In Defense of the War on Terrorism

In February of this year, 60 scholars published an open letter to our European friends attempting to explain “What We Are Fighting For.” This letter outlines a justification for the American war against the al Qaeda organization and other terrorist groups. The letter begins with an assertion of universal principles. Among these are:

* “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,”
* the “role of government is to protect and help foster the conditions for human flourishing,”
* religious freedom is an “inviolable right” and the “killing in the name of God is fundamentally contrary to faith in God.”

For the letter’s signatories, the war against terrorism and terrorists’ state supporters represents a defense of these principles.

The attacks against innocent civilians in the United States were not an attack on particular policies and actions. With respect to these, give-and-take and negotiation are at least possible. No. War was explicitly declared by al Qaeda years ago because the United States represents a free, prosperous and pluralistic society open to all faiths. This freedom and pluralism is an anathema to an all-too-large, angry portion of the Islamic World who in the words of the letter, “betray fundamental Islamic principles.” We need not speculate on obscure motives for the attacks. Bin Laden was more than happy to characterize the “blessed attacks” as direct against the “head of world infidelity.” The attacks were launched because of who we are, for what we believe, and for our unwillingness to conform to a demented, dehumanizing perversion of Islam.

War is a severe measure with profound consequences and ought not be entered into upon lightly, without due consideration. Like our forefathers who asserted that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires… [that we] should declare the causes which impel” our action, the signatories openly outline the moral justification for a war on terrorism. The letter notes the general acceptance of some version of the “Just War Theory” by persons of many faiths. A just war must be undertaken only as a last resort by a legitimate authority, must be proportional and moderate and directed against combatants, and must be likely to reduce suffering in the long run. It is in this context, that the war is explained and rationalized. There are really only two legitimate points of view. One is a complete pacifism: the argument that killing is never justified, even in mortal self-defense. The alternative is to embrace a Just War Theory.

It is unfair to characterize and tarnish any political or ideological position based on its silliest, least thoughtful, or extreme elements. Such ploys are a typical tactic for polemicists of all kinds. For this reason, it is an embarrassment to consider the responses to this thoughtful open letter, by 100 US “intellectuals” in a corresponding letter.

This American response refuses to address the issues raised in the original letter, but indulges itself in a drunken brawl of anti-Americanism. One has to wonder whether this is really the best that 100 intellectuals from institutions as prestigious as Duke, Georgetown, Columbia, Rutgers, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley could muster.

The counter open letter ominously warns of intimidation against those that “fail to provide unquestioning support” for the war on terrorism, but fails to explain how in the face of this intimidation so many fearlessly signed the letter. Were any of the signatories dismissed from their positions or denied federal grants? No, rather than intimidation, on parts of college campuses, anti-Americanism is rewarded with encomiums and self-aggrandizing moral posturing.

These American respondents whine that “self celebration is a notorious feature of United States culture.” The flags festooning private homes and businesses or proudly displayed on lapels infuriate these people. They find it incredible that American yahoos really see themselves, as “prosperous, democratic, generous, welcoming, open to all races and religions, the epitome of universal human values and the last best hope of mankind.” They deny “American exceptionalism.” Their letter’s argument reduces to the assertion that American culture and government are at best flawed, possibly evil, and defense of them cannot be justified.

The signatories of the American response letter argue that since the attacks were “anonymous” and without any “claim of responsibility,” we must assume that the attacks were against American economic and military power not against American values. Given that the original letter quoted Bin Laden rejoicing in “blessed attacks” against “world infidelity,” the assertion that the attack was anonymous with hard to discern motives can only be seen as deliberate and willful ignorance. There was not even a weak attempt to adduce evidence to refute the original letter’s citation of al Qaeda and Bin Laden as the source of the attacks. This response by American intellectuals betrays an utter lack of intellectual honesty and moral seriousness.

To the credit of Europeans, the original letter and the responses have received far more attention there than in the United States. If there is any hope of the US garnering the support of its European friends, it is important to engage in a serious dialogue. Unfortunately, the response by European intellectuals does not address the issues raised in the original letter and at best collapses into the fallacy of moral equivalency. Perhaps it is best that this dialogue has not received much attention in the US, lest Americans begin to believe that the ranting of some European elites represents a European consensus.

The original thesis, in the first American letter, was that the war against terrorism is a just war. Although they are not explicit, the European respondents do not reject this argument and embrace a principled pacifism. The European letter, originally published in Frankfurter Allgermeine, acknowledges “the United States made an outstanding contribution to the liberation of Europe from the yoke of Nazism.” Hence, they unambiguously acknowledge that a just war is, in principle, possible. However, rather than directly addressing the issue as to whether the war against terrorism is just, they descend into historical revisionism. For example, rather than acknowledging the joint and remarkably peaceful victory of the West in the Cold War against a totalitarian power that divided Berlin with a wall, they suggest that “as a leading superpower during the period of East-West confrontation, [the US] was also largely responsible for grave abuses in the world.”

If we are to engage in a meaningful dialogue, European intellectuals ought not be so ethically obtuse as to argue that mass murder by the attackers of September 11, does not justify “mass murder of the Afghan population.” Are these intellectuals really incapable or just unwilling to recognize the evident moral distinction between attacks deliberately intended to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible and incidental and unintended civilian deaths in a war? If they wish to make the charge of “murder” ought not they at least produce some evidence of a deliberate intention to kill innocent civilians?

The canard of 4,000 innocent Afghan civilian deaths is even trotted out. This figure is based on third party reports and has largely been discredited. The Associated Press puts the number of civilian casualties in the hundreds and MSNBC reports “Afghan journalists for the official Bakhtar news agency, whose reports were used as a basis for Taliban claims, now say their dispatches were freely doctored.” Yet the number 4,000 is lent credence by unquestioning repetition because it is rhetorically convenient to suggest that as many civilian as were killed by Americans as by the terrorists. It feeds into to fallacy of moral equivalency.

The European signatories agree that the threat is misguided fundamentalism, but apparently not Islamic fundamentalism. No, they fear the “fundamentalism” of American religiosity and patriotism. “Many of us feel that the growing influence of fundamentalist forces in the United States on the political elite of your country, which clearly extends all the way to the White House, is cause for concern.” Islamic fundamentalists rejoice at the death caused by slamming commercial airliners into buildings, while some European elites fret that Americans have a president that takes his faith seriously. It is clear that most Europeans are not anti-American like the intellectuals who signed the recent letter. Indeed, these intellectuals remain concerned that “the political class in Europe” is engaged in “obsequious submission to the superior and sole superpower…” One would hope that the European intellectuals are as out-of-touch with the average European as their American counterparts are with average Americans. Once again Americans and, we hope, some Europeans will have to fight for the right for intellectuals to freely and ungratefully engage in moral posturing and deliberate distortion. You’re welcome.

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