equipment to Syria?
Suppose the capture or voluntary surrender of some of those who planned and carried out this attack. Some are already dead, but they are not the brains behind the operations — what would be an appropriate sentence for those who plotted and schemed for months to craft such a heinous plot? Would “life in prison” uphold the “principle of life,” when the lives being saved are precisely those who cause slaughter on such a horrendous scale? Moreover, if those who planned this attack intend to carry out more destruction, as they sought to do on Sept. 11, is not their very existence a constant threat to innocent life? Many a bloody revolution has been planned in a bare prison cell.
The Pope, of course, did not encourage a blanket retaliation, nor did President Bush advocate any such thing. The terms of both have been measured, precise, directed only at those leaders who planned and carried out the slaughter, along with those who protect them. It is difficult to see how a coherent objection can be raised to these positions — unless one, like the plotters, wants to see America destroyed.
Countering Choreographed Mayhem
The Holy Father still makes a distinction between Islam and Islamic terrorists. The Washington Times of Sept. 24 carried a full-page ad signed by many American Muslim groups protesting that Islam is a “religion of peace.” Meanwhile, every day we see photos of Muslims from around the world agreeing with those who destroyed the World Trade Center. Millions seem to approve of this action and threaten dire consequences if we retaliate in any manner. Just where the terrorists come from, if Islam is wholly peaceful, remains a mystery. As far as we can tell, the terrorists themselves think that they come from Islamic doctrine and tradition, which they vow to protect unto death. This position is said to make them, whoever they are, “extremists,” “radicals” or “terrorists.” These same terrorists, however, are organized all over the world in untold numbers.
In fact, a majority of Islamic peoples may well side with those we insist wrongly, I think on calling “terrorists” and not soldiers. The morning the Vatican reported that there was a legitimate right of self-defense in these circumstances, Sept. 25, Osama bin Laden himself was quoted as planning a holy war against the “American crusade,” a jihad against “the great Satan.” That sector of Islam organized for what we call “terror” follows a very rational purpose, granted its fundamental aberration. The many men who follow it are men who have joined an army; they often have scientific, engineering or medical degrees.
It is high time for the peaceful people of Islam to call their violent brothers to account.
And they have, in fact, formally declared war on us, though we did not notice until too late. Their theology and politics deny any distinction between the guilty and the innocent, combatants and noncombatants. They have defined in their minds that there is a single enemy, America, with its adjuncts in Israel, Europe and elsewhere. Those Islamic governments supporting America in this situation will themselves be undermined by the same terrorist means, unless stopped by direct force. It makes no sense to wring our hands, or to deny the objective seriousness of the attack against us, or to think that there is some way to appease this movement by withdrawing completely from any Islamic country and/or from Israel.
Often we hear it said in this country that the enemy is modern, free, secular power. There is a tendency to group all “fundamentalists” into the same “terrorist” categories. Indeed, religion itself is often included in this amalgam. But in the light of the numbers and vigor of Islamic militants, we cannot help but see that it is precisely our secularist views that have depopulated us, aged us. We may think that our technology will save us from their numbers. But the New York attack taught us that we can be destroyed by our own technology and by our own lack of numbers. Why are their militant Islamic cells all over the world, including Europe and the United States? Is it not because we need labor, due to a lack of our own children? Is this where our “rights” doctrines have led us?
This initial attack was said to have been plotted in Hamburg, Germany, whose police have identified 1,000 to 1,500 known terrorists living among the city's large Islamic population. In other words, the worldwide army poised against us is itself scattered all over the world, because we have decided that we are over-populated. If modern secularism includes orthodox Christianity itself as a fundamentalist “threat,” which it often does, we can begin at least to appreciate that the results of secularism's own influence is what has given grounds and manpower to the new Islamic forces, self-appointed though they be, who seek our lives.
Calling All Peaceful Muslims: Help!
No one wants to think Islam, at bottom, not to be peaceful. But the peaceful movements within it must begin to take charge, must begin to ask themselves why they are so politically inhospitable to anyone but themselves, why Christians in so many of their lands suffer persecution. Pragmatic policies may require our overlooking many of these questions. We seek to keep things as limited as possible in terms of military action. But this attack has necessarily touched larger issues which we have not been courageous enough to face. After World War II, the Marshall Plan sought to rebuild Europe. Why have not Saudi Arabia or other Islamic states, with their vast fortunes built on oil sales to us, not offered to rebuild the World Trade Center? Is it because they claim to have nothing to do with these events, even when run by a man born within their midst? Or is it because of a broader cultural problem that looks only to itself and its glory — that looks upon us as useful at best, and at worst as enemies sooner or later to be eliminated? At least we can be sure that bin Laden, with his own millions made on our markets, will not offer to rebuild anything, will not deny that we are his enemy.
Is this a small, isolated event that, in the name of turning the other cheek or avoiding even worse attacks, is best to ignore, to do nothing about? Or is this just the first step of a decades-long war, declared against us long ago and reaf-firmed only recently with superior organization and diabolical cleverness? Or, as many even of our own hold, is it our fault for what we are and for our inept foreign policy? All the good we thought we had done by foreign and humanitarian aid, often to Islamic lands, has come to naught. We are the enemy, but of what? Of an age-old faith that did everything in its power to eliminate us in previous ages? Of modern psychotic rage with no rational basis whatsoever?
If we do prevent our further destruction, we still have to ask what we stand for, what we are. The irony of these events is that we are hated not only for our vices, of which we have not a few, but also for our virtues and our faith. I tend to think we would have a major problem, even if we had no vices that might excuse our attackers. Some wars, in other words, are not merely moral but theological wars, wars of the world — wars caused by the distinction of good and evil, and our understanding, often hazy, of which is which.
In the short run, any retaliation on our part will raise widespread civic unrest against us. Many Americans and Europeans will be arrested, and probably many killed. More attempts will be made to destroy key centers of our culture. The president has determined to stop this assault by every responsible means possible. The Pope understands this pressing need. Jacques Maritain said, in Man and the State, that justice, brains and strength are possible. The question now is whether we have the brains to use what strength we possess against those who would take our lives even in the name of Allah because we are “the great Satan.”
Jesuit Father Schall teaches government at Georgetown University.