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J. Bryan HehirOctober 08, 2001

To write about Sept. 11, 2001, is to know the paucity of one’s vocabulary and literary skill. The words are so disproportionate to the tragedy that the temptation is to stop trying to describe it. John Paul II condemned it as an unspeakable horror and a dark day in the history of humanity, a terrible affront to human dignity. The human and moral dimensions are so overwhelming that they tend to absorb all of one’s energy and attention. But a week removed from the terror, it is necessary also to consider its political significance for the United States and the world. It is by combining the human, the moral and the political dimensions of Sept. 11 that we can ask what we as a nation can and should do to respond.

Can and should yield a multidimensional response. Pastoral, social and policy responses are neededand all have begun. The pastoral response is to the human dimensions of the tragedy, the one that rightly absorbed the most energy and attention in the week of Sept. 11. Its character was captured for all time by Lincoln near the end of the Civil War in words that, with slight adaptation, resonate still in another century: to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have known the battle and for his widow and his orphan. A nation literally traumatized by the terror in New York, Washington and Pittsburgh summoned the courage and nerve and organizational skill to be Lincolnesque in its pastoral response. The heroes of the drama, the firefighters, police and medical personnel, the construction workers and ironworkers sought out the victims, feverishly pursuing any who might be alive, and reverently seeking to recover the dead. Local communities, social service agencies and religious communities surrounded the children, the spouses and the families and friends of those who were killed so viciously and randomly. From parishes to campuses to city parks and plazas, the citizens of the country responded by the hundreds of thousands to the invitation to pray and reflect, to dampen the sense of personal and psychological vulnerability catalyzed by the attack by coming together in interreligious worship.

The pastoral response will intensify and continue as the inevitable need to memorialize and bury the dead by the thousands will face the nation and its religious communities. One needs only to think of the public sadness and grief that surrounds the death of one or two police officers or firefighters to sense the draining emotional journey still ahead of the nation. This kind of response is personal, intense, concrete and specific. It cannot be addressed in the aggregate; the name, the face, the history of each constitutes its own unique challenge. But no one should fear; the record of the first week shows the nation supremely capable of the pastoral response.

The social response is also deeply personal and particular but in a different way. The challenge between the pastoral and social is this: as we draw together as a country in response to tragedy, how can we avoid doing so by isolating or ostracizing or victimizing a few as the other? By now several of the perpetrators of the crime are known, and all are of Arabic lineage and some are of Muslim faith. The primary imperative of the social response is to protect Arab-American citizens, visitors and students from the Middle East and Muslims generally from any kind of labeling, guilt by association, covert or overt discrimination or harassment.

Beyond protection is the equally important public recognition that communities of Arab descent and Muslim faith are productive, loyal, contributing citizens in this land. Happily, some variation of this theme is being repeated constantly from the president and religious leaders through elected officials and plain citizens. Unhappily these appeals have not prevented reported attacks, violent or at least abusive, on Muslims and people of Arabic descent in different parts of the country. Beyond the obvious need to be vigilant at a time of crisis, anger and frustration, there is a long-term issue here. As the recent census documented, a society that has long prided itself on its pluralism faces a deepening and broadening of that pluralism as our future. On the whole, the nation has a better record on ethnic and religious pluralism than it has had on racial equality and integration. The future, one shaped by a world of fluid boundaries and borders, requires doing better on all fronts, religious, racial and ethnic pluralism. Crises often remind us of deep, paramount truths; the social response to Sept. 11 will test our commitment to e pluribus unum.

The policy response is undoubtedly the most complex of the three. To some degree it has taken a back seat to the immediate pastoral needs. Terrorism has been on the edge of the policy agenda for some years; now it will move to the center.

But what constitutes a legitimate and effective response? The earliest callers from the press wanted to know if military action would be permissible under traditional just war teaching. That is a crucial but very narrow question. To answer it without recognizing its limited role in an effective response is to set the whole policy discussion off in the wrong direction.

How is it possible to broaden the horizon of policy debate and contextualize the military issues? Begin with the definition of what we are planning to do. Both the government and the press have decided the best term is war. Given the enormity of what the nation has suffered, there is a clear rhetorical reason for reaching for the term war to define what we face and what we should do. But beyond rhetoric there lie serious reasons to distinguish war from what is ahead of us. Even if one is convinced that there must be a military dimension to an effective response to terrorism, it is better not to locate the whole effort under war. Many who use the term war quickly say this will not be like our normal conception of war. It is better to forfeit the rhetorical bounce that comes from invoking war and define more precisely what we can and should do. Enough to say we need an internationally coordinated, long-term effort to erode the basis for terrorism in the life of states and nations. This is deadening rhetoric, but the purpose is to take some of the passion out of the immediate sense of what must be done.

Containing and capturing terrorists is by definition a function of police and legal networks. War is an indiscriminate tool for this highly discriminating task. Beyond the legal lie the economic and the political: drying up sources of funding and civil space where transnational networks live. Included here is drying up the trade in small arms and attending to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The United States is presently the leading nation in the small arms trade and attention to proliferation has been sporadic.

But what about the military component? Does it fit any moral framework? If it does, it will fit only with adaptation. Three centuries of effort have tried to tie the right to use force to the sovereign status of the state. The purpose has been to limit resort to war to a finite number of actors; the motivating force here has been both the self-interest of states and moral-legal attempts to contain warfare. Using force against a transnational network, inevitably within the boundaries of another state, raises questions that the standard political-legal-moral model does not address.

What I have called the narrow question of permissibility can now be addressed. If one asks whether just cause exists to respond to the attack of Sept. 11, my answer is that by any traditional conception of self-defense, the scope, intent, destructiveness and utter illegality of the attack of Sept. 11 yields an affirmative reply. Responding to and resisting terrorism of this kind is morally, politically and legally justifiable. The power of the United States to respond is obviously not in doubt; the range of military options is virtually limitless. The hard questions are not purposes or power but methods, means and measurements. The London-based Economist commented: The response of America and its allies should not be timid but it should be measured. Just causes by themselves do not morally legitimize the use of force, nor do they guarantee effective responses. How is one to define a measured response to terrorism?

First, define the complexity of the assignment: not only to bring the perpetrators to account but to do so in a way that solidifies the support of allies and persuades those who doubt our motives and fear our methods.

Second, retreat from some of the early rhetoric used in a moment of catastrophe to mobilize opinion. Rhetoric mobilizes; it also creates a straightjacket of false expectations and ill-defined objectives. Battle cries to rid the world of evil or to end terrorist states are not measured in their premises or possibilities. Pursuit of them destroys the coherent relationship of ends and means; it also guaranteesas unconditional surrender did in World War IIan erosion of just cause by use of unjust means.

Third, think harder and speak clearly about the relationship of transnational terrorism and nation-states. Terrorists inevitably inhabit states; but rarely are the two identifiable. Yet the problem the United States faces is real. States that knowingly tolerate or abet terrorists should be held to account; states unable to take effective action are in a different position. If the United States and willing allies go after terrorists as such, they will have to invade the sovereign space of some states, but on a selective and limited basis. If the Bush administration collapses the distinction between terrorists in a state and the state itself, military action will take on a different character entirely. A single terrorist state would be a relatively simple problem; a transnational network across many states is neither war in an ordinary sense nor a limited police action. Against how many states can the U.S. declare war without being itself defined as a threat to international order?

Fourth, determine strategies and tactics in light of the twin tests of effectiveness (remember Kosovo) and of protecting the civil society in which terrorists live and hide. Failure to do this will morally corrupt the use of force and breed a new generation of supporters for terrorism. We cannot simultaneously defeat terrorism and be seen as the bearers of technological terror. Hence a measured response drives strategic planning back to the foundations of an ethic of war in two basic senses: (1) only those guilty of aggression are to be the objects of attack; (2) every legitimate use of force must be limited in objectives, methods and intentions.

The first principle requires careful delineation among terrorist groups, the states in which they live and the civil society of those states. If a state is harboring terrorists, it is likely to be an authoritarian regime not known for democratic methods or constitutional restraint. Even if it can be demonstrated that there is a direct linkage between terrorists and the state, the civil society cannot be swept into this alliance; it is never a legitimate target.

The second principle embodies the technical categories of noncombatant immunity and proportionality but also attends to the requirements of political prudence: hi-tech strikes that destroy the infrastructure of already fragile or impoverished societiesde factoattack its civil society. The consequences (often unintended) of bombing policy in the Persian Gulf war and Kosovo still echo this theme. Defining a measured response to terrorism is a new task, but some of the lessons of the last decade must be part of that process.

Finally, a measured response to transnational terrorism cannot be primarily a military response. Deeper issues than the use of force lie beneath terrorist actions. Those deeper issues involve politics, religion, economics and culture. They raise questions of justice and injustice, global integration and the determination of whole cultures to preserve their identity, customs and convictions. They are about what people are willing to live for and what they are willing to die for. They do involve fanaticism and convictions not contained in standard discourse about interests and ends. Addressing those issues is the long-term dimension of understanding and defeating terrorism. No single state can do this; a transnational threat requires an international response. We can and should be part of this; we cannot be simply in charge, telling others what to do. As a nation we have some learning to do.

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17 years 5 months ago
As an American and a Franciscan friar preparing for the priesthood, I continue to grapple with the tension between war and peace. I want to thank America for devoting your Oct. 8 issue to this pressing and relevant issue. I found the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir’s article (“What Can Be Done? What Should Be Done?) extremely insightful and balanced. I can relate to his call for a prudent and well thought-out response. He penetrates to the heart of many of the deeper issues at stake.

I also benefitted from the article of Robert P. Waznak, S.S., regarding preaching in the midst of this crisis. His words reminded me of the power that words carry in the midst of such tragic experiences. I hope to be able to learn from those pastoral ministers who have used the proclamation of the word as a means of communicating a sense of the mystery of unexplainable events and the hope and consolation that the Gospel offers.

Finally, I was moved by the personal reflection of James Martin, S.J., on his experience as a chaplain in the midst of the wreckage, “World Trade Center Journal.” Reading about his experience reminded me of the power that individuals can have in bringing Christ to the most broken of places. I was moved with a sense of pride in reading how Father Martin and his colleagues made themselves available to all in need.

14 years 8 months ago

This essay contains so much wisdom.  It is a measured response to enormous tragedy.  Would that Brian Hehir's advice had been heeded.  We are beginning to recognize that the enemy is not a nation, but individuals.  So much blood and treasure has been spent, and continues to be spent, and one has to ask why. 

I don't believe that war is ever the solution.  How important it is to look at the history of people and places and discern cause.  I read many things in the aftermath...interviews with persons who survived or watched from afar.  They seemed with one accord to be thinking beyond the event, praying, seeking some answer.  It is the most natural and human response to another's pain.


14 years 8 months ago
Please add the following to my previously sent comment.
I don't believe that war is ever the solution.  How important it is to look at the history of people and places and discern cause.  I read many things in the aftermath...interviews with persons who survived or watched from afar.  They seemed with one accord to be thinking beyond the event, praying, seeking some answer.  It is the most natural and human response to another's pain.
Christopher Mulcahy
12 years 10 months ago

War is never the solution.  When we are attacked, we should find out the names of the individuals involved and give them puppies.  If they are incinerated, we should send the puppies to their families.  Or maybe bird pets, if puppies are outlawed in their culture, as in several Arab countries.  Or kitties, maybe.

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