A Just Response | The Nation


A Just Response

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America and Americans on September 11 experienced the full horror of what must surely be the greatest display of grotesque cunning in human history. Its essence consisted in transforming the benign, everyday technology of commercial jet aircraft into weapons of mass destruction. There has been much talk about Americans discovering the vulnerability of their heartland in a manner that far exceeds the collective trauma associated with the attack on Pearl Harbor. But the new vulnerability is radically different and far more threatening. It involves the comprehensive vulnerability of technology closely tied to our global dominance, pervading every aspect of our existence. To protect ourselves against the range of threats that could be mounted by those of fanatical persuasion is a mission impossible. The very attempt would quickly turn the United States into a prison-state.

About the Author

Richard Falk
Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, is the United Nations Human...

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And yet who can blame the government for doing what it can in the coming months to reassure a frightened citizenry? Likely steps seem designed to make it more difficult to repeat the operations that produced the WTC/Pentagon tragedy, but it seems highly unlikely that a terrorist machine intelligent enough to pull off this gruesome operation would suddenly become so stupid as to attempt the same thing soon.

The atrocity of September 11 must be understood as the work of dark genius, a penetrating tactical insight that endangers our future in fundamental respects that we are only beginning to apprehend. This breakthrough in terrorist tactics occurred in three mutually reinforcing dimensions: (1) the shift from extremely violent acts designed to shock more than to kill, to onslaughts designed to make the enemy's society into a bloody battlefield, in this instance symbolically (capitalism and militarism) and substantively (massive human carnage and economic dislocation); (2) the use of primitive capabilities by the perpetrators to appropriate technology that can be transformed into weaponry of mass destruction through the mere act of seizure and destruction; (3) the availability of competent militants willing to carry out such crimes against humanity at the certain cost of their own lives. Such a lethal, and essentially novel, combination of elements poses an unprecedented challenge to civic order and democratic liberties. It is truly a declaration of war from the lower depths.

It is important to appreciate this transformative shift in the nature of the terrorist challenge both conceptually and tactically. Without comprehending these shifts, it will not be possible to fashion a response that is either effective or legitimate, and we need both. It remains obscure on the terrorist side whether a strategic goal accompanies this tactical escalation. At present it appears that the tactical brilliance of the operation will soon be widely regarded as a strategic blunder of colossal proportions. It would seem that the main beneficiaries of the attack in the near future are also the principal enemies of the perpetrators. Both the United States globally and Israel regionally emerge from this disaster with greatly strengthened geopolitical hands. Did the sense of hatred and fanaticism of the tactical masterminds induce this seeming strategic blindness? There is no indication that the forces behind the attack were acting on any basis beyond their extraordinary destructive intent.

And so we are led to the pivotal questions: What kind of war? What kind of response? It is, above all, a war without military solutions. Indeed it is a war in which the pursuit of the traditional military goal of "victory" is almost certain to intensify the challenge and spread the violence. Such an assessment does not question the propriety of the effort to identify and punish the perpetrators and to cut their links to government power. In our criticism of the current war fever being nurtured by an unholy alliance of government and media we should not forget that the attacks were massive crimes against humanity in a technical legal sense, and those involved in carrying them out should be punished to the fullest extent. Acknowledging this legitimate right of response is by no means equivalent to an endorsement of unlimited force. Indeed, an overreaction may be what the terrorists were seeking to provoke so as to mobilize popular resentment against the United States on a global scale. We need to act effectively, but within a framework of moral and legal restraints.

First of all, there should be the elementary due process of convincingly identifying the perpetrators and their backers. Second, maximum effort should be made to obtain authorization for any use of force in a specific form through the procedures of the United Nations Security Council. Unlike the Gulf War model, the collective character of the undertaking should be integral at the operational level, and not serve merely as window dressing for unilateralism. Third, any use of force should be consistent with international law and with the "just war" tradition governing the use of force--that is, it should discriminate between military and civilian targets, be proportionate to the challenge and be necessary to achieve a military objective, avoiding superfluous suffering. If retaliatory action fails to abide by these guidelines, with due allowance for flexibility depending on the circumstances, then it will be seen by most as replicating the fundamental evil of terrorism. It will be seen as violence directed against those who are innocent and against civilian society. And fourth, the political and moral justifications for the use of force should be accompanied by the concerted and energetic protection of those who share an ethnic or religious identity with the targets of retaliatory violence.

Counseling such guidelines does not overcome a dilemma that is likely to grow more obvious as the days go by: Something must be done, but there is nothing to do. What should be done if no targets can be found that are consistent with the guidelines of law and morality? We must assume that the terrorist network anticipated retaliation even before the attack, and has taken whatever steps it can to "disappear" from the planet, to render itself invisible. The test, then, is whether our leaders have the forbearance to refrain from uses of forces that are directed toward those who are innocent in these circumstances, and whether our citizenry has the patience to indulge and accept such forbearance. It cannot be stressed too much that the only way to win this "war" (if war it is) against terrorism is by manifesting a respect for the innocence of civilian life and by reinforcing that respect with a credible commitment to the global promotion of social justice.

The Bush Administration came to Washington with a resolve to conduct a more unilateralist foreign policy that abandoned the sort of humanitarian pretense that led to significant American-led involvements in sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans during the 1990s. The main idea seemed to be to move away from liberal geopolitics and to downsize the international US role by limiting overseas military action to the domain of strategic interests, and to uphold such interests by a primary reliance on America's independent capabilities. Behind such thinking was the view that the United States does not need the kind of help that it required during the cold war, and at the same time that it should not shoulder the humanitarian burdens of concern for matters that are remote from its direct interests. Combined with the Administration's enthusiasm for missile defense and weapons in space, such a repositioning of foreign policy was supposed to be an adjustment to the new realities of the post-cold war world. Contrary to many commentaries, such a repositioning was not an embrace of isolationism, but was a revised version of internationalism based on a blend of unilateralism and militarism. In the early months of the Bush presidency this altered foreign policy was mainly expressed by repudiating a series of important, widely supported multilateral treaty frameworks, including the Kyoto Protocol dealing with global warming, the ABM treaty dealing with the militarization of space and the Biological Weapons Convention dealing with implementing the prohibition on developing biological weaponry. Allies of the United States were stunned by such actions, which seemed to reject the need for international cooperation to address global problems of a deeply threatening nature.

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