The phone rang. "What do you think we should do? Stay here or leave?" my daughter asked. She was calling from the forty-first floor of an apartment building four blocks from the Word Trade Center minutes after she had seen the second plane fly into its target.

A kind of deathly, phony calm descends at moments like that. Think, think, the mind says while the emotions strain to cut loose. What is known? Unknown? Turn on the TV, field a call, make a call. Now she reports the lights are flickering, now there’s talk of gas leaks, now first one, then the other tower collapses. Think, think, the mind says, repressing the terror, pretending there are reasonable categories for processing such unimaginable images. Now she decides to leave—she and her twenty-one-month-old son and a babysitter—and now they can’t leave, now they can, and now, while they travel by foot and stroller, I can only wait and ponder the possibilities.

A week later, our grandson is lighting up our apartment; his mother and father (the latter having returned, with great difficulty, from Europe) are camping out in the spare room; and friends trapped in New York or just eager to be together are swelling the crowd at many a meal. But I still feel myself carefully nursing a layer of that phony calm. Is it self-protection against all the heartbreaking stories? In truth, I want to sink into those stories, soak in the grief and the justifiable outrage. But every dip into scripted sentimentality makes me recoil. Every appearance of a Washington official puts me on guard. Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, with their command of detail, do educate the public about complexity. The president is in charge of cheerleading, which he carries out unevenly. Congress is apparently convinced that this is not the time to ask the tough questions. As on September 11, the information is incomplete, the events fast moving, the feelings always on the verge of taking control. Think, think, the mind says.

I am not a pacifist. I have no problem calling the September 11 attacks "acts of war." But when we are said to be at war—but a new, different kind of war—I want to know what that means. Is it like the cold war? The war on drugs? The Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, Israel’s war in the Middle East, Britain’s war in Northern Ireland? How is it the same, how different? How will we know when we have won? And weren’t we already fighting a war against terrorism? What will be done differently? Why will it succeed? Who will be the victims? How will sacrifices be shared? What do we put on hold in the meantime? Of course, such questions can never be answered fully, but so far I sense that Washington is simply saying "Oh, those are good questions," and then moving ahead without answering them, at least publicly, at all.

Whoever destroyed the World Trade Center took two years or more to mount these attacks. There is surely a lesson in that.



The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are an assault not only on the United States but on civilization itself. No set of grievances, no matter how deep-seated, can serve to justify these terrible crimes.

The task ahead is to build an international coalition against terrorism. This can only be accomplished by diplomacy. President George W. Bush has reached out to foreign leaders and his call for cooperation has been answered. NATO has invoked Article 5 which states that an armed attack against one member is an attack against all. President Vladimir Putin placed Russia alongside the United States in the war against terrorism. Even the fifty-seven-member Arab League expressed sympathy.

The problem is that until now the Bush administration has done everything it could to signal its disregard for a stable world order by spurning treaties and making national missile defense the centerpiece of our security policy. This phantom defense, which experts believe would cost between $150 and $300 billion, is manifestly useless against terrorism. At a moment when the United States needs wholehearted international cooperation, Star Wars symbolizes the unilateral action which defeats such cooperation. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have ensured a new context for the congressional debate and prospects for this program’s defeat are improving.

The United States and its major allies must not only destroy terrorist networks. We must take away the oxygen which inspires young people to believe that suicide missions are a passport to heaven. This means working closely with moderate Arab states by addressing the legitimate grievances of communities from which terrorists are drawn. With two-thirds of the Arab population under thirty years of age and with most Arab economies in decline, the Middle East will soon become ungovernable unless the region is stabilized. An end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the creation of an independent Palestine will not put an end to terrorism, but it is an indispensable start.

The collapse of the Soviet empire deprived the United States of the lodestar that gave coherence and shape to our foreign policy. Since then, in the words of political scientist Michael Mandelbaum, "American foreign policy has the shape of a doughnut—lots of peripheral interests but nothing at the center." And there are challenges we have largely ignored: Common action to save our global environment; an international commitment to curb exploding population growth; multilateral agreement to control and reduce to a minimum nuclear arsenals; an end to the "silent genocide" of third-world famine and plague; a ban on exporting arms to third-world countries; and a commitment to promote economic opportunity in the poorer nations by investing in programs of education, health, and sustainable development. It is ironic that a terrorist attack against the United States has imposed a multilateral agenda on an administration that has flaunted its unilateralism. It is hard to imagine a more uncomfortable fit. If the Bush administration is to gain the cooperation of the rest of the world, it must create a new international climate. An end to threats to abrogate the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and a new look at the Comprehensive Test Ban, the International Criminal Court, small-arms and germ-warfare agreements would be a good place to start. Our defense against terrorism will only work if we regard the September 11 attack as a signal to begin to work with other nations, not apart from them.  




The administration tells us this will last a year or more. They understate. Think decades. One might say that Palestine has become the world: terrorism, retaliation, counter-retaliation, in cycles without end. Think of all the terrorist organizations—not all linked to Islamic groups—who take aim at Western capitalist and individualist culture. Remember that the first Bush administration declined to occupy Iraq ten years ago when it would have been far easier. Think Vietnam. Consider the topography, the local support from all who are poor, angry, and looking for someone to blame. Failure in Afghanistan was perhaps the single biggest cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And the Soviets were not soft or faint-hearted.

Our opponents may be evil, but they are not stupid or crazy. They have a strategy to provoke us into an extended struggle that will destroy our values. Democracies do fight well, and win most of their wars. But democratic peoples don’t like long, costly wars without a prospect of victory. A massive American military response is probably unavoidable, but neither anger nor determination should blind us to certain implications.

First, we must not descend to indiscriminate destruction. Civilians will die as a result of our military strikes, but we must keep those deaths proportionate to our legitimate security goals and to what we are trying to prevent. The Clinton and first Bush administrations conducted their wars (Kosovo and the Gulf) in a restrained fashion so as to minimize civilian casualties. Not perfectly, but with much more restraint than in Vietnam or in World War II. They were restrained in large part by public sentiments in the United States and our allies. In a long war we will need many allies. Bush seems finally to understand that. Holding together a long-haul alliance including Islamic governments and Islamic peoples will be very, very hard. Military and economic power alone won’t do it. Some perception that this country is substantially obeying international law and elementary morality about not deliberately killing innocent people—not sinking to the level of our antagonists—will be essential. The just-war principles require it. So too does prudence—the more we violate those principles the more we spawn new terrorists.

Second, we must defend civil liberties. Airport security in this country has been a joke, and can no longer be. More intelligence gathering may include eavesdropping. But we must not lose what we are fighting for, which is in large part our freedom (including freedom from fear of the state).

Third, we must give serious attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That’s hardly the whole cause of this terrorism, but without a peace of sorts in Palestine there will not be even a peace of sorts in the world.

In short, far more than automatic retaliation is at issue. All of us are capable of evil acts. The situation is one of choice, and the exercise of our free will.  





In the wake of the appalling events of September 11, we are united by feelings of outrage, grief, and fear. These reactions are surely appropriate and call for expression. But as we move beyond the shock of the immediate events to consider how we as a nation should respond to them, we have to remember that there are better and worse ways to translate our initial reactions into actions. Some reactions are likely to be effective, others may be immediately satisfying while increasing our vulnerability in the long run. And those of us within the Catholic community should take the lead in reminding the nation of something else: There are some courses of action that we should rule out because they are not morally acceptable. We have been provoked beyond anything we ever expected, but that does not give us license to respond in kind.

I am writing these words on the Saturday morning following the terrorist activities. Yesterday, Friday, the New York Times quoted Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, as saying, "It’s not just a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism." On Saturday, the Times reported that during his remarks in a prayer service at Washington’s National Cathedral, President George W. Bush proclaimed that we have a responsibility to history to "answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." Perhaps these, and the many similar comments that we have heard from our nation’s leadership, are simply hyperbole—understandable responses to a staggering tragedy, not to be taken seriously as enunciations of policy. We had better hope that that is all they are.

Pragmatically, a policy informed by these sentiments would be a disaster. We do not have the power to end terrorism around the world—much less to rid the world of evil. We should have learned that by now. At the moment, our responses seem to be colored by thoughts of World War II. We should be thinking of Vietnam instead.

But my main concern at the moment has to do with the moral implications of such a policy. Like many others, I am troubled by the easy invocation of war, with its misleading implication that we are engaged in hostilities with whole nations, and not with independent groups of terrorists. But if our nation’s leaders are going to style this conflict as a war, then we must remember that even within war there are moral constraints on the use of force. The Catholic community has a grave responsibility to take leadership here, because we are custodians of a historic tradition of reflection on the ways in which justice constrains the use of military force. We must remind our country’s leaders, and our fellow citizens, that in order to be morally justified, military force must be proportionate. The outright destruction of nation-states can never be a proportionate response, even to severe provocations. The use of force must have a reasonable chance of success. What practical aims would be advanced by attacking countries that do not have the power to stop the terrorists from operating within their borders? And finally, direct attacks on civilians can never be morally justified, and the inevitable risk to civilians in military actions should be minimized. We cannot fight terrorism by becoming terrorists ourselves. Even if we could, such a price for our security would be too high.  

Published in the 2001-09-28 issue: View Contents
Robert E. White, a former United States ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Center for International Policy.
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