War & the common good

Events move so quickly and unpredictably in Afghanistan that the concerns of today’s headlines are often rendered superfluous by tomorrow’s. This has made life difficult for journalists and commentators. Just as criticism about the ineffectuality of the U.S. bombing campaign was mounting, the assault on the Taliban by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance swept Osama bin Laden’s protectors from Kabul and other strongholds. The Taliban’s ability to resist now appears to be greatly diminished and U.S. strategy to be vindicated. But those "facts" could prove mere fancy next week. As we write, bin Laden’s whereabouts remain unknown, or at least undisclosed. Reestablishing order and a functioning government in a post-Taliban Afghanistan, now divided up among rival ethnic warlords, poses daunting, if not insoluble problems. The Bush administration is apparently prosecuting this war with an estimable concern for avoiding civilian casualties and with a commitment to addressing the humanitarian crisis of the Afghan people. The U.S. has also voiced strong support for a UN presence to help build a new government. Doubtless there are things the American people do not yet know about this war, and the demand by some Bush advisers to widen the conflict is to be resisted absent convincing evidence that Iraq or other nations were involved in the September 11 attacks. But so far U.S. actions appear to be morally justified.

Among the more thoughtful commentators on the war has been the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. During their annual November meeting, the bishops released a statement titled "After September 11," in which they acknowledged "the right and duty of a nation and the international community to use military force if necessary to defend the common good by protecting the innocent against mass terrorism." Although far from an endorsement of specific U.S. policy, the bishops’ statement supporting efforts to "hold accountable" those responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11 was forthright. At the same time, in recognizing the tragic necessity of resorting to armed force, the bishops rightly emphasized the just-war criterion of noncombatant immunity and proportionality as well as the need to help create the conditions, both material and political, for a just peace.

The bishops’ statement could have been stronger if it had spelled out for the skeptical how the U.S. response satisfied the just-war tradition’s "last resort" criterion. "After September 11" was also weakened by a lengthy excursus on "pursuing justice and peace," calling for the resolution of a long list of ongoing crises from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the scandal of world poverty and the war in Sudan. No one would dispute the urgency of these problems. How the war in Afghanistan can effectively advance this agenda is less clear. The justice of holding accountable those responsible for the September 11 bombings does not depend on U.S. steps to correct the inequities of globalization, just as the need to alleviate poverty or protect human rights in the third world exists independently of the pursuit of bin Laden. The connection between injustice and terrorism is hardly self-evident, and the bishops offer no evidence demonstrating a direct link. Using the church’s social agenda as a kind of background chorus to sell the just-war legitimacy of fighting terrorism risks confusion on both counts. It seems likely, for example, that the "root causes" of bin Laden’s war against the U.S. lie in his radical religious ideology, not concern for the poor and disenfranchised.

It might have been helpful if the bishops had discussed Islam and the Arab world in more detail. Although the lack of "participation in political life" is alluded to, the role democratization can play in fighting poverty and curbing violent conflict, including religious conflict, is not sufficiently acknowledged in their statement. It is not easy to imagine the prospects for democracy in an Arab world characterized by great disparities in wealth and where corrupt monarchies or dictators spawn antidemocratic religious zealots. But democracy is clearly a necessary antidote to political violence. In this context, the bishops could have more explicitly endorsed freedom of expression and freedom of the press throughout the Islamic world. They also could have emphasized how the education and emancipation of women strengthen democratic forces and combat poverty.

The bishops go out of their way to defend the role of religion generally, calling for a "deeper understanding of and engagement with Islam." Such a sentiment is unobjectionable, but it nonetheless flirts with the Pollyannaish. While it is true that "terrorism in the name of religion profanes religion," it is also true that historically religion is no stranger to violence and, contrary to the bishops’ assertions, is often a "source of conflict." It took Christianity centuries to wean itself of the sword, and it only did so reluctantly. The modern separation of church and state, after all, was the result of the inability of Christians to resolve their differences peacefully. A deeper understanding of Islam is necessary, but it is also possible, as Islamicist Bernard Lewis has suggested, that the current conflict between Islam and the West has religious rather than economic or political roots. That possibility is reflected in the tepid condemnations of the September 11 attacks by so many Muslim clerics. Islam knows little of the separation of mosque and state, and many Muslims believe that a permanent state of "war" exists with all "infidels." At least that is how Lewis and other scholars describe certain Islamic worldviews. The bishops are right to call for dialogue between Christians and Muslims, but dialogue may confront us with irreconcilable differences as much as unsuspected affinities.

Published in the 2001-12-07 issue: 
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