On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I set out to teach class in the Pentagon, like I did every week. Our class that semester was about emerging security threats posed by terrorism and non-state actors, and my students were military officers and other government officials, who took part in The Catholic University of America’s off-campus graduate programs in international affairs. A dead car battery kept me out of harm's way that morning. My students were not so lucky. Our class studying terrorism found itself under terrorist attack.
People began fleeing the capital on foot, while armed troops appeared on the streets. I prayed and scrambled to reach my students, but phone and e-mail connections were down. I knew my students were in the part of the building that was now a fiery hole. Over the next hours and days my students checked in, one by one. Miraculously, they lost colleagues, but themselves escaped, saved by the position of the water cooler or the desk or some other unexpected protection. After emerging from the burning building, many of them turned around and went back in to help others. Nathan Freier, a veteran, helped the first responders, then began planning the U.S. response. Chaplain Col. David Colwell worked with the investigative teams, blessing human remains as any were recovered, and offering pastoral counseling to grieving families. Lt. Col. William Zemp briefed President George W. Bush after he returned from his zig-zag trip across the country.
Their actions represented a pattern of selfless service to be repeated in the days that followed. Themselves the victims of terrorist attacks, they were now charged with carrying out the U.S. war against terror. Colin Powell, then secretary of state, argued that combating terror should have only a limited military component. Instead, effective counter-terror tools were financial, political, diplomatic and legal. "This is not a war, but is a drawn-out, multi-faceted campaign that will last years," he said. Powell noted that military response is a "blunt instrument" that should be "kept to a minimum." While countering al Qaeda was not a war against Islam, civilian casualties would make it seem that way. The soldiers in our class voiced similar, realistic and prescient concerns about the limitations of military force.
The Push for War
Paul Wolfowitz, then Assistant Secretary of Defense, wasted no time in announcing at a press conference on Sept. 13 that Saddam Hussein and Iraq should be at the top of any target list in responding to the Sept. 11 attacks. It was a position embraced by Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, and Vice President Dick Cheney. The CIA and intelligence community found no connection between Saddam Hussein and either al Qaeda or the Sept. 11 attacks. Many career military, such as Gen. Anthony Zinni and Lt. Gen. Gregory Neuboldt, were skeptical of the wisdom of fighting two major wars simultaneously. As many of my students noted, "The push for war is not coming from this building, but from across the river," referring to White House officials.
Yet the unlimited war view won out in the Bush administration, and our students were soon deployed in the expansive, expensive, global war on terror.
I asked if we should cancel our class as the students were now at war, but they vocally disagreed, noting they needed this information now more than ever. So despite the pressing tasks to be completed before deployment and the endless stream of funerals, Sept. 11th was our only class that was interrupted. We continued to meet every week on the site where 189 people had died, walking past the emergency vehicles (modified golf carts) that lined the hallways outside our classroom with stretchers and body bags ready for the next attack; past the signs telling us not to worry about the strange smells and fumes in the building because they were testing the air quality; and past the crayon drawings on the walls from grade schools all over the country: “Our hearts are with you. Hope you find your friends. Be strong. You are in our prayers.” Our meetings became a safe haven not only to assess the wisdom of various responses without worry of what others might say, but also to vent and process the events. I often felt like I was practicing therapy without a license.
The events of Sept. 11 also hit home professionally. Throughout the ’90s I had participated in a Council on Foreign Relations project on Homeland Security. We briefed policy makers, government officials in the national security bureaucracy, Congressional representatives and business, leaders throughout the hemisphere, warning of the vulnerabilities of the global trade and transportation infrastructure to exploitation by terrorists and criminals. My stump speech line was, “Terrorists and tourists alike use the same global infrastructure.” We told leaders the question was not whether an attack would occur, but when. Our global infrastructure was built for speed and commerce, not security and we urgently needed to retrofit these systems to make them safer and more transparent and to share information across governments and with the private sector. We urged them to take action before a terrorist strike, rather than after, when there might not be the political running room to act effectively.
Our briefings were met with either sympathy or skepticism. Those groups that were sympathetic, such as National Security Council Counter Terrorism advisor Richard Clarke, said they agreed and were trying but could not win the sustained attention and resources from Congress to better respond. The Clinton administration had increased anti- and counterterrorism measures, but scandals dissipated any political capital to do more. The incoming Bush administration was unconvinced. When I asked Condoleeza Rice about the emerging threats posed by non-state actors, she responded skeptically. A rising China and a resurgent Russia posed the primary security threats to the U.S. Non-state actors were not very powerful, and terrorists always needed state sponsors.
A Slow Response
Academics usually delight in being right, but I was tortured by it. Going to church was hard. It took me a long time to be able to look our church elder Barbara Hill, who lost her daughter in the Pentagon attacks, in the eye. I felt I had failed her. Why hadn't we succeeded in being more persuasive before the attacks?
Since Sept. 11, many of our proposals for greater airport and container shipping transparency and security have been slowly adopted. More than ten years later, one of the initiatives we pursued with the Canadian government finally came to fruition in February. I recently asked an official with the Canadian Embassy what she thought the prospects for greater transparency and information sharing with other governments were if it had taken over a decade to get an agreement between such close allies as the U.S. and Canada. Ever the diplomat, she shook her head and shrugged. But it is hard when the modest resources needed to build cooperation are hijacked by the forces of endless war. Others of our recommendations have yet to be enacted. Incredibly, even now, many first responders still lack the ability to talk with one another.
On Oct. 7, 2001, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began. Lt. Col. William Zemp worked tirelessly to promote respect for and cooperation with the local communities among his troops, minimizing civilian casualties, earning the Bronze Star and Purple Heart and implementing counterinsurgency doctrine. As General David Petraues noted, "Every civilian death diminishes our cause." Col. Chaplain Colwell worked to create interfaith dialogue, including an innovative program called "Voices of Moderate Islam." The Jordanian and U.S. military partnered to identify key Afghan community leaders, including former Taliban, and helped them to make the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca and interact with Islamic leaders outside of Afghanistan. For these Afghans, it was a pivotal experience. Experiencing learned views of Islam helped them to move away from the manipulations of their faith offered by the Taliban.
Yet despite their best efforts, peacebuilding cannot be done by the barrel of a gun. Morality matters in combating terror. All means of combating terror are not equal or advisable; not all are effective, and not all are moral. The United States cannot argue that noncombatant life is sacred while killing non-combatants. We cannot effectively counter terrorists' taking of civilian lives and dismissal of the moral codes of war, while we ourselves take civilian lives and dismiss the moral codes of war.
Ending Endless War
The U.S. Catholic Bishops noted this need for maintaining our traditional moral principles on war and peace even against adversaries who so blatantly violated them. In their letter "Living With Faith and Hope After September 11th," the bishops noted the costs of military action on civilians, and the inadequacy of a military response to addressing the root causes of terrorism. "The actions of our nation and other nations must ensure a just war now and a just peace later."
Herein lies the heart of the problem. While the war in Afghanistan may have begun as a just response to terrorist attacks, just war criteria offer no guidance for building peace. If that analysis seems unsatisfying, it should. It exposes a central flaw in the Just War tradition, its nearly exclusive focus on waging war rather than building peace. For sixteen hundred years, the Catholic Church has helped develop just war tradition and enshrine it in international law. Pursuing a just peace is at the heart of JWT, yet just peace has been the “poor stepchild,” never fully developed theoretically or institutionalized. This is changing today, the need for such a paradigm made clear by places like Afghanistan. Just War tradition may strive to limit military action and safeguard civilians, but it is not sufficient to describe the moral landscape of building sustainable peace.
Endless war is unsustainable, and counterproductive to combating terror. Not only does war undercut the non-combatant protection norm we are trying to reinforce, but it plays directly into the hands of al Qaeda strategy.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, my current Ph.D. candidate, has an incisive new book, Bin Laden's Legacy, which lays out al Qaeda's strategy to tempt the U.S. into self-defeating overreactions to undermine the U.S. economy. They laid out this strategy repeatedly, long before the 2007 economic meltdown. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also recognized and lamented that "the cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions, against the terrorists' costs of millions."
This is Strategy 101: Exploit your opponent's weaknesses. Never take on your adversary's strengths. This is why the U.S. cannot win the war on terror militarily. Our adversaries avoid engaging us militarily and provide few military targets. Military means are good at destroying things, killing people and controlling land. But terrorists today are less connected to land, do not have many things and are dispersed globally. Centralized military power struggles to deal with de-centralized global networks. Endless war does not work. It is bad policy as well as bad morally.
There is hope. No terrorist group has ever felled a democratic state. More than 75 percent of terrorist groups dissolve within their first year. Terrorist groups have a poorer record than most new business start ups. They are by definition minority groups that lack wide scale popular support. Al Qaeda isn't organizing mass public demonstrations in public squares in the Middle East in the Arab Spring; they do not have that kind of support.
Peacebuilding is logging an ever-more-compelling track record, even in places of long-standing conflicts, from the Philippines to South Sudan. Major armed conflicts (wars in which over 1,000 people die in a year) have been reduced by half over the past two decades. Non-violent resistance movements have succeeded from Poland to South Africa and are mobilizing youth today in the Jasmine Revolution.
There are success stories in Afghanistan. Catholic Relief Services has enjoyed successes in the twenty years they have worked in Afghanistan, because their work proceeds with the support, buy-in and participation of the local community. They do not hire armed guards and vehicles but rely on the strength and protection of their relationships with their local partners. They operate under a different view of building peace than the U.S. government, one that does not involve guns or proceed from the top down with copious amounts of foreign cash that enrich Washington contractors and government officials in Kabul rather than people in the provinces. Instead they work first to rebuild the lives of individuals and communities ravaged by decades of war, starting with building access to the most needed elements for human development: water and food for bodies, and schools for minds. They do not practice drive-by development, but are committed for the long haul.
Some of the hallmarks of Catholic peacebuilding are sorely needed in places like Afghanistan: participation, right relationship and reconciliation. Too often efforts at negotiated peace settlements and political reconciliation includes only the combatants, thus excluding the participation of key sectors of society, such as women and youth, who were both victimized by the conflicts and who can provide the staying power to monitor accords and help them stick. Women are excluded from formal U.N. peace talks 98 percent of the time. As reconciliation talks proceed in fits and starts in Afghanistan, that troubling trend appears. Where are the women? CRS knows that women's participation is key in their programming. The U.S. government ought to follow suit.
The scripture passage that comforted me most those dark days of 2001 was from Timothy: "The Lord has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and a sound mind."
Fear is the opposite of faith. We have been living in the country of fear for too long, ignoring our God-given agency, and our abilities to build a more peaceful world. God calls us beyond our fears. As followers of the Prince of Peace, building peace is our job, not just the job of governments or the UN or other remote entities. We cannot eliminate terrorism entirely. But acknowledging that modern life contains some terrorist risk need not lead us to a false politics of fear and despair, but rather a renewed sense of connection, of our dependence on God and others. To build peace, we must steer a course between the pre-9/11 denial of the problem and the post- 9/11 over-militarized response. We must reclaim our hope and our agency, and in doing so, reclaim our part in God's mission of reconciliation and resurrection.