A month ago two bombs exploded near the finishing line of the Boston marathon killing three people and injuring 264. These were the latest attacks by extreme Islamists claiming to be in retaliation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “war on terror” is not over.
On 24 January 1878, the Marxist Vera Zasulich shot and wounded a Russian police commander who was known to torture suspects. She threw down her gun without killing him, announcing; “I am a terrorist, not a killer.” The phrase “war on terrorism” was used the British colonial government in Palestine in the late 1940s to describe their efforts to end attacks by Zionist Jews. The British proclaimed a “War on Terrorism” against specific Zionist groups and anyone cooperating with them. The phrase “war on terrorism” was also used frequently by US President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, to describe his campaigns against Libya and Nicaragua.
In 1990s under the Islamist extremist rule of the Taliban Al-Qaeda formed a large base of operations in Afghanistan, led by the radical Islamist Osama Bin Laden. Following bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, U.S. President Bill Clinton launched Operation Infinite Reach, a bombing campaign in Sudan and Afghanistan against targets the US claimed were associated with al-Qaeda.
On the 11th of September 2001 the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were destroyed in an attack two Boeing 767 aircraft hijacked by members of Al Aqaeda. 2,753 people were killed. On September 20, 2001, during a televised address to a joint session of congress, President George W. Bush launched his war on terror when he said, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Bush did not say when he expected this would be achieved.
Since then a number of conventions and protocols designed to combat terrorism have become part of international law. In 2005 the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1624 concerning incitement to commit acts of terrorism. So for most of the 21st century the major world powers have been involved in “the war on terror”. “The war on terror” is a soundbite which many politicians and analysts love to use and large segments of the media and the press love to talk about. But what does God think about “the war on terror”? At first hearing, a “war on terror” sounds like something God would approve of. A war against people being terrified, a war to prevent people having to live in terror, a war against terrorists and terrorism all sound very good ideas. But think a bit deeper and the issue is not so simple.
For a start, the name is just silly. “A war on terror.” Terror is not a place, it is not a group of people. Terror is an abstract noun. You can’t locate it or surround it. You can’t capture it or kill it. It can’t be destroyed by weapons or by signing a peace treaty. Terrorism is simply a tactic. At one level, the idea of “a war on terror” really is just as silly as “a war on the colour blue”.
And in ex-President Bush’s understanding, the war on terror will be a perpetual war – it will never end. He said it “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” In that same speech, he called the war “a task that does not end.” The word “war” is not necessarily appropriate, since there is no identifiable enemy or group enemies who have declared war or who need to be defeated and then there will be victory and peace. It is instead a battle against sin and evil which will never ever be won. Even if you use President Obama’s preferred language and talk about the war against “militancy” – it is an open ended conflict. Talk about a “war on terror” is just a way of justifying involvement in a number of different situations around the world without considering their individual distinctive circumstances. Anti-occupation insurgents in one place are NOT the same as international jehadists in other places. The actions of home-grown terrorists in one country do not necessarily justify military attacks on different groupings in other countries.
Just two years ago I asked, “What does God think about the death of Osama Bin Laden?” In that sermon I introduced the idea of a “just war.” Through the centuries Christians and other philosophers have been led to criteria which help them decide whether war is justifiable or not. Whether it is right to go to war and which methods are legitimate to use in warfare and which are not. The “just war” tradition seeks to provide moral guidance to political leaders as they consider the resort to force, and to provide guidance to military planners as they plan the conduct of the war and prosecute it. “Just war theory ” rests on Christian principles of loving your neighbour, protecting the innocent and defenceless, and the duty of the state to defend its people from evil. These “just war” traditions are now expressed in International Law in the Geneva and Hague conventions.
To start with, there are six things to think about when a nation is contemplating war.
1. War must be waged by a legitimate authority
that is, by the rightful ruler or government against an external enemy. So a sovereign state has a right to wage ware to protect its people. Terrorism is never “just war.” The real evil in terrorism is not that so many innocent people are killed. The heart of the evil is that only legitimate sovereign authorities have the right to wage war. Any use of force by local rulers, mercenaries or criminals is illegitimate.
2. War must be in a just cause
A just cause means defending the legitimate rights of the state, against an injustice already committed, an invasion or an attack, or an aggression against economic activity, or even an attack on a neighbour.
3. War must be undertaken with the right intention, which ultimately is a just and lasting peace.
A critical principle of just war is “right intentions.” “We make war that we may live in peace.” Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) Wars fought just to take what doesn’t belong to us or expand our borders or for revenge are unjust wars. A just war is not fought for self-interest but for the cause of justice and peace.
4. The principal of proportionality must apply –
The damage the war causes must bear relation to the seriousness of the issues over which war is declared. A minor injustice would not be sufficient to legitimise the major suffering a war produces.
5. The war should be a last resort,
All peaceful remedies must have been exhausted.
6. There should be a reasonable expectation of a successful outcome,
not as military triumph, of course, but in achieving the limitation of evil and a lasting peace.
That is a list of six things to consider when a nation is contemplating war. From a moral point of view the most important is the motivation, having the right intentions, “the eradication of some injustice which has befallen fellow human beings and which can be eliminated in no other way.” (David Brown)
But what about when the war has started? Some people (but none of them Christians) argue that once war has started then all methods should be employed to ensure that victory is achieved at a minimum of expense and time. Some suggest that morals are only for peacetime when conflicts can be resolved by peaceful means. They say that when it comes to war, “all things are fair”. They are wrong.
A seventh criterion in “just war theory” is concerned with HOW war is fought.
7. The MODE of conducting the war should be morally legitimate
A nation fighting for a just cause may still fight unjustly. Whatever the cause, nations are obliged to use just methods.
(a) The innocent must not be killed by indiscriminate slaughter.
In one word – discrimination. In war soldiers and other combatants become legitimate targets by being trained and armed, which in itself constitutes a sufficient threat to combatants on the other side. Those who join an army renounce their rights not to be targeted in war. But non-combatants (civilians, or ‘innocents’) should remain immune from attack. Innocent civilians must not be not killed or injured. They must be shielded from harm. They can never, for any reason whatsoever, be the targets of an attack. Modern warfare has become “total warfare,” where civilians as well as combatants have been treated as targets. But that is not legitimate in just war theory. There are certain tactics in war which have always been viewed as dishonourable. Attacking from beneath a flag or truce or surrender. Soldiers masquerading as civilians. The kind of suicide bombing that has taken place in Afghanistan or Iraq or Israel. Deliberately endangering civilians on either side by using them as a “human shield”. These tactics are universally judged to be unacceptable! Acts of terrorism are never acceptable because they are against innocent unsuspecting civilians. They do not “discriminate.”
(b) The war must not result in disproportionate evils to the enemy population, to the home populations or to the international community.
In one word – proportionality. Just war theory requires that the extent and violence of warfare are limited to minimise destruction and casualties. “Take no prisoners” violates that principle. A battle must end before it becomes a massacre. These principles of proportionality and discrimination exist to place limits on the violence of war.
“Just war theory” argues that the tactics of terrorism are always illegitimate and unacceptable. But just war theory also presents specific moral challenges to the legitimacy of the methods being used in this “war on terror”, particularly by USA. Before Iraq was invaded, the justification given was to prevent terrorist or other attacks by Iraq on the United States or other nations, not least by the perceived threat of weapons of mass destruction. Similar grounds were used to justify American and British presence in Afghanistan to remove the threat of Al-Qaeda terrorists. But such pre-emptive attacks are NOT acceptable under Just War theory. Invading a country that does not pose an imminent threat is also forbidden under international law. Extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan did not and do not present a “clear and present danger” to the Western world to an extent that justifies the level of military presence and the extent of collateral damage in those countries.
There are other problems with “the war on terror” as it has been fought by USA, and to some extent by the UK government. Some would say those governments have just used it as a slogan or a pretext to limit and abuse the human rights and civil liberties not only of foreigners but even of their own nationals. Critics have accused the US government of double standards and of many abuses of power. The confinement and treatment of suspected terrorists in Quantanamo Bay was not morally acceptable in the way it was carried out, and on balance the closure of the camp is a good thing. The practice of “rendition” with the security services perhaps involved in or aware of the torture of suspects was similarly indefensible.
It is a good thing that the UK has not followed USA in going overboard on “the war on terror.” For example after the London Bombings on July 7th 2005 the Director of Public Prosecutions said that those responsible for those acts of terrorism are not “soldiers” in a war, but “inadequates” who should be dealt with by the criminal justice system. He added that a “culture of legislative restraint” was needed in passing anti-terrorism laws, and that a “primary purpose” of the violent attacks was to tempt countries such as Britain to “abandon our values.” He stated that in the eyes of the UK criminal justice system, the response to terrorism had to be “proportionate, and grounded in due process and the rule of law”:
“London is not a battlefield. Those innocents who were murdered…were not victims of war. And the men who killed them were not, as in their vanity they claimed on their ludicrous videos, ‘soldiers’. They were deluded, narcissistic inadequates. They were criminals. They were fantasists. We need to be very clear about this. On the streets of London there is no such thing as a war on terror. The fight against terrorism on the streets of Britain is not a war. It is the prevention of crime, the enforcement of our laws, and the winning of justice for those damaged by their infringement.
The former head of MI5 Stella Rimington, has criticised the war on terror as a “huge overreation”. She has said that the way the USA has militarised and politicised “a war against terror” is entirely the wrong approach., and had decried the militarization and politicization of the U.S. efforts to be the wrong approach to terrorism. This January the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, wrote “ultimately, the notion (of “a war against terror”) is misleading and mistaken” and later said “Historians will judge whether [the notion] has done more harm than good”.
So all in all it is a good thing that the Obama administration requested that Pentagon staff members stop talking about the “war on terror.” The new language is apparently “Overseas Contingency Operation”.
But no-one can deny that over the last 12 years especially, “the war on terror” has changed the way we all feel about the world. Getting on board an aeroplane is a lot more complicated and laborious. Policemen carry guns in lots more public places than they used to. Everybody is more suspicious and fearful of strangers than we once were – especially foreigners in certain kinds of eastern dress. Anybody who knew anybody who has been killed or injured in the various terrorist attacks will see life a different way. Perhaps the greatest legacy that “the war on terror” has produced is one of fear. Fear of terrorism. Fear of the unknown enemy. Fear that at any moment a complete stranger will attack and kill and injure completely innocent people who are just going about their ordinary business. This is a fear stirred up by politicians. A fear fuelled by irresponsible media and press. But a fear which affects the lives of all of us and blights the lives of many. It is a fear which has allowed some democratic governments to do things which their people would otherwise not have allowed them to do.
What does God think about the war against terror? I think God wants us not to be afraid! In reality the risks each one of us face from extremists and terrorists are not much greater since September 11th 2001 than they were before. In 1993 an IRA bomb wrecked the area around Bishopsgate and Liverpool Street Station, killing 40 people, in an area which many Chelmsford people would know very well. In 1996 a similar bomb exploded not killing anybody but injuring hundreds and destroying much of the town centre of Manchester, the city I grew up in. However much the politicians and media have used phrases like “the war on terror” to stir up fear, we are not at war in the way we were when Nazi bombings were destroying our cities and frontline battles claiming the lives of thousands of our soldiers.
God would want us not to be afraid. There have always been evil men. Good people have always been at risk from evil – that is part of the problem of living in a fallen world. But God’s answer to the threat of attack is not military action in faraway countries, but faith in God’s protection. Psalm 37 invites us to put our trust in God.
1 Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong;
2 for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
8 Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.
10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. 11 But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.
Remember the words of Jesus – Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth! Put your trust in God!
12 The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them;
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.
14 The wicked draw the sword and bend the bow to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose ways are upright.
15 But their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken.
32 The wicked lie in wait for the righteous, seeking their very lives;
33 but the LORD will not leave them in their power or let them be condemned when brought to trial.
34 Wait for the LORD and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land;
when the wicked are cut off, you will see it.
Whether the threat is international terrorists or home-grown criminals or vindictive neighbours – God wants us to put our trust in Him and not to fear.
And as well as ending fear, God wants to banish suspicion. “The war against terror” has fuelled suspicion and hatred especially against people whose skin may look different and who may follow a different religion but are still our neighbours in this global village. For their own reasons, some politicians and some newspapers use slogans like “the war on terror” to make us believe that every Arab and every Muslim is a terrorist. Those ideas are completely wrong, and just as evil and just as damaging anything any terrorist could do to us! We have to fight against suspicion and hatred and fear in every part of life.
18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, (1 John 4:18)
Time and again the Bible encourages us to put our trust in God.
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty
2 I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,my God, in whom I trust.”
3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his feathers,and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
5 You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.
Whatever the world may bring against us – trust in God. His love and faithfulness will never let us down. Whether it is the actually very remote threat of terrorism, or whether it is more obvious and immediate dangers, we should follow the advice of Psalm 37.
3 Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
4 Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this:
6 He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.