David Hollenbach

Many in the religious community, including the Catholic community, have called attention to two dimensions of the background for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11: the economic and the political. Their voices need to be listened to carefully if we are to avoid misguided responses to those tragic events.

Economically, anger over the poverty of the developing world easily translates into resentment and even hatred toward those who call the shots in the globalizing economy of our day. If the West is unwilling to take serious steps to redress the enormous economic disparities between rich and poor on our globe, it is but a short step to the conclusion that Western culture is materialistic and self-centered. This is a breeding ground for explosive resentments that can launch terrorist attacks under the green flag of Islam. Accordingly, on welcoming the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See just four days after the attack, Pope John Paul II said that one of the keys to overcoming the temptation to terrorism must be a serious response to this economic deprivation. In the pope’s words: “In the century now opening before us...the possibilities before the human family are immense, although they are not always apparent in a world in which too many of our brothers and sisters are suffering from hunger, malnutrition, the lack of access to medical care and to education, or are burdened by an unjust government, armed conflict, forced displacement and new forms of human bondage. In seizing the available opportunities, vision and generosity are necessary, especially on the part of those who have been blessed with freedom, wealth and an abundance of resources.”

Response to the attacks of Sept. 11 must, therefore, address the common good not only of the United States and Europe but of the larger world as well, especially the good of those who are deprived of minimally adequate economic resources. The urgency of such an economic response is poignantly reinforced by the World Bank’s judgment that the Sept. 11 attacks will hurt economic growth, especially in developing countries. The bank’s preliminary estimate is that as many as 10 million more people will fall into desperate poverty worldwide and that the fight against childhood diseases and malnutrition will be significantly set back. These economic realities must be addressed in any long-term effort to deal with terror.

Politically, the U.S. government has said it aims to drain the swamp where terrorists are bred. There is surely just cause for military action to immobilize agents of the kind of terror unleashed against the World Trade Center. But there are important moral conditions on how such action can be conducted legitimately. Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made this clear when he stated: “While we must take into account the unique nature of this new kind of terrorist threat, any military response must be in accord with sound moral principles, notably the norms of the just war tradition such as probability of success, civilian immunity, and proportionality. Our nation must ensure that the grave obligation to protect innocent human life governs our nation’s political and military decisions.”

Each of these criteria from the classic just war theory is directly relevant to political and military responses. Hope of success means we must be firmly on guard against strategies that would further inflame the anger in the Muslim world and in desperately poor countries that can so easily generate new recruits for terrorist networks. Civilian immunity means that innocent persons cannot be the direct targets of any military response. Creating large numbers of orphans by killing their innocent parents is likely to increase the number of potential recruits to the terrorist organizations. Proportionality means that the harm that occurs in any use of force must not outweigh the harm already done or that might follow in the future. In particular, this criterion should put us on guard against any strategy that is likely to close off pathways to peace in the future.

Application of these principles is a matter of prudential judgment, calling for much political wisdom as well as moral commitment. Let me offer my judgment on some of their implications.

Draining the swamps where terror breeds calls for a more subtle strategy than military attacks on terrorist training camps or on states that support them. Discriminate and proportionate military action must be accompanied by broader policy changes that will seriously address the economic and political roots of the attacks. A purely military response to what is seen as a conflict with those who hate freedom is precisely what we do not need. Such a strategy risks escalating the conflict until it makes the suffering of the victims in New York and Washington pale by comparison.

Further, it calls for new initiatives in U.S. Middle East policy. The pope told the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See that “the tragic violence which continues to affect the Middle East” calls on the United States “to promote a realistic dialogue which will enable the parties to achieve security, justice and peace, in full respect for human rights and international law.” U.S. and Israeli policy have not adequately followed this advice. For example, the United States and Israel find themselves unable to deal with the fact that large numbers of Palestinians have been confined to refugee camps for three generations. This provides fertile ground for those tempted to turn their deepest beliefs into a battle standard. Such a temptation may be hard to resist for some Muslims, when the president of the United States unthinkingly uses the word “crusade” to characterize the U.S. response. Overcoming this failure is essential to the effort to remove or reduce the sources of terrorism in the world today.

The events of Sept. 11 raise challenges with very wide scope. Indeed, in the longer run, dealing with the causes of terrorism calls for nothing less than movement toward what the former President Bush during the Persian Gulf war called a “new world order.” But early in the crisis, the present President Bush declared that the nations of the world must be either with the United States or against it. Such polarizing statements threaten to deepen the perception by some that the United States will use the current crisis to further extend its own cultural, economic and political influence. Implicitly challenging the “for us or against us” stance, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan pointed out that the United Nations is “uniquely positioned” to deal with terrorism through its forums for coalition building, its legal conventions covering extradition, prosecution and money laundering, and its development programs aimed at poverty, lack of education and disease. Fortunately, the United States has begun to respond through the United Nations by successfully introducing a tough antiterrorism resolution in the Security Council and by calling for a worldwide cooperative effort in the General Assembly (and by paying its U.N. dues). Only a multilateral response with global legitimacy can hope to succeed. If U.S. initiatives are to have this legitimacy, they must continue to follow a genuinely multilateral path. No nation, no matter how powerful, can deal with such threats alone. The strength of the United States’ commitment to a truly multilateral approach will largely determine whether its policies help reduce the present disorder of a world that is such a fertile breeding ground for fear, violence and terror.

David Hollenbach, S.J., is a professor of moral theology at Boston College. His book on Catholic social teaching will be published next year by Cambridge University Press.