ON THE RHETORIC OF A "War ON TERRORISM":
A Lecture Presented at Ashland University on September 17, 2001
by Kyle Fedler
If we engage in terrorism to combat terrorism, then the
terrorists have surely already won.
KYLE FEDLER is Assistant Professor of Religion at Ashland
University. He is currently working on a volume entitled Taking
Human Life: The Ethics of Killing in the Christian Tradition.
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,
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.
If we engage in terrorism to combat terrorism, then the terrorists
have surely already won. I can only imagine that the devil is licking
his (or her) lips over the possibility of Coulter's all-out war on the
just and unjust alike.
If, however, we use the rhetoric of a war on terrorism and maintain
a policy of "just war" in which a clear distinction is drawn
between combatants and noncombatants, then I am less anxious about the
rhetoric. Nevertheless I am still wary because war often leads to the
suspension of the rights of our own citizens.
It wasn't just Hitler who used the pretext of war (on both Europe
and the Jews) as a justification for the suspension of rights. We have
a long history of the same here in the United States. Even as great a
president as Lincoln used the pretext of war to suspend habeas corpus
and have civilians tried in secret military courts. During World War I
the First Amendment was all but suspended, as war protesters and
pamphleteers were commonly detained and imprisoned. We have seen the
Japanese internment and the McCarthy red scare, which allowed men like
Martin Luther King and Arthur Miller to be secretly recorded, followed
and photographed. During the Iran-Contra arms deal Reagan and men like
Oliver North felt free to bypass and lie to Congress all for the
greater good of winning the Cold War. (This is not to mention the
violation of the rights of neutral countries in which we engaged in
operations to overthrow democratically elected leaders of nations like
All of these actions were rationalized by the language of war. The
evil means justified the morally good end of winning the
"war." Too often, the means include the widespread violation
of our human and constitutional rights.
From a more Christian perspective, there is another reason that I
am suspicious of the rhetoric of a "war on terrorism."
During war our tendency is to depersonalize and demonize our enemies.
John Glenn Gray talks about this in his book The Warriors, in
which he says that during war, we tend to talk about enemies either in
the abstract "The" enemy, or as subhuman (Have you heard the
language of "vermin" filth, "animals"?) or we
characterize them as "demonic" (Remember Reagan's language
of Russia as the "Evil Empire"?)
So what is wrong with such rhetoric? When we totally dehumanize our
enemies, the terrorists, once again, have won. What democratic nations
are grounded on is equality of all persons, that no person is below
consideration. And at the heart of Christianity is the notion that all
persons, no matter how sinful, are made in the image of God. I think
this is what stands behind Jesus' injunction to pray for one's enemies
-- you can't pray for the devil or for vermin -- you pray for human
When we demonize our enemies we see ourselves as totally righteous
and the abstract enemy as totally evil. This may be comforting but it
is naive, self-righteous, and in my opinion supremely un-Christian.
When we do this we have been drawn into the simplistic dualism of the
terrorists who see themselves as totally righteous and all Americans
as totally evil.
To demonize our enemies, such that we can no longer envision them
as humans is to abandon the very symbols that have been so prevalent
during this crisis -- our churches and the flag.