Disarming Terrors of the Past and Future

As the American memory of Thanksgiving fades and the pace quickens before Christmas, I hold before me a large postcard collage crafted by the Shalom network of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Two compelling imagesa plume of smoke bulging from the World Trade Center, and a woman, apparently Afghan, embracing a distressed toddlerare split by a candle of peace.

While I have been and remain suspicious of just war theory (Have any war-makers ever waged what they thought was an unjust war? Is a jihad, even if proclaimed by Osama bin Laden, the Islamic equivalent of just war?), our nation’s response to the vile acts of Sept. 11 does exhibit the ethically moderating influence that just war theory was meant to have on such a treacherous undertaking as warfare.


For this, among many things, gratitude lingers, long after Thanksgiving:

that President George Bush did not listen to the most militant voices of his administration and the nation’s press, but rather followed humane policies that minimized the inevitable destruction of property and innocent human beings;

that music is once again being heard in Kabul and that the demolished ancient images of the Buddha may now at least be mourned;

that Afghan women might now be permitted to use their gifts of teaching or healing for their people. Perhaps the women themselves will challenge the system. We may be all for diversity; still, any interpretation of religion that requires women to hide not only their faces but their very eyes under a tent of obscurity has something wrong with it. Special garb and modesty may be beautiful things, for men as well as women. But to cage and hide the minds and faces of any class of persons reeks of repression. Having reduced women to the status of walking non-persons, it is no surprise that the monstrous Taliban regime could fire bullets into their brains at public executions. Perhaps now the cultural relativism that tolerates infanticide, degradation of women or racism will be exposed for the pathological indifference that it is;

that roads are open to caravans of nourishment offered for those who might have died this winterand not because of the bombing, but because of the malice of some Taliban thugs (a bold documentary, Beneath the Veil, secretly filmed by Saira Shah for CNN, documents the misery of the people of Afghanistan);

that the covered-up but ruthlessly orchestrated atrocities against Afghan citizens are now ended. Members of the Taliban regime not only supported terror against the United States; they perpetrated it on their own people. It was governance by malice;

that there is a greater sense of human solidarity, not only among citizens of the United States, but among people all over the world.

So far we have witnessed a very careful and effective response to the deadly wound we suffered at ground zero in New York City. How could one not stand in awe and gratitude before what has happened since that fateful day?

But just as Thanksgiving offers gratitude for what was and is, Advent brings hope for what might be. We are in a time of waiting, a time to pray and work for the fulfillment of human desire:

that the unemployed in our own country and the malnourished in other countries might find help from a new superpower of human genius, productivity and generosity;

that people of all countries make broad the path and unbar the gate to personal and corporate reform. Indeed the Muslim and Arab world must examine its own betrayals of its people and its God. Most of us in the non-Muslim and non-Arab world know this well. But do we know our own need for examining our corporate conscience? Will we persist in discounting every question concerning our own sinfulness as the posturing of tenured professors and idiotic do-gooders? Does our style of life, especially our ravenous oil consumption, compromise our politics as well as our moral integrity? Do the arrogant snorts, giggles and chortles on news roundtables reveal something about our attitude toward the third world? Have we in our own way covered up the faces and eyes of the poor and marginal in the world, so that we do not have to be concerned about their plight until it impinges on ours? Do we really think that if we mount a security system akin to Israel’s we can avoid remaking the entire world in the image and likeness of Palestine, with its great inequities amid greater resentment and weekly bombings?

that we realize we cannot force democracy, we cannot force individualism, we cannot force the free market on others, not only because the other may not want it, but because imposing these values is a violation of the values themselves;

that finally, the worst scenarios may not happen.

The highest hopes we have as a nation are, I think, to be fair and just, to be peaceful, honest and generous, not just for ourselves, but as a strategic member of the human community. If we are not true to these hopes, if we do not give as much energy to them as we do to our exercise of military power, even greater terrors will haunt us. And there will not be peace on earth. There will only be the endless strife of all against all.

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11 years 12 months ago
While I always find the Ethics Notebook column by John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., instructive and provocative, and while I certainly agree with him that “our nation’s response to the vile acts of Sept. 11 exhibit[s] the ethically moderating influence [of] just-war theory,” I must demur at one of the reasons he gives for saying that just-war theory is dubious (12/10/01). “Have any war makers ever waged what they thought was an unjust war?” asks Father Kavanaugh rhetorically. The nearly universal belief of nations at war that their own cause is just, but never the cause of their enemies, is apparently for the author a sign of the theory’s weakness.

It seems to me, however, that such a phenomenon paradoxically supports the theory. The French writer of maxims La Rochefoucauld once said, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” In other words, just as no one holds an opinion and yet simultaneously maintains that this same opinion is wrong, so too with just war. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates points out that no murderer ever goes before a court of law and says, “Yes, I committed the murder, but let me off anyway.” Rather he claims that murder as such is wrong, but that he, the defendant, didn’t do it. But Socrates hardly meant that observation to serve as a pretext for abolishing punishment for murder.

Even Adolf Hitler claimed to the Reichstag on Sept. 1, 1939, that the German army shot back at Polish forces on the border, thereby trying to justify before world opinion his invasion of that hapless country. His claim was a lie, of course. But his lie should hardly imply for us that Poland had no just reason for defending itself; nor should we say that Great Britain was thereby in the wrong for declaring war on Germany in accordance with her treaty obligations to Poland. In other words, the reason Father Kavanaugh cites for casting doubt on just-war theory is the very reason that makes it a necessary calculus in all moments of statecraft.


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