A review of Just War Against Terror. By Jean Bethke Elshtain.

Basic Books, 2003.

This volume very nicely brings together four broad themes into one focused discussion. The nature of radical Islam, the threat of terrorism, the doctrine of just war, and the place of American power in a turbulent world are the major issues treated. University of Chicago professor of social and political ethics Jean Bethke Elshtain is well suited to this task.

She deftly merges the various streams of philosophy, theology, ethics, politics and international relations into a coherent account of how the US in particular and the West in general should proceed after September 11. She reminds us that appeasing terrorism is not the answer, yet we need to deal with the threat of militant Islam in a way that does not violate our own ethical codes and political ideals.

As such, this book has a bearing on recent events which were unknown at the time of writing, notably the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandals. How can democratic nations defend both their values and their borders against an enemy that does not play by the rules, and is happy to use the freedoms associated with democracy in its attempts to destroy it? How can we uphold ethical standards and at the same time weed out those committed to undermining our way of life?

How can democratic nations respond to terror without resorting to terror? Indeed, can moral distinctions be made in this regard? Is all killing and the use of force evil, or is it sometimes justified? Should we accept the argument of moral equivalence which states that American use of force is just as bad as Muslim terrorism? And, as some assert, did America bring September 11 upon itself?

These and other questions are expertly addressed in this incisive work. An overriding theme of the volume is that America has a moral and civil obligation to withstand those who seek to destroy it. America has the right to defend freedom and the ideals and values that make America a beacon for many around the world.

Indeed, the author is also one of sixty signatories of “What We’re Fighting For,” which is included as an appendix to this book. This document explores some of these core values and the right of a democratic nation to celebrate those values as well as defend them, when necessary.

Segments of this volume examine the political realism of Tillich and Niebuhr, and lay out the doctrine of just war as elaborated by Augustine, Aquinas and others. Augustine said that tranquillitas ordinis, or ordinary civic peace, was the primary responsibility which a government must provide. Without  secure civic order, none of the basic human goods that people aspire to can flourish.

Thus a just government will protect its people from internal anarchy and outward threats. And one of the greatest outward threats that Western nations face today comes from terrorists and fanatics, often associated with Islamic extremism. What happened on September 11 2001 was not the first of such assaults, but it was the most glaring and horrific. September 11 put the world on notice that there is a clash of civilisations underway, as Samuel Huntington has phrased it.

Those nations that value human dignity, religious freedom, and democratic polity are pitted against those who hate such values and want them eliminated altogether. The Osama bin Ladens of the world do not just want Western nations to withdraw to a small part of the globe, but they want them exterminated. We need to take the words of these fanatics at face value. When they say they hate what we represent and want to see us overrun by the rule of a theocratic Islam, they mean it. They have openly proclaimed that they are involved in holy war, and that their cause is right.

As such, free nations have a moral and civil obligation to withstand these terrorists and prevent them from implementing their agenda. It is neither Christian nor responsible to appease such opponents, nor seek to pretend that such threats do not exist. Loving your neighbour includes protecting them from harm and maintaining their dignity as human beings. Terrorists do not  respect the democratic ideals nor the Christian virtues. Therefore a just war against terrorism is in order, and one does not have to have grave moral misgivings about it. To withstand the enemies of freedom and democracy is both a right and an obligation.

The author is to be commended for reminding us of these truths, because too many Western apologists for terrorism and radical Islam are at work seeking to convince us otherwise. At a time of ethical uncertainty, the need for moral clarity is all the more urgent, and this book is a clarion call to remind ourselves of what it is that we value and why. It deserves a wide and considered reading.

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