The Ethics of Risk

Three years ago, on a sunny September Tuesday at 9 in the morning, in Washington, D.C., our first child was born. We had not planned for a natural childbirth without medical attendance until the final moments, but that’s how it turned out, as the medical staff and anesthesiologist were diverted to attend another family’s emergency case. The staff thought we had more time; our daughter had other plans. Despite the tumult, we hold Georgetown University Hospital’s staff in high regard. They did the right thing.

Five years ago, on another sunny September Tuesday, at 9 in the morning, in Washington, D.C., some Catholic University graduate students of mine, military officers in the Pentagon, were attacked by terrorists. Their offices were in flames, many of their colleagues were dead; yet they managed to climb out of the wreckage. As soon as they reached safety, many, like Nate Freier, grabbed stretchers and ran back into the building to help others. Nate did the right thing.


Whether the use of triage in medicine or Nate’s quiet heroism on Sept. 11, 2001, we remark little on these practices because we so deeply agree on them. The same principle weaves through Catholic social teaching on the preferential option for the poor, protecting children and the unborn, and Christian just war tradition concerning protecting civilians in combat. We share an ethic of risk, a deep conviction and practice that we should first help and lessen risk for those most vulnerable and least able to help themselves.

Unfortunately, we have lost sight of this ethic in the war on terror these past five years. We have focused on the military away game in the war on terror, vowing to drain the swamps of terrorists abroad at the expense of civilians both at home and abroad. The United States has spent approximately $437 billion on the away game; $319 billion for the war in Iraq, $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan and another $26 billion for enhanced foreign base and embassy security.

Focusing on the away game in the war on terror has yielded some successes. Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan have been destroyed and the Taliban removed from power. Many key bin Laden lieutenants and architects of the 9/11 attacks are out of commission. There has been greater international collaboration and intelligence-sharing in countering terrorism, as seen when the Pakistani and British authorities together disrupted terrorist plans to bomb several airplanes in July 2006.

These gains come with costs. In Afghanistan, between 3,600 and 4,000 civilians were killed on impact by U.S. attacks in the initial phase of the war between 2001 and 2003. In Iraq the estimates range from 40,000 to 100,000 civilians dead since the start of the war. Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan have been replaced with more readily accessible and harder to shut down Internet sites for training, recruitment and organizing. Osama bin Laden released four tapes in 2006 alone.

The away game in the war on terror fails practically and ethically. If terrorism could be defeated militarily abroad, the United States would have won by now, as the U.S. military is unquestionably the most powerful in the world. But terrorism cannot be defeated by military operations abroad; this is why the military does not want to call countering terrorism a war. Terrorists do not need swamps to operate. The 9/11 terrorists operated out of cells in the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Spainhardly swamps of failed states. Today’s decentralized global terror networks do not need state sponsorship to survive and thrive. Al Qaeda is expanding in developed democratic countries, as shown in the London and Madrid bombings. The most successful counterterrorism operations (the foiled London transit bombings of July 21, 2005, and this summer’s disrupted London air attacks) have come as a result of careful police and intelligence work, not military attacks.

Focusing on the away game has come at the expense of civilians and the home game. While we spend about $500 billion a year on the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security receives about $40 billion a year. Five years after 9/11, first responders still cannot talk to one another, as police, fire departments and emergency medical teams continue to lack communications equipment that works together. While our shampoos and toothpastes are seized, air cargo still goes into the belly of the plane unsecured. We place civilian first responders at great risk, lacking effective systems, policies, technology and protective gear.

Strengthening critical infrastructure protects civilians every day, whether or not terrorist attacks occur, and safeguarding subways and transportation systems helps daily against crime and drug trafficking. Investing in our public health systems saves lives against annual flu outbreaks, whether or not terrorists use biological weapons.

It is election season, or as we in the Washington area call it, crazy season. These facts will be stretched and distorted beyond recognition to support all sorts of political positions. But as the politicians argue, we must remember that not all means of protecting against terrorism are created equal. Not all means are effective. And not all means respect life, especially the lives of the most vulnerable, both at home and abroad. While the politicians point fingers to divide us, let us remember what is right and unites us, our great consensus on the ethics of risk.

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