On the Rhetoric of a "War on Terrorism": A Lecture Presented at Ashland University on September 17, 2001

Article excerpt

I am not sure if I can really add anything to the myriad of voices that you have heard concerning the events of September 11. As a Christian theologian and ethicist I don't dare propose that we can make total sense of the evil that occurred. In fact, there is danger in simple explanations -- the danger of domesticating evil, making it something understandable and explainable. True evil is inexplicable. As that which seems to go against everything we know about God's love and God's power, evil is what Karl Barth calls "the impossible possibility" -- it is that which exists which should not.

So I wouldn't dare venture a or the biblical perspective on this act of evil. It is no more explicable than the crucifixion or the Holocaust. Even if God could produce some good from these events, it would not help explain them.

But I will share with you some of my thoughts on the rhetoric surrounding the terrorist attack, in particular the rhetoric of the "War on Terrorism." Language is a powerful tool; the most powerful tool that humans have ever devised. It does more than describe in some kind of neutral way. Rather language has the power to create realities, to shape the very way we experience events. It allows us to communicate ideas and to convince people to view reality in a particular way.

And, so as a Christian and an ethicist who studies and teaches issues surrounding warfare, this language troubles me (and I think it ought to trouble you) for a number of reasons.

First, warfare is often the pretext for the suspension of human rights. This takes place on two fronts, the suspension of the rights of the people being attacked and the violation of rights of people in the nation doing the attacking. Let me talk about the rights of those being attacked. Too many people wrongly believe that there are no rules in warfare. They hold with General Sherman, that "War is Hell" and with Prussian General von Milke that "the greatest kindness in war is to bring it to a speedy end."

When this attitude is taken, then the intentional destruction of innocent lives is not seen as a limitation upon our actions. As long as the goal of winning the war is achieved, then any kind of means is justifiable, including killing the innocent with the wicked.

This seems to be the attitude in a startlingly poor piece of moral reasoning by the syndicated columnist Ann Coulter who writes in a piece called "Drop Bombs, Take Names Later":

This is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack. Those responsible include anyone anywhere who smile in response [to the attack]. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet bombed German cities. We killed civilians. That's war. And this is war. (Ann Coulter, Mansfield News Journal, September 17, 2001)

According to Coulter and her like, invoking the language of war permits the direct and intentional killing of innocent people.

But how is this any different than terrorism?

Michael Walzer talks about terrorism in light of the bombing of Hiroshima. "The bombing of Hiroshima was an act of terrorism; its purpose was political not military. The goal was to kill enough civilians to shake the Japanese government and force it to surrender. And this is the goal of every terrorist campaign" (Michael Walzer, "An Exchange on Hiroshima," New Republic, September 23, 1981).

In other words, terrorism is defined as the direct and intentional killing of innocent people with the purpose of achieving some greater goal, usually from the government of the people killed. …