Politics & Policy

We Need Answers

Just how dangerous is our world? How do we determine that? What do we do about it?

The anniversary always reopens the wound.

I didn’t lose anyone that day. But I was there in the days that followed — as a chaplain at the command post for missing persons on 25th & Lexington in Manhattan — trying to help some of those who did.

This fifth anniversary of 9/11 has been characterized by a notably more intense remembrance of our past — and pondering of our future.

Last Friday, Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger was particularly eloquent . He wrote:

Ground Zero, uncompleted and broken, is an apt metaphor for the consequent events in America that came after it — the war on terror, and the insular politics that left this awful un-built site. The site is an unclosed grave. It is a rebuke surely to New York’s politics, but a mocking rebuke as well to a national ethos of public life that would rather wallow in problems than resolve them. Ironic it is that in our time the state of being most avidly sought after tragedy is ‘closure.’ In truth, we’d rather not.

The different media takes last week on America’s struggle — past, present and future — with Islamic terrorism were breathtakingly disparate.

Time Magazine asked historian Niall Ferguson to write a futuristic piece , as a historian writing in 2031 and looking back on what happened in the 30 years since the tragedy. Ferguson used this literary device, not only to fantasize about such things as the next president (Mark Warner), the longevity of Rupert Murdoch (who celebrates his 100th birthday) and a catastrophic Chinese economic collapse; he also used it to articulate his own version of current events: 2006 finds us in the twilight of the American era. The Bush strategy — or at least its execution — is fatally flawed. Islamic terrorism will thrive more easily in the new Middle Eastern “democracies” than in the old rogue dictatorships.

Time countered Ferguson’s take with a rebuttal by Max Boot. Too many Americans, he opined, have been too quick to judge the Bush administration’s efforts and are guilty of expecting “results overnight.” The Muslim masses in the Middle East, according to Boot, hunger for “change” (that is, democracy). Militant Islam may still crumble one day just as the Soviet empire crumbled after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Only time will tell.

And in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Newt Gingrich unfurled what is arguably the most bold and ominous take on events to date. In Gingrich’s opinion, we are quite simply on the very cusp of World War III. High on the list of his action items was a request that Congress “pass an act” recognizing this fact — that we are entering World War III — and serving notice that “the U.S. will use all it resources to defeat our enemies.”

If that’s not enough for disparate views on what’s really happening in the world, we might ask what Pope Benedict thinks of all this. On the one hand, the pope is clearly on record as rejecting absolute pacifism for the simple reason that absolute pacifism is un-Christian and would amount to a “capitulation to injustice” as he once put it. On the other hand, the pontiff is certainly no hawk. On the contrary, it is now evident that his choice of the name “Benedict” had everything to do with emulating the role of the “peace Pope” Benedict XV who endured and condemned the horrors of World War I and whose calls for peace, if indeed futile, were unrelenting. The 21st-century Benedict says war “brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors.” And it’s no secret that the present Benedict is no booster of the American military intervention in Iraq.

Five years after 9/11 and the launch of the “war on terror,” this chasmal disparity of views and perspectives on war, on the nature of the threat posed by militant Islam, and what our proper response ought to be, raise some gut-wrenching questions.

First of all, what is our real situation at present? Are we — as Newt Gingrich would have us believe — on the verge of WW III, worldwide anti-American/anit-Israeali/anti-West Islamic Jihad? Or, as Niall Ferguson fantasizes, will further conflict be obviated and the “shock and awe” of the “war on terror” mollify itself into the quiet hum of hard drives as advanced intelligence techniques cum nanotechnology allow us to track and neutralize terrorists 24/7? Is Islamic terrorism an unstoppable Hydra monster, reappearing twice as strong wherever one of its heads has been lopped off, spreading its clutches over the entire globe and proliferating mass destruction? Or can this Hydra be pacified if — once and for all — we just get down to the business of addressing the injustices that give rise to terrorism?

Secondly, who should we trust to tell us what our real situation is? Since the outbreak of the war in Iraq, when asked our opinion on the matter — whether the war was justifiable, whether Iraq was the right move, or a distraction from the real war on terror — in our more honest moments, most of us had to say we just don’t know given the unprecedented complexities of the issues involved. And a command of those complexities is not going to come from reading the latest best-selling book on militant Islam. So the question facing most of us is: How are we going to evaluate where the truth lies? To whom shall we turn for that objective assessment of how things really are? The president? Congress? Academia? The Vatican? The U.N.? Some combination of all of these?

Thirdly and most importantly: What ought we to do? Pressure Congress to authorize American conduct of an epic world war to save our civilization? Or shall we rather convince ourselves that diplomacy — and if necessary an occasional small-scale war — will get the job done?

The tensions and urgency notwithstanding, the pace at which the present conflict is unfolding may nonetheless hold out to us a small window of time and the opportunity to pursue these questions in the public square like never before. How much impact that discourse can have on our shared future as Americans of good will depends on our stamina in seeking answers to these questions and in courageously confronting genuinely inconvenient truths with intellectual honesty and rigor.

We must continue to draw on all the tools at our disposal — our Scriptures, our traditions, our scholars, our experts in the field. Within Catholic circles, for instance, I have been hearing for five years that we need to “re-think” the natural-law tradition of “just war theory” to accommodate and countenance the new threats posed by organized terrorism. It is now high time for moral theologians to step forward, present their wares and offer the Church a rigorously thought out and carefully rearticulated theory.

We’ve had five years of hearings, and reports, and New York Times best sellers; we hear continuously from bloggers, politicians, protesters, and pundits. Some of this has been useful and constructive. Much of it has been the refuse of our truly “insular politics.” And even when useful, what has it really garnered us toward charting a course for the future? We need the best minds on offer invigorating our national moral discourse and we need Americans to be engaged in that discourse.

But well beyond expertise, what we most need is wisdom. We would do well, that is, to follow Aristotle’s advice for just such times: to seek the guidance of persons whose accrued wisdom testifies to their consistent exercise of the virtue of prudence. Throughout history, such men and women have not been lacking to humanity. While the western Roman empire was falling into chaos, Augustine of Hippo was writing the City of God, and a century later, Benedict of Nursia was founding his first monastery; men like Peter Claver and William Wilberforce withstood the Hydra of the slave trade; from the most cruel hell-holes of human poverty arose Teresa of Calcutta; and while Europe struggled to free itself from the grasp of Fascism, the young Karol Wojtyla was stealing away from work at the stone quarry in Nazi occupied Poland to read metaphysics — becoming the man who would lead the moral and intellectual assault on Soviet Communism.

I don’t believe such individuals are lacking to us today. They’re out there, thank God! The real question is whether we will be genuine seekers after moral truth, whether all Americans of good will can muster the strength to work toward answers to this crisis which are harmonious with the dignity and high calling of humanity — and whether our national ethos will be one of moral greatness or of moral opacity.

Fr. Thomas Berg, L.C., is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person.

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