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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Moral Clarity in a Time of War

From First Things:

Moral Clarity in a time of War

International terrorism of the sort we have seen since the late 1960s, and of which we had a direct national experience on September 11, 2001, is a deliberate assault, through the murder of innocents, on the very possibility of order in world affairs. That is why the terror networks must be dismantled or destroyed. The peace of order is also under grave threat when vicious, aggressive regimes acquire weapons of mass destruction-weapons that we must assume, on the basis of their treatment of their own citizens, these regimes will not hesitate to use against others. That is why there is a moral obligation to ensure that this lethal combination of irrational and aggressive regimes, weapons of mass destruction, and credible delivery systems does not go unchallenged. That is why there is a moral obligation to rid the world of this threat to the peace and security of all. Peace, rightly understood, demands it.

One of the more distasteful forms of post-September 11 commentary can be found in suggestions that there were "root causes" to terrorism-root causes that not only explained the resort to mass violence against innocents, but made the use of such violence humanly plausible, if not morally justifiable. The corollary to this was the suggestion that the United States had somehow brought the attacks on itself, by reasons of its dominant economic and cultural position in the world, its Middle East policy, or some combination thereof. The moral-political implication was that such a misguided government lacked the moral authority to respond to terrorism through the use of armed force.


The root causes school blithely ignores the extant literature on the phenomenon of contemporary terrorism, which is emphatically not a case of the wretched of the earth rising up to throw off their chains. But it is the moral-political implication the root causes school draws that I want to address. Here, Lutheran scholar David Yeago has been a wise guide. Writing in the ecumenical journal Pro Ecclesia, Yeago clarified an essential point: The authority of the government to protect the law-abiding and impose penalties on evildoers is not a reward for the government's virtue or good conduct. . . . The protection of citizens and the execution of penalty on peace-breakers is the commission which constitutes government, not a contingent right which it must somehow earn. In the mystery of God's providence, many or indeed most of the institutional bearers of governmental authority are unworthy of it, often flagrantly so, themselves stained with crime. But this does not make it any less the vocation of government to protect the innocent and punish evildoers. A government which refused to safeguard citizens and exercise judgment on wrong out of a sense of the guilt of past crime would only add the further crime of dereliction of duty to its catalog of offenses.

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