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The remains of the day
>>Just War versus Holy War

PHOTO:  The Remains of the DayIf you take Osama bin Laden's messages or dictates seriously-and I believe we are well advised to do precisely that-the war he has declared against America is one that pits "infidels" against true believers. Infidels are all Christians, Jews, Muslims who do not share his extremist beliefs, and any and all unbelievers-to the man, woman, and child, without exception. He has made it explicit that in the struggle against the infidel no one is exempt-that he and his terrorist network make no distinction between those who wear and those who do not wear military uniforms. Thus, the horrific attacks of September 11, aimed explicitly at civilians whose only crime was to board an airplane or to go to work in the morning, must die in a holy war against infidels.

This is a grotesque abuse of a religious tradition. An imam who was part of a group of us who met with President George W. Bush at the White House on September 20, only hours before Bush's powerful speech before a joint session of Congress, expressed his outrage at this "hijacking" of Islam to evil purposes.

By contrast, the concepts and language evoked by the President and by many Americans to characterize the U.S. response to the September 11 attacks is that of a "just war" or a "just cause." A huge gulf separates the just war tradition from that of a holy war against infidels. Indeed, the just war concept has been evoked historically in an effort to counter and to criticize holy war and crusading efforts-by their definitions enterprises that recognize no limit. The just war tradition consists of two parts. The first part evaluates the occasions for war. A war must be declared by a legitimate authority; it must be a response to direct aggression and thus a redress to grievances; it can be triggered by knowledge that innocents (defined as those in no position to defend themselves) remain in harm's way unless an effort is made to interdict by force those who aim to harm them.

The second part of the tradition evaluates the means deployed in pursuing a just cause. There are two central categories here-those of discrimination, or noncombatant immunity, and of proportionality, or a determination to use only the means necessary to achieve a given end, whether that be just punishment for an act of aggression or interdiction in order to prevent further harm. You don't, for example, unleash a nuclear weapon when some other means will do the job. (Indeed, for nearly everyone in the just war tradition, you are never permitted to use nuclear weapons.) Noncombatant immunity is critical. This does not mean that civilians never come in harm's way. It does mean that they must not be the intended targets of attack. That the United States takes the rule of discrimination seriously is generously attested to by our foes who consistently put their own civilians in harm's way by placing them near military targets or bringing military targets to civilians.

PHOTO:  The Remains of the Day

Knowing that U.S. rules of engagement involve multiple restraints on targeting; knowing that American pilots put themselves in harm's way rather than to indiscriminately unload their ordnance, our opponents do everything they can to increase the likelihood that their own civilians become collateral damage. This makes it more difficult for us to fight certain sorts of foes, to say the least, but it is a restraint vital for America to observe. It is in fact something remarkable in the annals of warfare to see American military commanders go on television to apologize for civilian casualties. One is unlikely to find bin Laden doing that anytime soon. Quite the opposite: he exults in killing as many noncombatants as possible. That is the difference between an extremist holy war philosophy and a restrained just war approach.

When American presidents, as they are wont to do, conclude their speeches with, "May God bless America," this is not a triumphalist act of rhetorical bravado. It is, instead, an indication that the nations lie under judgment and that all nations and leaders are in need of divine guidance. Those who do not believe in anything divine do not believe anyone requires such guidance. But this has not been the dominant American tradition, from George Washington on down. If a President evoked the deity in a proclaimed desire to kill as many people as possible, that would be offensive; indeed, it would be something far worse. Asking for a blessing is a supplication, not a war cry.


Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller professor of social and political ethics in the Divinity School, was among some 20 American religious leaders invited to meet with George W. Bush at the White House in the aftermath of September 11. She is the author of many books, including Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy: A Life (Basic Books, 2001), and serves as cochair of the Pew Forum on Religion and American Public Life.


Ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain:
Just War versus Holy War

Iconologist W. J. T. Mitchell:
The War of Images

Philosopher Jonathan Lear:
"Why do they hate us so much?"

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  DECEMBER 2001

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