North America Can Learn Anti-Terrorism From South America

Carlos Marighella, a Brazilian Marxist guerrilla leader, was ambushed and killed by Brazilian police in 1970.

Yet his influence lived on long after his violent demise: His Manual of the Urban Guerrilla was the operations manual for later guerrilla movements such as the “Tupamaros” in Uruguay and “Montoneros” in Argentina.

With cold detachment, Marighella's book explains the nature and aims of the urban guerrilla: “Terrorism is an action,” he writes, “usually involving the placement of a bomb or explosive of great destructive power that is capable of producing irreparable loss to the enemy. … It is an action that must be executed with the greatest cold-bloodedness, calmness and decision. … Terrorism is an arm the revolution can never relinquish.”

It was largely thanks to the faithful application of Marighella's teachings that military governments were able to take control of almost all South American countries during the ‘70s, wiping out left-wing terrorism through the excesses that today's world rightly condemns.

In light of all this, it seems to me the brutality unleashed by terrorist groups is an issue that has to be revisited, especially given the events in the United States on Sept. 11.

In Latin America, the question of how terrorism can be morally fought has found three different responses among Catholics.

Those inspired by Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas believe there is a “just war,” a war which is not a vice or a lesser evil that is opposed to the love of God. On the contrary, war-making, when just, can be a form of love.

Of course, peace is generally preferable to war, but there are occasions when war is, in a sense, the preferred state, at least temporarily. Nazi Germany, for example, provided peace and order — but certainly not the sort to be preserved.

Understandably, many Christians react strongly against the very idea of war as a potential good. This position is based on the observation that Jesus surrendered himself to violence: “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep to the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Therefore, these Christians reason, for a Christian who wants to seriously follow Christ, war is always an evil.

In the middle, some believe a particular war may be a “necessary evil,” justifiable when it prevents a greater evil. But such a war, they maintain, will never be “just.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow” (No. 2264).

‘Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality.’

The Catechism also says that legitimate defense “can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge” (No. 2265).

With the exception of few radical pacifists, most Catholics agree that society has the right to defend itself, and authorities have the duty to defend society.

But the Latin American experience shows that the hard question becomes not when to fight a morally acceptable war — but how?

According the Catechism, “the strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration: (No. 2309). Among those conditions is the stipulation that the damage inflicted by the aggressor must be “lasting, grave, and certain” and “all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.”

As clear as these principles may sound, their application is severely tested when the concept of “war” is redefined by the enemy — in this case, the urban guerrilla.

Hans Joachim Klein, a former Red Army Faction member, wrote after the failure of his group: “If you're long enough in the underground, you sooner or later pitch everything overboard. From your humanity to your political ideals. You sink deeper and deeper into the dirt. Once you've taken this path, all that's left is a straight road. You can't turn around.”

The worst danger of the guerrilla path, as several Latin American dictatorships showed, is that it can also drag down and pollute the humanity of those fighting against it.

Like some Latin American nations in the past, North America now faces a new kind of war, one which raises new and challenging questions about how to establish a morally acceptable defense without turning into what they claim to reject.

Take it from a South American who has been there, seen that: The answers to these new questions cannot be naïve or simplistic. They must be principled, firm and rooted in the path to God.

Alejandro Bermudez is the Register's Latin America correspondent.

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