(Editorial) “9/11, Ten Years’ Later”

The following was originally published in the Sewanee Theological Review for September, 2011.  It remains the copyright of the author and The University of the South.

It is ten years since the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, the attack on the Pentagon, and the downing of United Airlines Flight 93 which, but for the resistence of the passengers, would probably have been used to destroy the United States’ Capitol or possibly the White House.   These events, whatever else they achieved, made a new phrase part of the English language.  There can be few people in the west with any awareness at all of public affairs who do not know what is meant by the expression “nine eleven.”

Shortly after it happened, I remember hearing someone on television say, “The world has changed,” or words to that effect.  Of course it hadn’t.  No one who had lived through the London Blitz, as I did when I was a small boy,[1] no-one who had even been paying attention to the news since World War II, could seriously think that the world had changed on nine-eleven.  The world was what it had always been, a world in which the innocent often die at the hands of the violent, a world which crucified Jesus.  Perhaps a certain American perception of the world, the notion that such things could not happen here – perhaps that had changed.  If so, it was all.

What has happened since then?  Most obviously, we and our allies have involved ourselves in two wars, costly to us and others in blood and treasure.  Whether those wars were, in the sense in which Saint Thomas and others would understand the word “justifiable,” [2] is a matter of debate. Some say yes, some say no. What is not in doubt is that the initial reason why we claimed the right to undertake one of those wars (ius ad bellum) was based on a falsity.  We said we were invading Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein using his weapons of mass destruction against us.  On investigation, it appears that he did not have any[3] – as, incidentally, the United Nations inspection teams had warned us might be the case.  The French in particular, even accepting the possibility that Iraq might have WMD capability, still counseled against immediate war.[4]  We were not to be checked.  Whether those who led us into this war were none the less sincerely convinced that Hussein did have those weapons of mass destruction and was about to use them (the charitable view) or whether their allegations were merely a pretext for invasion (the uncharitable view) remains, again, a matter of dispute.

Since 9/11 we have talked much of “the war on terror” – and that, in my opinion, has been among our gravest mistakes.  I wrote at the time that we needed to treat what had happened as what it was, that is, a crime.[5]  And we needed to assign responsibility for dealing with it to the sphere which is proper for crime – that is, law enforcement, national and international.  We did not do that.  Instead, we immediately talked of war – and by doing that we bestowed on the murder of thousands of defenceless civilians precisely the dignity that its perpetrators wanted, for wars are waged by warriors and may have some degree of nobility, whereas crimes are committed by criminals and are merely shameful.  We would have done better to keep the distinction clear, at least in our own minds.  Ironically enough, when Osama bin Laden was finally brought to book, it was by what was in effect an extraordinarily well executed police action, carried out by trained specialists on the basis of good intelligence obtained by legitimate means (mostly surveillance) with very few collateral casualties.  If we had proceeded along those lines from the beginning, instead of rattling and then drawing our sabres, bin Laden might have been brought to book much sooner, with thousands fewer deaths, our own and others.

A matter that perhaps calls for even deeper concern is that in the process of conducting this alleged “war on terror” we have also, in the opinion of some, grievously compromised our own laws, most obviously habeas corpus and the laws of evidence.  The significance of those compromises, if compromises they are, remains to be seen.  Especially problematic is our admitted use of “enhanced interrogation,” that is, techniques of questioning suspects that, however we may choose to play linguistic games with them, seem difficult to distinguish in any practical way from torture.  The fact that torture and things like torture are not reliable ways of gathering intelligence has been known for centuries – anyone who doubts the matter need go no further than Freidrich Spee von Langenfeld’s Cautio Criminalis, originally published in 1631.  But even if such methods were reliable, even if the “ticking bomb” scenarios claimed by some (and denied by others) as justification for them were real, even if as some claim (and others deny) the information obtained by them saved lives, still there are those who believe that techniques such as waterboarding should be beneath us both as Christians and as upholders of a Consititution that forbids “cruel and unusual punishment.”[6]  Here, clearly, is matter for long and serious debate.  There are issues to be weighed.  What I find personally most disturbing about the present situation is that to judge by our media there is no debate, or not much.  We are far more interested in the sad, sad story of a Casey Anthony.  As for the torture (or whatever it was) that was conducted in our name, it is as if we have just accepted that this is the way things have to be.  Is it?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what still may be hoped for out of all this?  Where shall we go from here?  I have already mentioned the London Blitz of 1940-41.  Later on, of course, we in our turn with our American allies carpet-bombed the German cities. Dresden was turned into an inferno of fire. Thousands were killed.  To the angels this must have seemed like insanity piled upon insanity.  Could any meaning, any sense, or any hope possibly come out of it all?  There was a moment when perhaps it began to, though it was not until some years after the war.  It was when the teenage children of German pilots who had bombed Britain and the teenage children of British pilots who had bombed Germany embraced each other, weeping, in the ruins of their cities.  It was when together they erected an altar in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral that bore (and bears) the two words, “Father, forgive.”

Alas, we are very far from the moment when the children of Osama bin Laden and the children of those who died in the World Trade Center can embrace each other weeping.  But such a thing did not seem very likely in 1941, either.  If we are serious about what we claim to believe, then we must not cease to pray for such reconciliation and, if we have opportunity, to work for it, however improbable it may seem just at present.  Why must we pray for it?  Why must we work for it?  Because we believe in the generosity of God.  “Forgive us our sins,” we say, depending on that generosity – but in so doing we pledge ourselves to show the same generosity: “as we forgive those that sin against us.”  Do we mean it?  Or is it just words?  It is not easy to forgive our enemies.  I know that.  The picture of one of those towers crumpling, with all those people still inside it, is still etched in my mind.  I do not find it easy to pray for those who did it.  I do not find it easy to pray for the repose of the soul of Osama bin Laden.  But then, we do not pray for our enemies because it is easy.  We pray for them because Christ commanded it and set us an example.   And we follow Christ not because it is easy, but because he is Lord.


[1] Between September 1940 and June 1941 the Luftwaffe dropped 18,000 tons of high explosives on London and Londoners suffered over 40,000 dead – men, women, and children – all civilians, some of them policemen and firefighters.  I speak of the London Blitz simply because I experienced it.  Of course I am aware that there were far more brutal and destructive events in World War II than the Blitz. One could point to the Warsaw uprising and its aftermath (see Norman Davies, Europe and War: 1939-45 [London: Macmillan, 2006], 119-20), to Breslau and Dresden (op. cit., 124-25), or, of course, to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, regarding which Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II, said, “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.  The Japanese were almost defeated and ready to surrender…  in being the first to use it, we…  adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages” (cited in Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965], 238).

[2] I am aware that it has become fashionable recently, especially among those of a more liberal frame of mind, to scorn Thomas’ and others’ thoughts about “justifiable war” (see e.g. Aquinas,Summa Theologica 2.2. Qu. 40. Art. 1: text available in English athttp://www.newadvent.org/summa/304000.htm.).  Never the less, in a naughty world they still remain the best set of standards of which I am aware for controlling the basic insanity that is involved in war of any kind.  There are in current discussion eight generally recognized “justifiable war” principles, six of them concerned with the proper conditions for undertaking a war (ius ad bellum), and two with proper standards of conduct during it (ius in bello).  These include among others that before you fight, you must be sure that you have exhausted all peaceful means (such as diplomatic, legal, or economic) for resolving your dispute, you must have good reason to think that you can actually win your objectives (otherwise what is the point of sacrificing lives?), and you must have good reason to think that you can create a better situation after your war than before it (for the same reason): for a convenient summary see Allan M. Parrent, “The War in the Persian Gulf” STR 35.1 (1991): 14.

[3] On 30 September 2004, after more than 18 months of investigation, the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), consisting of more than one thousand AmericanBritish and Australian citizens, with the United States providing the bulk of the personnel and resources, released the Duelfer Report, its final report on Iraq’s purported WMD programs. Among its conclusions were: 1) Saddam Hussein had concluded his nuclear program in 1991. ISG discovered no evidence of efforts to restart it, and Iraq’s ability to run a nuclear weapons program decayed after 1991. (2) Iraq had destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile in 1991.  Only a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions were discovered by the ISG.  (3) Saddam’s regime had given up its biological weapons program in 1995. While it could have re-established an elementary biological weapons program within weeks, the ISG discovered no evidence that it was attempting to do so.  Saddam aspired to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability, which was essentially destroyed in 1991, after sanctions had been removed and Iraq’s economy stabilized.  He planned to focus on ballistic missile and tactical chemical warfare capabilities.

[4] The most important comment from France during the crisis was undoubtedly the speech given by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin at the Security Council on 14th February 2003.  De Villepin indicated three risks that would be incurred by a “premature recourse to the military option,” notably the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region.” He said that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace,” words that the event showed to be prescient. De VIllepan claimed that, “real progress is beginning to be apparent” through the UN weapons inspections, and pointed out that, “given the present state of our research and intelligence, in liaison with our allies,” the links between al-Qaeda and the regime in Baghdad that had earlier been alleged by Colin Powell, arguing the United States’ position, were not established.  De Villepan concluded by referring to the dramatic experience of “old Europe” during World War II.  De Villepan’s words “against war on Iraq, or immediate war on Iraq,” won what the BBC’s Sir David Frost described as “unprecedented applause” from the Security Council.  The text of de Villepan’s speech is available from the Embassy of France in Washington DC.

[5] “In the present case, obviously, it would be best for all concerned if those held to be responsible for the events of September 11th and their accomplices could simply be handed over to the proper legal authorities (in this case, evidently those of the United States, since the crimes, though international in scope, were actually committed in the United States) and brought to trial in the courts in accordance with the normal rules of jurisprudence” (Christopher Bryan, “Father Forgive…” STR 45.1 [December 2001] 6 n.2).

[6] “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” (Eighth Amendment to the United States’ Constitution, adopted, as part of the Bill of Rights, in 1791. The wording is evidently adapted from a provision in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, in which Parliament asserted, “that excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”)