Pundits have been busy since mid-summer speculating about “where we are” five years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But analysis of whether we are safer now, or if we are winning the global war on terror must be balanced by some reflection on the ethical climate of the half decade since those tragic attacks. At first glance, such an assessment might be anchored in a re-examination of the contentious moral issues that emerged in this era: the justness of preventive war; the moral and legal meaning of the designation enemy combatant; or whether the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq warrant scrutiny with newly posed questions about post-bellum ethics.
But to focus on these issues is to examine the trees and miss the forest. When we survey the forest, the broader view reveals a profound ethical shift, forged by our leaders and validated—more or less—by our acquiescence as citizens. In this shift, we have witnessed, albeit without full cognizance, a significant redefinition and diminution of the role of ethics in setting appropriate boundaries for the use of force in world affairs.
The rather different ethical framework revealed by the Bush administration’s approach to the war on terror, from the initial decision to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan through its recent support of Israel’s disproportionate response to a border kidnapping by Hezbollah, has not been examined on its own terms. Thus, we have also failed to appreciate how a relatively tight and self-reinforcing collection of generalizations has emerged to become a new set of rules for the use of force.
The Administration’s Framework
1. Harsh Realities. One reason why it may have been difficult to perceive the early phases of the ethics shift that was taking place soon after 9/11 is the fact that its most basic building block was cast in reasoning from a familiar framework: realism. The Bush administration’s ethical logic begins with the claim that we live in a world of tough, dirty and nasty actors. These are now most vividly embodied by terrorists and those who support them. These terrorists simply have no code of ethics or restraint regarding the use of force. Their actions defy all rules of international law, principles of war fighting, the logic of deterrence and the like. These terrorists, this foundational claim concludes, understand only the law of force, as they reject the force of law. This reality is most manifest in the terrorism of suicide bombing.
2. Recurrent Dangers. The ethical framework specifies a significant prescriptive generalization: if not dealt with rather promptly, forcefully and effectively, these terrorist actors will come back to strike at you again and again. This precept has had far-reaching power for the Bush administration. It serves first as the platform for a somewhat partisan critique levied against what is perceived as ill-advised restraint exercised by the Clinton administration against Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The recurrent danger thesis, of course, also provides part of the rationale for preventive war. As seen more recently, it leads to a rejection of the prospect that groups like Hamas might evolve from violence to politics.
3. Quaint Rules Tie Our Hands. The new ethical framework further asserts that in defending ourselves from these terrorists, we who reside in open, democratic societies of the West have too long been constrained by arcane, ineffective codes of international law and rules of international diplomacy in dealing with terrorists. There is a special disdain in this argument for ethical claims about restraining Western use of force when these moral, self-policing standards clearly are not shared by the terrorist enemy.
Reasoning that the lack of self-imposed restraints by terrorists on their own behavior frees us from these shackles as well (or would make our own law-based restraint self-defeating) has led to routine torture and to our making up nebulous categories and processes for handling terror suspects. Most especially it justifies a general rejection of proposals for dealing with terrorism as a particularly difficult criminal problem, in favor of combating it by resort to war. In fact, there may be no stronger claim made by the administration on its own behalf regarding its success in dealing with global terror than that it has “elevated” U.S. policy to the national security (and thus war) priority it should have had.
4. Solitary Actor. The new framework also maintains that as we engage in a global war on terror, we should not be surprised that a number of other nations and international organizations reject our approach. They will do so, states the logic, out of lack of moral clarity, political weakness or simply because of failure to understand the nature of the threats we face in contemporary terrorism. Under these conditions, we should not count on the United Nations or even traditional allies to join us in the fight against terrorism. Instead, we should assemble like-minded partners—a “coalition of the willing”—who share our perspective and commitment to end terrorism through decisive action.
5. Promise of Security. The final component of the moral framework used by the Bush administration since 9/11 posits that as a result of our global war on terror, the world will be safer. Those who opposed various actions will come around to thank us for having overcome the rather narrow and constraining dynamics of an old order in the effort to defeat a new and unprecedented evil enemy by the use of all necessary means.
This particular approach to dealing with Al Qaeda terrorism since 9/11 very much resembles the logic articulated by the antiheroes of early 1970’s movies, most notably as presented in “The French Connection” and the Dirty Harry series. U.S. leaders have claimed, for the most part, that in a tough and cruel world, where the bad guys defy the law and manipulate other rules in their favor, our only course of action is to renounce playing by the rules ourselves and go after the bad guys. It is nasty business, and few friends will stand beside us. But when the fight is over, those friends and all others will thank us. In so doing, no one will worry about the rules.
While some ethicists, human rights lawyers and others have argued with the administration over important, specific issues of preventive war and torture, few recognize that the cumulative legacy of the past five years may be our descent into what I call a Dirty Harry ethics in international affairs.
Dirty Harry’s Ethical Legacy
1. Means and Ends. The impact and implications of Dirty Harry ethics are far-reaching. Fundamental to the logic of Dirty Harry ethics is a willingness to depart from one of the most standard ethical restraints on war, the principle that the end does not justify the means. Whether out of fear or denial or laziness, much of U.S. society has been unwilling to confront the ease with which we have accepted Dirty Harry behavior in multiple manifestations, based on the assumption that the means employed protected us from additional terror attacks.
In speaking at various campuses and in civic forums since 2001 I often ask the audience, “Who among us, after even a small amount of reflection, did not know that the United States (and others) would torture their captives, especially in the earliest phases of this global war on terror?” The resulting admission by a substantial portion of the audience who knew, confirms for me how deep-seated the Dirty Harry ethics has become.
Then I ask, “When we knew this, what prevented us in large numbers from declaring this practice as morally repugnant?” Further audience exchange reveals either how confused people are about viable alternatives or how much they lack confidence in them. The result is a regrettable and semi-guilty acceptance of the idea that the end justifies the means.
2. Undermining International Law and Institutions. A second adverse impact of Dirty Harry ethics—one especially challenging to recent Catholic thinking about legitimate authority in international affairs—has been the increased undermining of international law and organizations. There are certainly sufficient reasons to question the adequacy of the United Nations to live up to the aspirations of its founders as an effective peace and security organization. But in a world of Dirty Harry ethics, the United States has played both ends against the middle in various recent crises to undercut the potential role of the United Nations.
In the case of the march up to the war on Iraq, when the United States could not persuade members of the Security Council to vote for war, the United Nations was declared weak, morally compromised and out of step with the needs of global security. Yet when most members of the United Nations would like serious consideration of the creation of a permanent and professionalized peacekeeping force to strengthen U.N. action, which might have been a major remedy in the Lebanon crisis, the United States shies away from empowering the United Nations.
3. Cultural Bias. Another significant negative by-product of Dirty Harry ethics has been the decreased ability of Americans to comprehend how ethical perspectives and actions are related to important cultural differences and worldviews. By emphasizing America’s special place—either as the victim of horrific terror attacks or in the moral claims we make about just action—we have dangerously isolated ourselves from broader interpretations that are critical for peace with justice.
I watched this dilemma unfold in one of my classroom experiences in the spring of 2003, as American armed forces swept through Iraq in the ground phase of the war. I had been in a tense, challenging and respectful dialogue with a few undergraduate students enrolled in my course on terrorism who were members of the R.O.T.C. At the end of one session, one of the young men came up to me with that day’s New York Times. It had a large picture on page one of a long line of shirtless Iraqi soldiers, hands raised above their heads, as they marched after their surrender alongside heavily armed U.S. troops, who watchfully escorted them.
Handing me the paper folded to isolate the picture, the student said: “Sir, even though you and I dramatically disagree about this war, I assume that we can both be proud that in our country soldiers like these abide by the rules of war. They do not mow down their prisoners but honor them by respectful treatment in surrender. About this restraint and ethical behavior, no one can disagree.”
I affirmed his claim and said, indeed I was proud of the behavior of our soldiers. Then I stated that if we lived in a world where our eyes were the only cultural lenses judging these actions, the surrender situation might well contribute to potential peace with justice in Iraq, or possibly in the larger struggle between Islam and the West.
I noted, however, the high likelihood that some, if not many, of his peers in Islamabad, Cairo or Ramallah would see the same photo and arrive at a very different assessment. They might well react: “I hate this! Yet again we see the systematic humiliation of our Muslim brothers. I shall avenge this with my life.”
In a fine example of education at work, he looked at me and exclaimed, “Oh my God, I never saw it that way.” He crumpled the newspaper and walked away, deep in thought. He was typical of many of us, who after 9/11 have accepted without much question the justness of our intentions as the only framework by which our actions can be judged.
The Next Five Years
Five years after 9/11, Americans may indeed be safer from terrorism. But without a doubt, one sad casualty of the past half decade has been serious and sustained dialogue about which ethical frameworks should be employed to assess our international actions. In its place has emerged a highly flawed, even objectionable set of standards: Dirty Harry ethics. Those standards are fundamentally at odds with basic principles of Catholic social thought (and international law) about world order and the legitimate use of force. In the half decade ahead, all Americans, but Catholics in particular, with their tradition of internationalism, need to restate and reaffirm responsible principles for the use of force not only to meet the terrorist threat but also to defeat the threat of internal moral collapse represented by Dirty Harry ethics.