Terrorism & the Just War Tradition

MSNBC has an online interview with Retired Vice Admiral John Scott Redd, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, in which he says (among other things) that Western intelligence officials “have very strong indicators that Al Qaeda is planning to attack the West.” He said in response to the following question:

Earlier this summer, there was talk that people were picking up chatter that reminded them of the summer before 9/11. The Germans basically said this is like pre-9/11. They said, “We are very worried.” What do you make of this?
We have very strong indicators that Al Qaeda is planning to attack the West and is likely to [try to] attack, and we are pretty sure about that. We know some of the precursors from—

Attack Europe?
Well, they would like to come West, and they would like to come as far West as they can. What we don’t know is…if it’s going to be Mark Hosenball [ed., the interviewer], and he’s coming in on Flight 727 out of Karachi, he’s stopping in Frankfurt, and he’s coming on through with his European Union passport, and he’s coming into New York, and he’s going to do something. I mean, we don’t have that kind of tactical detail. What we do have, though, is a couple of threads that indicate, you know, some very tactical stuff, and that’s what—you know, that’s what you’re seeing bits and pieces of, and I really can’t go much more into it.

Right now the United States find itself in the midst of a war with at least some members of Islam. And anyone who has heard me speak in the past on related subjects knows that I am not a pacifist. Indeed I have on occasion argued forcibly that while I certainly have the right to accept death for my convictions, I do not have the right to not act if the cost my decision is paid by another with their life or safety. All this is to say that, unlike I think a good number of my fellow Orthodox clergy, I do embrace the just war tradition.

The current political conflict is one that I suspect was not envisioned by the early proponents of the just war theory. If I may borrow from Chesterton, in the current conflict the difference among Christians is not in the “things [we] will call evils” but we “differ enormously about what evils [we] will call excusable.”

My own extended family was one in which many of especially my grandparents generation were sympathetic to the aims and means of the Irish Republican Army. Or, if you prefer, I grew up hearing terrorist praised for their actions. No one would came out and said it was a good thing that an innocent civilian got killed in a car bombing. But there was a willingness to excuse the consequence of the attack as part of the greater good of a free Ireland.

A just war, a limited war of defense in response to overt attack for example, is difficult when the aggressors are terrorist for whom no one is exempt and indeed civilian targets are very preferred. Again as I saw in my own family, terrorism breeds in those who make use of it, and indeed in those who support it, a blood lust that very quickly justifies, or at least excuses, all sorts of evils.

It is at the same time, tempting in response to terrorism to give oneself over to all manner of ills in the interest of protecting one’s homeland. I find the use of the phrase “homeland” to be an most unfortunate choice one to use for the United States since we are a people united not by blood and soil, but by an ideal. I fear that in much of what is our justified response to Islamic terrorism the phrase homeland might very well foster in a certain forgetfulness of those ideals–even as a “free Ireland” caused many of my now deceased family members to become forgetful of their Catholic faith.

Somewhere in our long history, Christians have forgotten what it was that Christ has saved us from. We have reduced sin to a mere moral infraction–somehow we can’t seem to realize that the bloody events of the 20th century fascism and communism (to take but two examples) are the fruits of what it is that we have been saved from, our own worse selves that slowly causes us to give ourselves over, by baby steps, to evil.

The desert fathers tell us to be very cautious in fighting the demons. Their concern was motivated not by any lack of faith in Jesus Christ–but by a sober anthropology. The fathers understood that when we fight demons–whether of spirit or flesh and blood–it is all to easy to become a demon ourselves. If that happens, then the demons in a rather frightful parody Christ, are victorious in defeat, even as we are defeated in victory.

“The greatest sin is this,” T.S. Elliot‘s Thomas Becket says towards the end of Murder in the Cathedral, “to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.” Whether our politics are secular or ecclesiastical, doing the right thing for the wrong reason is I think always the great temptation.

I cannot help but think that both on the world stage and in the Church, events are such that, now more than ever, we need to examine not only our actions, but also our intentions.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

In Christ,


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