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Defying the Rules of War

In this issue, George A. Lopez argues that the war on terror has led us into a no man’s land of Dirty Harry ethics. The argument for a no-holds-barred approach to terrorism runs: We are in a dirty war, so we have to fight dirty. If they are nasty, we have to be nastier. President George W. Bush has repeatedly defended Israel’s war against Hezbollah as a war against terror. A report on Aug. 23 by Amnesty International charges, however, that in a glaring example of Dirty Harry ethics, Israel grossly flouted the humanitarian law of war. Both in Lebanon and Israel the overwhelming number of victims were civilians. According to Amnesty, many of the Israeli air attacks on Lebanonlike Hezbollah’s rocket attacks against Israelwere indiscriminate, that is, aimed at civilians. In addition, the Israeli air campaign and artillery bombardments were disproportionate, that is, the collateral damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure far exceeded any reasonable military gain.

Israeli and American spokesmen argued that the destruction was necessary because Hezbollah hides among civilians. As in Vietnam, it seems, We had to destroy the village to save it. During World War II, 45 percent of casualties were civilian. At the time of Vietnam, the figure rose to 65 percent. In recent years, the numbers have exceeded 90 percent, as they did in this latest conflict.


It is high time to reaffirm the humanitarian law of war. Slaughtering civilians does not win hearts and minds; it does not win wars; and it erases the moral differences between terrorism and legitimate military operations. The fact that terrorists do it never justifies our side’s doing itstill more lethally.

Declaring Victory

James Fallows, a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, has just penned a speech for President Bush to deliver. Fallows proposes the president declare victory in the war on terror. Here is why:

  • The U.S. has suffered no quick follow-up attack after Sept. 11;
  • Our military found those responsible for 9/11, killed them and captured others involved;
  • We have turned the world’s conscience against such barbarous acts.

Fallows hopes this speech, or one like it, might help the president consolidate our nation’s gains, move our thinking (and our troops?) away from the war in Iraq and back to the broader project of coping with terrorism.

He realizes that terrorism will not stop just because we claim victory, but stopping our overreactions would keep us from handing the terrorists an easy advantage. Fallows also argues that by claiming to have reached one set of limited goals, we define an endpoint to the operation and get our wheels out of the mud so we can move on. The point is to cope with terrorism, not simply fear ita resilient attitude that would surprise and deflate the terrorists.

Fallows has come up with a new kind of containment theorycontaining not the physical reach of terrorism (our world is too small for that), but its malignant spread through our collective psyche. And whatever the full merits or demerits of his theory, he has his finger on something that the latest New York Times poll corroboratesthat the American people themselves have begun to separate the war in Iraq from the war on terror. (The Fallows piece appears in the September issue of The Atlantic.)

Into the Open

Last year, during his stay in the Aosta valley in northern Italy, Pope Benedict XVI met with the diocesan clergy and gave a lengthy and wide-ranging address. In response to words of welcome, he said, "The pope is not an oracle; he is infallible on the rarest of occasions, as we know." These words were an early hint of the courtesy and humility that have marked Benedict’s papacy. Those characteristics were highlighted last month, when he sat down with four prominent newscasters from his native Germany in preparation for his second visit to his homeland.

Benedict responded to questions about world peace, ecumenism, moral issues, the church and Germany. He said that Catholicism is a positive option. "We have heard so much about what is not allowed; now it is time to say we have a positive idea to offer...the human person must always be respected as a human person. But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way."

He expressed pleasure that aspects of the German character that were not seen before are coming to light. "Germans are not just reserved, punctual and disciplined. They are also spontaneous, happy and hospitable."

When he was asked how he sees himself, he responded: "Let me say that my basic personality and even my basic vision have grown, but in everything that is essential I have remained identical. I am happy that certain aspects that were not noticed at first are now coming into the open."

Gute Reise, Heiliger Vater!

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