In the wake of the horrific attacks of September 11, many people find their feelings of sadness and shock mixed with anger and calls for war. But war would be horribly wrong for at least five reasons.
1. Guilt hasn't yet been proven.
As the New York Times acknowledged, "Law enforcement officials ... appear to have little solid evidence tying Mr. bin Laden's group to the attacks" (NYT, 20 Sept. 2001). If we believe in law and justice, when crimes are committed we don't advocate that victims who have a strong hunch about culprits impose punishment. We demand proof. We reject vigilantism. We reject guilt by association. This is elementary and uncontestable, except when fear and the drums of war cloud consciousness. In the case of September 11, though an Islamic or Middle Eastern connection seems clear, there are many extremist groups that might have been responsible. To rush to punitive judgment, much less to war, before responsibility has been determined violates basic principles of justice. Guilt should be proven, not suspected.
2. War would violate International Law.
International law provides a clear recourse in situations of this sort: present the matter to the Security Council, which is empowered under the UN Charter, the fundamental document of contemporary international law, to take appropriate action. The Security Council has met and unanimously denounced the terrorist attacks, passing a strong resolution. But the Security Council resolution did not -- despite what Washington might claim -- authorize the use of force, and especially not a unilateral use of force. The resolution ends by saying that the Council "remains seized of the matter," which as former UN correspondent Phyllis Bennis notes, is "UN diplo-speak" meaning that "decision-making remains in the hands of the Council itself, not those of any individual nation." To be sure, the UN Charter allows countries to act in self-defense which would permit the United States to shoot down a terrorist plane, for example. But it has long been clear UN doctrine that self-defense does not allow countries to themselves launch massive reprisal raids -- precisely because to allow such reprisals would lead to an endless cycle of unrestrained violence.
3. War would be unlikely to eliminate those responsible for the September 11 attacks.
If bin Laden is indeed the evil genius responsible for the September 11 attacks, is it credible that he and his top aides would be so bumbling as to wait around for the U.S. military to exterminate them? We know they have already abandoned their training camps (NYT, 19 Sept. 2001). They may have relocated themselves to some unknown caves in the Afghan mountains, they may have moved into various Afghan villages, blending in with the population, or they may even have left the country entirely. Are U.S. bombers and cruise-missiles really going to find bin Laden and unknown associates? It's doubtful that Washington has good intelligence as to their whereabouts; when the U.S. launched cruise missiles at bin Laden in 1998 -- with the advantage of surprise -- its information was out of date and he was already gone. It's likely to be even harder to find him and his lieutenants now. War is hardly the most effective way to pursue the perpetrators and they are hardly likely to be its primary victims.
4. Huge numbers of innocent people will die.
It was precisely the fact that the September 11 attacks killed large numbers of civilians that made the attacks terroristic and so horrific. If it is immoral to slaughter thousands of Americans in an effort to disrupt the U.S. economy and force a change in U.S. policy, it is no less immoral to slaughter thousands of Afghans in an effort to force the Taliban to change its policy. The United States is moving large numbers of warplanes and missile-launching vessels into the region, yet there are hardly any military targets in Afghanistan for them to attack. It is inevitable that civilians will bear the brunt of any major campaign -- civilians who, in their vast majority, probably are ignorant not only of the recent terrorist assault on the U.S., but probably even of bin Laden himself. Ground forces might be less indiscriminate, but it's hard to imagine that Washington's military plans won't involve the massive application of force, with horrendous human consequences.
While the image of bombers flying over Afghanistan and bombing a people whose average lifespan is about 45 years of age and who are suffering terrible deprivation already -- not least due to the Taliban, which the U.S. helped create and empower -- is horrifying enough, it is important to realize that death and deprivation come in many forms. Even without widespread bombing, if the threat to attack the civilian population or outright coercion of other countries leads to curtailment of food aid to Afghanistan, the ensuing starvation could kill a million or more Afghans by mid-winter. Is this the appropriate response to terror?
5. War will reduce the security of U.S. citizens.
What drives people to devote -- and even sacrifice -- their lives to anti-American terrorism? No doubt the causes are complex, but surely deep feelings of anger and frustration at the U.S. role in the Middle East is a significant factor. If the United States goes to war some terrorists may certainly be killed, but so too will many innocent people. And each of these innocent victims will have relatives and friends whose anger and frustration at the United States will rise to new heights, and the ranks of the terrorists will be refilled many times over. And the new recruits will not just come from Afghanistan. To many Muslims throughout the Middle East, war will be seen as an attack on Islam -- and this is one reason that many of Washington's Islamic allies are urging caution. Significantly, the New York Times reports that the "drumbeat for war, so loud in the rest of the country, is barely audible on the streets of New York" (NYT, 20 Sept. 2001). Their city suffered unbearable pain, but many New Yorkers know that the retaliatory killing of people in the Middle East will not make them any safer; on the contrary, it is likely to lead to more, not less terror on U.S. soil, and in any event, would wish the same pain on still more innocent people.
The dynamic of terror and counter-terror is a familiar one: it leads not to peace but to more violence. Israel's response to terrorism hasn’t brought Israelis more security. Nor has retaliatory terrorism made people more secure elsewhere. Indeed, it is quite likely that the perpetrators of the terror attack on the United States would like nothing more than to induce a massive U.S. military response which might destabilize the whole region, leading to the creation of millions of holy warriors and the overthrow of governments throughout the Islamic world. Whether bin Laden's al-Qaeda or some other extremist group or groups is responsible, war might play right into their hands, reducing the security of us all.
Michael Albert & Stephen R. Shalom