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Special Report

Context for the conflict


In the agonizing spasms of a few morning hours on Sept. 11 our country changed, completely transformed from what it had been the day before.

Newspapers the week before had mulled over a small plane wreck that killed rhythm- and-blues singer Aaliyah. As NCR went to press a week later, the toll of dead or missing was mounting from a horrifying crash of passenger jetliners into the heart and soul of America’s commerce and its military.

Surreal nightmare images intruded brutally into formerly cozy warrens in our heads. The darkly evil beauty of explosions overhead mixed with the weary, dazed slump of soot-covered, grieving firefighters and police in New York’s financial district; a trapped office worker hanging from a high, doomed aerie waving a white shirt, together with teenage students lined up to donate blood.

There was a bitter irony in the worst incident of terrorism in U.S. history. Sept. 11 was the day set aside this year to mark the International Day of Peace.

By press time here, federal investigators had identified perpetrators, probably connected with Saudi exile Osama bin Laden. Congress debated policy for a country on a war footing, partisan wrangling over the budget completely forgotten. The Secretary of State was lining up allies for military and diplomatic actions yet to be determined. Stories of incredible heroism were emerging from the rubble in cities known for their 24-7 brisk pace.

Experts on terrorism and on Islamic culture and religion offered a variety of perspectives to NCR during telephone interviews about the events that transfixed the world for days.

George Lopez, director of policy studies and senior fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, in Great Bend, Ind., told NCR he sees this unprecedented event presenting an enormous challenge to Catholics -- and to Catholic schools like Notre Dame.

‘Deeply rooted in morality’

Catholics, he said, “can help remind the nation that we are a people who are deeply rooted in morality. Now we are very much the victims, the aggrieved party. Caught in the fog of war, a great and moral nation might be about to do things that a great and moral nation should not do.”

James Reilly, Mid-East historian at the University of Toronto, said clear heads would be urgently needed in the days ahead. “So strong is the thirst for revenge among many in the United States today -- understandably so -- the point is perhaps best remembered, that if the violence has political roots, there has to be an intelligent political strategy and not just a military one to deal with it,” he said. “But what that strategy is, God knows,” he said. “That’s not my job.”

To many in Islam, U.S. foreign policy, particularly its support for Israel, is seen as a modern, secular version of the 11th to 13th century Crusades, Reilly said -- a perspective that helps explain the pictures on television of some Palestinians celebrating the attacks.

Many Muslims are anti-American in the sense they see America as an adversary, as an enemy, he said, “as a country that has been able to throw its weight around in the Middle East with some impunity -- whether it is the battleship New Jersey shelling Lebanon in 1984, or the devastating air war against Iraq in 1991, or the American weapons being used at one remove by Israel in its battles with Lebanese guerillas or terrorists and against Palestinians. The United States itself has been behind these efforts in the view of many Muslims, but has not suffered any consequences.”

This Muslim extremism is not per se anti-Christian, or even religious, he said. The significant Christian communities in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Iran are not being sought out and attacked.

“I suppose among those who feel a sense of satisfaction” at the attack on New York, “it’s the old sentiment of what goes around comes around,” he said. “Of course, that’s equally true of America’s response to this attack. It is going to be terrible for whoever the United States decides to target.”

The Bush administration is making it clear there will be no leeway granted in retaliating against the terrorists. But even after that retaliation plays out, it’s unlikely a post-conflict resolution will lessen tensions between Islamic extremists and the United States, according to Rex Brynan, an authority on the Middle East and post-conflict resolution who teaches at McGill University, Montreal.

In past bombings, such as the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, said Brynan, “Osama bin Laden has shown a callous disregard for human life -- even that of other Muslims.” No ground for future negotiation, no change in U.S. foreign policy could offset Islamic extremists’ suicidal vendetta against the United States, he said.

“These terrorists -- predicating this on it being Osama bin Laden -- are beyond the pale, even among other Muslim extremist groups,” Brynan said. “It’s difficult to see anything the U.S. could do to offset the kind of raw fanaticism that he’s harvesting.”

Brynan noted that Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other groups that have used hijacking methods themselves “have already deplored the mass forfeiture of innocent lives in this attack.”

The anti-U.S. sentiment isn’t confined to Muslims, nor is it predominately religious -- Muslims vs. Christians, he said. He pointing out that the leadership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is disproportionately Christian. The anti-U.S. sentiment, he said, is the result of “dissatisfaction with a tilted U.S. foreign policy.”

It is “relatively easy when you’re a superpower to not listen,” said Brynan, “and it is probably important for the United States to do more listening.”

As campus experts around the country dealt with a barrage of questions from the nation’s press, many colleges and universities closed the afternoon of Sept. 11. As in the country at large, there was anger, bewilderment, fear and worry mixed with reflection, talk, mutual support and, at Catholic schools, a message that perhaps the only reasonable personal response is a faith response

Lopez of Notre Dame said Catholic colleges and universities can be places where people learn to listen -- “places of dialogue, debate and prayer.”

The terrorist problem is many-dimensional, Lopez emphasized, and “Catholic campuses can be places where we ask those critical questions that need to precede action to counter terrorism: Are our means justified by the ends? Is the just war doctrine just a checklist that, after we’ve cursorily ticked off the requirements, gives us the go ahead to do whatever we want? He referred to the principles of moral aggression set forth by St. Augustine in the fourth century and still regarded by some Catholic theologians as valid.

“We can urge that the criminal courts continue to be used in bringing terrorists to justice,” Lopez said. “If the only thing that will make us feel good, though, is a drastic action like taking out the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, then we need time to talk it over, think it through. Catholic campuses can be places of peace and reconciliation, offering creative and productive alternatives like non-violent conflict resolution.”

Keir Lieber, assistant professor in government and international studies at Notre Dame, told NCR he thinks the effect of recent attacks on people’s views of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will be profound.

“Now we can more easily put ourselves in the Israeli’s shoes and maybe more readily adopt their proactive approach to countering terrorism, which involves pre-emptive strikes and assassinating leaders,” he said. “The responsible policy is to target only the responsible people, avoiding killing the innocent.” Yet, in times of war or constant harassment by terrorism, it is much harder to do this. “The U.S. citizen sees on the news some Palestinians celebrating. The result is that it makes it even harder to separate the innocent from the responsible parties. Fine distinctions will be more difficult to make.”

Thomas Mockaitis, chair of the history department at De Paul University in Chicago and an expert on terrorism and counter-terrorism, was surprised “by the sophistication of the attack.”

“Many of us concerned with the terrorism problem recognized that sooner or later something like this would happen, but thought probably it would be chemical or biological. Our retribution as a country now will probably be out of all proportion to anything we have done to counter terrorism before.”

Mockaitis said he went home Tuesday night to talk things over with his teenage sons, and found them “ready to reduce Kabul to a rubble-filled parking lot. I explained to them that would mean more innocent people killed, that the Taliban regime was an oppressive one and the Afghan people are as much victims as anyone else.”

But there is no way the United States can sustain such an attack on our sovereignty without some large retaliation, he said. “On campus we’re prepared to spend time with the students, discussing and listening. A student I talked with on Tuesday explained to me that his generation never had a tragedy or a war to deal with.”

The temptation to demonize

Now the televised images of the World Trade Center towers collapsing has brought home a reality that doesn’t yet have a name attached to it.

Holy Cross Fr. Patrick D. Gaffney, professor of government and international studies at Notre Dame, and an expert on Islamic culture and history, told NCR he felt that conventional assumptions about Islam are part of the problem in dealing with terrorism and cause unwarranted animosity and reprisals against Muslims in the United States.

“The temptation is to stereotype, to oversimplify, to lump together. But our views of Islam and its adherents are ridden with errors and insensitivity. Identifying terrorists as representative of Islam is like identifying Ku Klux Klansmen as sole ambassadors of Christianity. Both have religious trappings and express religious motivations, but are in no way typical of Christian believers.”

The resort to terrorism roots itself in questions of power and international dynamics. The Islamic religion is often a filter through which we view all political activity in the mid-East and Central Asia, yet demonizing Muslims is wrong, he said.

The current situation in Afghanistan, for example, was shaped more by geopolitics than religion, according to Gaffney. Nationalists there took up the fight against Russian intrusion more than 20 years ago. The guerrilla fighters, the mujahideen, were counterinsurgents who came from all over the Muslim world, from Egypt, Syria, even the Balkans. They became Cold War pawns partly funded by the United States, Osama bin Laden among them.

After Russia’s defeat, many Muslim fighters went back home, determined to keep foreign influence out of the Muslim world. Gaffney pointed out that after the embassy bombings in 1998, which killed 213 in Kenya and 11 in Tanzania, the perpetrators who went on trial phrased their motivations in political language. One stated that he was avenging the children who had died as a result of U.S. sanctions against Iraq.

Speakers at Catholic colleges warned against blaming a race, religion or nationality for the attacks that shook New York City and Washington. “Whatever the race or ideology or professed religion of the terrorists who committed these awful actions today, we are called not to yield to stereotyping and scapegoating people who by accident of birth or history may seem to be like the guilty,” said Jesuit Fr. Paul Locatelli, president of Santa Clara University in California.

Among scores of events at Catholic schools around the country, St. Bonaventure University in St. Bonavature, N.Y., held a previously planned prayer service for the International Day of Peace at the Peace Pole outside the Thomas Merton Ministry Center. The University of Portland in Oregon kept a lit candle outside the chapel indicating private prayer going on inside.

The University of Dayton in Ohio convened a campus gathering with a program that included faculty offering historical perspectives and mental health professionals talking about how to deal with anger, confusion, fear.

There was no influx of students seeking to talk to therapists, according to David Mueller, director of the counseling center, just “healthy reflection and talk.”

Web sites for Catholic schools displayed notices of times and places for Masses and prayer services, and campus ministers and counselors rallied to offer support to students, faculty and staff.

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor. Arthur Jones contributed some information for this story.

National Catholic Reporter, September 21, 2001