The Ethics of the New War

Joel H. Rosenthal Joel H. Rosenthal

Newsletter cover story from the September/October 2001 issue

As we go to press, there is vigorous debate over the appropriate response to the attacks of September 11. President Bush uses the language of war. But it remains to be seen just what kind of war he has in mind.

Will this be a metaphorical war such as the war on poverty or the war on drugs? Will it be a cold war - a long struggle punctuated by hot, vicious flashes on the periphery? Or will this be a full-scale war, rearranging the social order at home and the political order abroad?

President Bush quickly achieved his first goal, mobilizing much of the world to join his global campaign against terrorism. But can the campaign be won without generating a downward spiral of violence and without inflaming the political tinderbox at the crossroads of Central and South Asia?

Strategic decisions on how to move ahead will be filled with moral significance. On the one hand, the enemy could be pursued as in war, subject only to the traditional rules of war such as the law of armed conflict and policies such as unconditional surrender. Individuals, too, might be targeted, with assassination being considered in certain circumstances. On the other hand, the enemy could be pursued as criminals, using strategies and rules that resemble the ongoing domestic fight against organized crime.

In the initial stages of response, both options were kept open: war was declared and the enemy was defined as a criminal network that must be brought to justice. The great effort expended in building a diverse international coalition suggested that the criminal justice response was a viable strategic choice. The terrorists would be hunted down and punished. Yet the Bush administration's decision to extend responsibility beyond the terrorists and their informal networks to the states that harbor them suggests a potential widening of the conflict. How wide should the circle of responsibility be drawn?

As the U.S.-led coalition gathers its forces for the new war, history itself will be put on trial. To explain how we arrived at this point, grievances will be aired over American policies in the Middle East -- ranging from the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia to the U.S. role in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. While this line of discussion is often illuminating, it should not lead to the fallacy of moral equivalence. Nothing justifies terrorism, period. To suggest that anti-American terrorism is merely the world pushing back at American hegemony is to suggest that terrorism has a legitimate place in the twenty-first century.

President Bush says that this new war is brought to the United States against its will, and that "it will end in a manner and at an hour of our choosing." In getting to this final hour, let us judge the choices that are made according to the values that represent the best in human civilization, not the worst. Evil cannot be eradicated once and for all; it is intrinsic to human nature and the human condition. But evil acts must be checked, punished, and deterred. Can this be done in manner that serves justice and security concerns while avoiding excessive moral rhetoric and the dangers of a crusade? These are the questions that will define the new war and provide the criteria to judge those who will fight it.

Read More: Ethics, War on Terror

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