THE USA AGAINST TERRORISM
FROM A CATHOLIC PERSPECTIVE
October 28, 2005
Let’s talk about America’s current response to the scourge of terrorism in the light of Catholic teaching. As an American Catholic citizen age 19, my conscience begs me to speak out concerning the all-important moral issues deeply woven thru America’s post-9/11 foreign policy. I’m independent of all political parties—my anti-terrorism convictions have been shaped by the late, great Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and the US Catholic bishops united with Rome. In addition, I hope to sweep away the general amnesia for news reports that most of us Americans suffer from by stepping back to view the bigger picture.
Dictionaries define terrorism as threats of, or use of, force or violence to achieve a political goal. Terrorism is a form of warfare, but it’s distinguished from conventional war in that it’s used by ordinary civilians--like you and I--who lack military capabilities. In this article, I consider terrorism as an attack on either civilian or military targets. Thus I’d classify insurgent attacks on Israeli soldiers in Israel, and on US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, as acts of terrorism in addition to frequent suicide bombings of Israeli civilians. But my broader definition opens up a gaping dichotomy between two types of terrorism: good and evil. Attacks on civilians are always evil, while attacks on enemy military and government personnel are either good or evil depending on the circumstances of the case. In an Insight segment shortly after 9/11, EWTN’s The World Over Live [www.ewtn.com] pointed out this crucial distinction of Catholic doctrine between justified and unjustified terrorism; but it was quickly forgotten as the War on Terror took center stage in American Catholics’ minds. One of the best examples of this good terrorism was Count Klaus von Stauffenberg’s brave attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, while a good present-day example is secret freedom fighters in Red China striving to overthrow its oppressive Communist government. In this latter case, President Bush’s failure to confront the autocratic Red Chinese regime and instead urging its president to stamp out these good anti-communist terrorists not only blurs good and evil terrorism together, but it reeks of hypocrisy.
The key element of terrorist operations is taking advantage of all the enemy’s weaknesses. By scattering widely apart, keeping on the move, operating on a paltry budget (compared with modern armies), attacking carefully selected targets, drawing the world’s media attention to their cause, and their unflagging determination springing from intense religious fidelity, terrorists hope to defeat their enemies’ armies. The past century of Middle East history shows that terrorists are virtually impossible to defeat even with giant armies; no matter how many years or decades it may take, they almost always win. Britain was defeated in Egypt and Iraq in the early to mid 1900s; Israel has failed to defeat Palestinian terrorists ever since it was founded in 1948; and the US was gradually defeated in Iran in the 1960s and 70s. In each of these cases, the terrorists sprang from a base of tremendous popular support for their cause, if not for their terrorist acts, which were typically directed against regime and military personnel and sometimes unjustly against civilians.
Now for a real surprise: the Holy Land’s Palestinian Authority is not a terrorist group. Its former leader Yasser Arafat explicitly renounced terrorism in 1988. While President Bush refused to meet with him, Pope John Paul II visited Arafat on several occasions and warmly praised his efforts at economic development and working toward an independent Palestinian state. All the org does is govern Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, build them houses, give them food and water, officially represent their emerging state, and arrest terrorists! () Yes, it arrests terrorists. Let me explain. Several million Palestinians live just outside the state of Israel. Out of these millions, a dozen or so each month commit evil terrorist attacks against civilians "in the name of the PLO." These terrorists are not members of the PLO—they’re trying to achieve by cruel force what the PLO works to achieve by peaceful means. These terrorists are "heretics" as far as the PLO itself is concerned, just as the "Christian terrorists" bombing US abortion mills in the 1990s did not represent Christianity. This example not only clarifies reality from labels and name-calling, but it tells us a bit what terrorism is all about.
Failure to achieve an inalienable human right by peaceful means, such as a state or decent living conditions for Arab Palestinians, lurks as a powerful temptation to human beings to use terrorism to frighten an authority (in this case Israel) into granting that right. In other words, unjust terrorism attempts to use evil means to achieve a good end when good means don’t succeed. For example, a few members of the Palestinian organizations Islamic Jihad and Hamas attack Israeli civilians, usually with suicide bombs, to draw attention to their goals of political, religious and economic freedom for the Palestinians. In fact, both Islamic Jihad and Hamas are chiefly engaged in upright activities such as charities, poverty relief, education, economic and cultural development, and political activism (also completely unknown to the average American media consumer). () The TV news cameras naturally zoom in on these few violent crimes, but they ignore "the rest of the story." While I unhesitatingly condemn the attacks on civilians by those few renegade members, we should praise and encourage these orgs’ noble, peaceful activities, as Pope John Paul the Great always did when he visited Palestine. Americans must not confuse the good with the evil. The aims are good; the terrorism against civilians is evil. As Pope John Paul II never tired of insisting, America must work unceasingly to eradicate the powerful temptations to terrorism in both Israel and thruout the Middle East, namely poverty, religious persecution, and denial of the right to a Palestinian state.
"WAR ON TERROR"
Following 9/11, President Bush delivered numerous speeches and executive orders declaring America’s response to the attack. Members, supporters, and beneficiaries of al-Qaeda, including any found responsible for 9/11, would be brought to justice. Secret military tribunals were established to try suspected terrorists. In addition, the US military would be called upon to invade and overthrow the government of every nation that harbored terrorists; even "potential" terrorist countries would be ransacked, according to the president’s speeches. This added up to a staggering total of at least fifty countries. President Bush didn’t consider this a declaration of war; rather, he said, the terrorists of 9/11 had declared war on us. Quite swiftly, America found itself launched into a "global war on terror".
However, an act of state-sponsored terrorism and a formal declaration of war by a nation are two different things. Afghanistan didn’t declare war on the US; nor did Iraq; nor did any other country. I consider 9/11 simply as a crime against the US to be punished, not as a declaration of war. Bringing those responsible for the attacks to justice would have been sufficient.
I am strongly opposed to the "War on Terror", especially the invasion of countries and overthrow of governments, for several reasons. First of all, the "WOT" deals with terrorists but excludes any thought about why all these terrorists exist in the first place. In other words, America is treating the symptoms but ignoring the disease. America’s putting a Band-aid on a monstrous infection, hoping it will go away. A proper approach to dealing with evil terrorism should combine two policies: 1) deliver unjust terrorists to justice thru civilian court trials (the International Criminal Court, ICC, for international terrorists), and imprisonment, or the death penalty in some cases; and 2) heed the insistent calls of John Paul the Great and Pope Benedict to collaborate with other nations thru the UN whenever possible to eliminate the temptations that sustain these terrorist networks. High on this list are poverty, denial of religious and political rights, and imposing unpopular US policies on a region of the world that has long prized its independence from all outside powers. ()
My second problem with "WOT" is its economic consequences. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined cost over $1,000 every second, pushing our national budget deficit to $413 billion in 2004. () President Bush’s total military spending for fiscal years 2002 thru 2005 amounts to a whopping $1.5 trillion. () And our cumulative national debt has made its biggest jump ever in a single presidency: $2.3 trillion, bringing the grand total to $8 trillion and counting. () While I reluctantly support the $70 billion-plus war in Afghanistan because the Taliban was clearly a cruel theocracy, the $190 billion-plus war in Iraq is a waste of money—all that was needed was a few US troops to go in there, arrest Saddam Hussein and deliver him to trial on the ICC. With so much money going to "WOT", less and less is available for everything else from poverty relief to health care to road construction and maintenance. According to Benjamin Franklin, "It is better to go to bed supperless than wake up in debt." Our possession of an over-bloated military monstrosity, coupled with our chomping at the bit to use it for political interests and profiteering, has provoked a great deal of anti-American aggression—and terrorism--in the past few decades.
If Washington ever needed to get its fiscal priorities straight, it needs to do so right now. Cut the outrageous spending on hi-tech weapons and put the money to border security, transportation, local law enforcement and protection, social security, health care, poverty relief, and global economic development. That’s how we’ll defeat terrorism: with justice at the local and global levels. The neocon circle of reasoning for this matter runs totally backwards. Neocons say: we must spend the money to buy more weapons to protect ourselves. Both popes have said: spend money on social justice and economic development to bring peace to protect yourselves, which will permit you to disarm.
Continuing the "WOT" is leading America along a rocky, twisting mountain road towards an economic cliff. The average American along for the ride cannot see the end of the road—it’s blocked from view by lots of blind curves and slopes. But while neocons loudly assert that this bumpy path is America’s only choice, this doesn’t change reality: the road still ends at the edge of the cliff.
Finally, my third reason for rejecting "WOT" is that much of it conflicts with Catholic moral teaching. In a Pastoral Message issued soon after 9/11, the US Catholic bishops strongly discouraged responding to terrorism with war. They prophesied that war will ultimately fail to quell the scourge of terrorism. () In 2002 Pope John Paul II joined religious leaders of numerous faiths in Assisi, Italy, in signing a "Joint Commitment to Peace", which declared that "security will never be guaranteed by force, but by mutual trust" between nations. () And the Pope firmly condemned the pre-emptive Iraq war as unjust, sending his ambassador Cardinal Pio Laghi to earnestly implore President Bush not to start the war because it wouldn’t satisfy the principle of proportionality. In other words, the pope explained, the good to be achieved—the arrest and disarming of a dictator—did not justify killing tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians and provoking various ethnic and religious groups to break out in bitter civil war. Conservatives and neocons rejected JP II’s prophecy, but it was stunningly fulfilled just months after the war began. Yet even now with an Islamic constitution, unabated civil war, and over 100,000 Iraqis dead (), many neocons stubbornly refuse to rethink this issue.
The US is also detaining terrorist suspects without trial for long periods of time in the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York City, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and other prisons, thus treating them like prisoners of war. Not only is does this contravene the principle of justice, but it violates international law and our own constitution because "[t]he accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial". Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld summed up the Bush administration’s attitude when he said, "You think we want these terrorists to go to trial, get acquitted and get turned loose back into the world to commit more acts of terrorism against us?" This weird statement makes me suspect something fishy’s going on. The Patriot Act makes every conceivable deed related to terrorism a crime under US law, with rather grave penalties for each. Rumsfeld is clearly worried that if the US tries terrorists in civilian courts, they will be acquitted, suggesting there isn’t enough evidence available to convict terrorist suspects in America’s custody.
However, the most outrageously evil aspect of the War on Terror is the use of torture. I’m absolutely sickened at how Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have defended its use by changing the subject when it pops up. All they can do is point the finger at detainees in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo Bay and say, "These terrorists are bad people. We have to remember how bad they are." When they do answer the question, they say, "These ‘techniques’ are justified to extract crucial info from terrorists to protect our country." No way! Torture is a serious sin no matter how grave the danger America is in. And cruel and unusual punishment is totally unconstitutional.
Ever since 9/11, a dangerous attitude has been rapidly spreading across America, and poisoning so many minds and hearts: hatred of the enemy is gradually becoming acceptable. And this is logically leading to the unspoken acceptance of every cruel and barbaric punishment imaginable in the name of "national defense" and "progress against world terrorism." In the past few years, we’ve been lulled asleep by a stream of euphemisms such as "interrogation tactics", "nonlethal physical pressure", "intelligence methods". This must not happen! It's torture, and torture is evil. We must not resurrect the barbaric tactics which America laid to rest at its birth—and stood out among nations for doing so.
Neocons are always harping on terrorism being a much greater danger to America than torture committed by some intelligence operatives. This is wrong. The worst thing terrorists can do is kill us physically. But a single CIA agent who tortures a terrorist is in danger of losing his soul. I’m much less afraid of physical death than I am of US soldiers going to hell for torturing terrorist suspects. How can we lecture the world on removing the speck of terrorism from its eye when we’re so hypocritically blind to the evil in our own eye? If America really wants to fight world evil, let it first fight its own evil!
THE PATRIOT ACT
While the "WOT" rages in foreign countries, America is also waging it at home with the Patriot Act. This hefty piece of legislation, containing ten titles with more than one hundred sections, was swiftly passed and enacted into law in autumn 2001. Much of this Act makes sense and deserves my support. For example, roughly fifty percent of it allows broad information sharing between law enforcement, protective, intelligence, immigration, defense, and security agencies. This results in much more timely and effective breakup of terror plots and prevention of terrorism. Numerous pre-existing laws were rewritten by the Patriot Act to allow the above agencies to more easily surveil, keep track of, identify, arrest, and prosecute terrorists. Despite that the Act offers great potential for violation of Amendments Four through Six of our Constitution, it nevertheless provides sufficient opportunity for any abused person to challenge a violation in court.
Unfortunately, however, the Patriot Act itself conflicts with the Constitution in several places. It allows our president to seize all possessions of a terrorist, even those not used for terrorism purposes (forfeiture of estate). It allows the innocent spouse or child of a terrorist to be arrested along with him (guilt by association). It even permits a suspected terrorist conspirator to be detained in prison for long periods without being charged with a crime and without trial. () These sections, which should be disturbing to every American, were nevertheless considered necessary to fight terrorism. In a Pastoral Message mentioned earlier, the US Catholic bishops urged us to remember the value of our civil liberties. They declared that no disaster, not even 9/11, justifies the government to take any of them away; America "must not trade freedom for security."
Overall, I support the Patriot Act, considering much of it beneficial in protecting the US from terrorism. But the scattered passages that conflict with the Constitution and endanger civil liberties must be challenged and declared unconstitutional by our courts. No amount of terrorism, indeed no danger whatsoever, justifies throwing out the supreme law of the land.
(Check back later for Part Two, which will describe how to combat terrorism.)
1. James Ciment, Palestine/Israel: The Long Conflict, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1997, pp. 103-106, 180, 208, 215.
2. A Concise History of the Middle East, fourth ed., Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., Westview Press, Boulder, 1991.
3. See http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20051015/ts_afp/useconomybudget_051014232226
4. Not counting President Bush’s requests for additional funds, several of which Congress granted. See www.globalissues.org/Geopolitics/ArmsTrade/Spending.asp#USMilitarySpending
5. As of October 2005. For the latest, see www.publicdebt.treas.gov/opd/opdpenny.htm
6. Pastoral Message: Living with Faith and Hope after September 11, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 14, 2001.
7. C. William Michaels, No Greater Threat: America after September 11 and the Rise of a National Security State, Algora Publishing, New York, 2002, p. 251.
8. This is the most conservative estimate of total deaths; see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3962969.stm. See http://www.iraqbodycount.net/ for ordinary non-terrorist civilian deaths.
9. No Greater Threat: America after September 11 and the Rise of a National Security State, C. William Michaels, Algora Publishing, New York, 2002. Website at www.nogreaterthreat.com.