A New Day Shines – The Tower, October 1 2010
Close to one month ago, a nation mourned once again the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Prayers were said, names were read, and communities gathered to mark that tragic day. Next Thursday, another nine-year anniversary will be marked. October 7, 2001.
On this day, a mere twenty-five days after September 11, the United States unleashed the destructive powers of its military on Afghanistan. In our haste for a swift and decisive response to the attacks, Americans yielded to the bellicose attitudes of government leaders in the Bush administration. We suddenly found ourselves bogged down in an ill-defined “War on Terror.”
This “War on Terror” would lead American down a dark path, filled with human rights abuses and illegal wars. Torture, once a taboo practiced only by vilified foreign regimes, became an acceptable practice in an alleged bastion of freedom here in America. Renditions and Guantanamo Bay, unmanned drone attacks and extrajudicial assassinations, the curtailing of domestic freedoms and the politicizing of the Justice Department – all these became the scars of America’s legacy in the world as we entered a new millennium.
In the sinful pride of American overconfidence in military and coercive power, we failed to entertain the notion that violence fails and there were alternate, even more effective, responses to bring about global security. While it is true America has not suffering another terrorist attack, it has once again assumed the role of terrorizing foreign populations. The true effect of American foreign policy, and increasingly domestic policies, has been the creation of many more terrorists whose loved ones have been massacred by American bombings and combat operations.
Nine years later, the “smart” bombs and special forces so heavily relied upon have failed to create stability in Afghanistan, yet progress is still measured by how successful the military operations are. It was only in 2009 that the Pentagon ceased to release body counts reminiscent of Vietnam era markers of success. As the military venture in Afghanistan begins its journey towards a decade, perhaps a reassessment of America’s actions since September 11, 2001 is in order. As American Catholics, purporting to serve both nation and Church, it is entirely appropriate that we reconsider our role in creating a safe and just world.
Thirty-eight days after the first bombs rained down upon Afghanistan, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a message of peace and healing in mid-November. The document signaled a chance for hope to grip the popular imagination presently based in fear. The bishops proposed an increased dialogue, grounded in prayer and education that could guide the world’s communal response to terrorism.
Sadly, the statement, so thoughtfully focused by the bishops upon responding to the needs of security and justice simultaneously became a justification for war. The underlying message of peace through justice was lost amongst the aggressive clamoring of the pro-war factions. Instead of focusing on the importance of social justice, large numbers of Christians, including many Catholics, used the document for its minority sections involving the use of legitimate force to justify illegal wars.
The faithful in favor of war, often the largest “pro-life” advocates in their narrowly defined use of that phrase, clung to rudimentary knowledge of the Just War theory. The bishops themselves acknowledge this theory in inadequately understood by most seeking to justify war. Even some of those most capable of guiding America’s actions due to an understanding of Just War charged ahead without testing the nation’s use of force in every instance.
This is the case not only with Afghanistan, but in the eventual invasion of Iraq, the saber-rattling today with Iran and North Korea, and the failure of Christians to act in humanitarian crises like the genocides in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Darfur. Misunderstanding has led to misuse, falsely justifying illegal and immoral actions like those discussed above. Pope John XXIII wrote in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, “in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.” Even entertaining the notion that the Just War theory is outdated leads to mockery.
In the midst of a changing world and faced with the challenges of providing security while securing justice, Catholics, and Americans at large, must ask themselves tough questions. How can we, who so adamantly defend life at the beginning and the end, so easily justify warfare in the age of nuclear weaponry and increasingly disturbing warfare? How can we live in the wealthiest, most powerful nation on the earth and continue to neglect the poor, the widow, and the orphan, even going so far as to wage war on them? How can we disregard the calls of the popes, bishops, and the People of God to put down our arms?
Ultimately, how can we continue to put our salvation in jeopardy by intentionally refusing to reach out and love our enemies, as the Prince of Peace Himself commanded?