National Catholic Register


It’s Morning in a Whole New America

BY James V. Schall

September 23-29, 2001 Issue | Posted 9/23/01 at 2:00 AM


Aristotle says that if something is a “plot,” it is closer to reason, that is, closer to something that has passed through a mind. He means, in other words, that when four planes take off with relatively the same mission, from different airports with different targets, that there is a mind behind the plotting. The plotting mind does not include those actually carrying out the plot. The mind that conceived the plot still exists. Aristotle also means that evil men can also reason and plot.

From the viewpoint of those who organized the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trace Center, the plot was enormously successful — one almost has to say brilliant in its simplicity and startling effectiveness in creating chaos and, more importantly, embarrassment over the inability of the world's greatest power to protect its own back yard. Osama bin Laden, while denying that he had anything to do with it, congratulated those who carried it out. Several celebrations were held in certain Arab cities. Encomia for the heroism of the hijackers were found in the press.

From the point of view of American security forces, the plot was a surprise strike. From the point of view of the victims’ loved ones, it was a tragic day. For the government, it was probably the reception of a declaration of war against this country by some yet not fully identified but real source, though one certainly related to radical Islamic groups, many of whom have more or less sophisticated bases and centers in this country itself. The operation could not have been carried out without people on the ground here in the United States nor without men trained in flying airplanes, willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause. It needed the help or tolerance of some governments.

Aristotle also remarked that if someone is willing to lose his life, it is very difficult to stop him from carrying out his plans. This plot probably required at least 20 or 30 men so willing. They were not simply “fanatics.” They are now gone with their victims. Our disarmed society allowed no one with guns on board who might have heroically thwarted the action. The plotters knew they were safe once on board so they needed only knives. I sometimes get my electric razor checked when seen in a small bag at an airport security checkpoint. How could knives be invisible?

Infamy Again

If one looks on any search engine under bin Laden, there is, in several languages, a whole account of followers and of the man himself about what he intended to do. Actually, had not planes been grounded, several other planes may have been hijacked and other buildings in other cities hit the same way. One hears that the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Baltimore Trade Center and even the Maryland State House were on that gruesome list. Bin Laden was somewhere behind the original bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. At the trial, one of the men convicted in that plot was asked about the possibility that he would be executed. He replied that “if he lived a good life, he would go to heaven, if not, to hell.” In other words, he was on a mission that rewarded what he was trying to do. Bin Laden himself is cited as saying that, in this war, there are no distinctions between “civilians” and “guilty.” That is, killing some 50,000 folks was killing 50,000 enemies in war. He also said that America is a serpent and must be crushed. The reason America is dangerous evidently is because it supports Israel.

Several British papers called the day “Armageddon” or “Apocalypse.” This terminology — The Washington Times used the word “infamy,” recalling Franklin D. Roosevelt's remark after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor — hints that something more is going on than just disgruntled or psychotic characters running around with bombs. Washington today is full of a sense of “it will never be the same again.” Walking the streets you see police checking cars going across bridges. Air safety checks will be horrendous, at least for a while. If another attack is planned, no doubt it will come later when the new lay of the land is calmer.

How do we sort this day out? First, with regard to the dead — plotters, passengers, workers and all — they end their lives on the same day. Both innocent and guilty are in God's hands. Whether we die by murder, by accident, by plot or in our own beds of old age, we have the same destiny. We must be ready to die every morning when we go to work. It is given to every man once to die, hence the judgment.

Evil Acts — or an Act of War?

If this killing was not a “sinful” deed, we have no right to be angry over it.

This country obviously cannot simply say that this sort of action was an “accident.” The very heart and essence of the country were symbolically attacked, its most obvious defensive building, its most visible trade buildings, in its most well-known cities, the one containing the most number of Jews.

The country has not seriously, in terms of public opinion, really thought that plots were being hatched, and until this terror happened, probably never would have accepted what must be done both to retaliate and to prevent a reoccur-rence.

We hear talk that this was an act of “terror,” and that the ones plotting it are “terrorists.” They are called religious “fanatics.” Indeed, one news broadcast said that only someone with a religion would sacrifice his life this way. The only security, by implication, is in a com pletely secular state wherein no one thinks anything is worth such sacrifice. The only trouble with this idiotic argument is that we would like to have had someone on board who sacrificed his life preventing the action. (Maybe we did have some who tried and failed, because they were unarmed.)

But one must finally declare that a war has been launched against us. This war has a cause and motives, organization, finance. It is not a particular country, though particular countries either abet it or do nothing about its cause. The country is vulnerable to such attacks which are totally planned and, in that sense, rational. A response has to be made, but an effective one. The country has to realize that its security, intelligence and police forces are absolutely necessary; they are not our enemies and without them, we are vulnerable. We have under-appreciated and misunderstood that the first requirement of government is the protection and safety of its people. This requires resources and, yes, will. I agree with Donald Kagan, who wrote in the Washington Post that we need a declaration of war.

Again the Augustinian view of history is proved largely correct: The first duty of the state has to do with moral and ideological disorders of men against peace, that something must be done, often hard striking and hard headed, against people who can blow up our buildings and kill our people. We have, by our habits and traditions, no doubt, left ourselves open. We have no reason to believe that the plot will not go on unless we stop it. This is our immediate political agenda.

Jesuit Father Schall teaches government at Georgetown University.

For more of his writings, visit