Sept. 11: a Catholic perspective
Todd David Whitmore
The Common Good
The attacks on Sept. 11 have raised a wide range of questions. One is "What difference does a Catholic perspective make?" There are a number of differences as well, and it is worth indicating some of them.
1. Less initial surprise. Absent specific intelligence information, no worldview could have predicted the attacks. However, a Catholic perspective might be more attentive to a number of the factors that contributed to the motivation to carry them out.
Catholic social teaching stresses that all persons, groups and states are deeply "interdependent" in a "universal common good."
This contrasts with a view that emphasizes the autonomy and self-interest of nation-states. With this latter view, as long as no one is overtly interfering with our self-interests, then there is little to worry about.
War here is simply the absence of overt conflict. In the case of the United States, this view has been reinforced by historical circumstance.
We have had unrivaled power, an economic boom and have not had a war on our soil for some time. The 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa caused almost no psychological ripple in the American public or even among the key public officials
A view that emphasizes interdependence in a universal common good would have been concerned about a variety of factors that contribute to animosity and often lead to conflict.
Pope John Paul II writes, "If the social question has acquired a worldwide dimension, this is because the demand for justice can only be satisfied on that level. To ignore this demand could encourage the temptation among victims of injustice to respond with violence, as happens at the origins of so many wars. People excluded from the fair distribution of goods originally destined for all could ask themselves: why not respond with violence to those who treat us first with violence?"
Economic disparity is far from a complete explanation of events, but it is an aspect to which a Catholic perspective pays attention. If peace is not merely the absence of overt conflict, but rather a quality of interdependence — a "right relationship" — with one's neighbor, then the rich-poor gap its role in contributing to violence is an ongoing concern wherever that gap is manifested.
2. More restrained initial response. In a New York Times column Thomas Friedman wrote, "We have to fight the terrorists as if there were no rules." Friedman's view is that there is what Michael Walzer calls a "supreme emergency."
There is a threat in Walzer's words, "to everything dear in our lives." We have a case of necessity, and "necessity knows no rules." Walzer used the concept of supreme emergency to justify the carpet bombing in World War II and the deterrent threat of nuclear annihilation.
The events of Sept. 11 and after fail to meet the criterion. Over 6,000 lives lost is severe, but most of us in most ways go on about our lives as before even if we take a few more precautions.
More importantly the idea of supreme emergency is objectionable on religious grounds. The just war tradition and the limits it puts on the use of force is in part a statement that we are not God and are not without limits.
The idea of supreme emergency is idolatrous. It makes a proximate good — our nation or way of life — into an ultimate good. The language of "crusade" and "Operation Infinite Justice" early on the administration's response were evidence of just such an idolatrous view.
3. Firmer grounds for condemning the attacks and responding. My own understanding of the just war tradition is that it may not only permit the use of lethal force against the Taliban and the al Qaeda network, it may require it if all other means of conflict resolution prove not to be adequate.
However, a Catholic approach would have firmer grounds for making the case because of its greater sensitivity to non-combatant immunity. The Sept. 11 attacks were particularly abhorrent because noncombatants were targeted.
The United States, however, has a history of targeting noncombatants directly (carpet bombing, Hiroshima and the structure of nuclear deterrence) and of calling "indirect" killings those that are more appropriately understood as direct. Between 500,000 and a million Iraqis, most of them children, died of diseases and malnutrition directly attributable to the U.S. targeting of water supplies and infrastructure.
Greater integrity in world conflicts will require greater sensitivity to the effects of war on noncombatants. This is particularly difficult to do in the kind of conflict in which the United States is presently engaged.
The temptation is to loosen the just war restrictions. It is a temptation that must be resisted.
Todd David Whitmore is an associate professor of theology and the director of the program in Catholic social tradition. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, November 1, 2001