Order, War and Terrorism: Drawing Moral Lines

The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir
Harvard Divinity School

Date: November 1, 2001
Location: Church of St. Ignatius at Boston College


On November 1, 2001, The Reverend J. Bryan Hehir, Chair of the Executive Committee of Harvard Divinity School and noted scholar in the field of international relations and Catholic social teaching, offered his perspective on the United States’ response to September 11 to an audience at St. Ignatius Church. In a lecture entitled “Order, War, and Terrorism: Drawing Moral Lines,” Father Hehir stressed the need for foreign policy to take more seriously the role of religion in international politics, and noted that the phenomenon of terrorism represents a new challenge for understanding the ethical dimension of war.

Part of the challenge posed by the events of September 11 is that they raise anew the question of religion and its connection to politics—but it is a question that current foreign policy institutions are ill-prepared to answer. With a secular focus stemming perhaps from the reaction against religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, modern western foreign policy operates on the assumption that it is possible to understand the world without understanding religion. Hehir pointed out that virtually no foreign-relations textbook published in the U.S. has even one chapter on religion, and that foreign ministries lack designated positions for experts on religious issues. Yet, as Hehir asserted, the idea that one could understand the collapse of communism in Europe without considering a Polish Pope in alliance with Solidarity, or the struggles in Latin America without reference to the Catholic Church, or the situation in Jerusalem as simply an issue of political boundaries, is plainly misguided. The events of September 11 emphasize even more strongly the need for ay radical rethinking of the way foreign policy understands religion. In outlining the international political and moral framework in which the events of September 11 and the current U.S. response are taking place, Hehir emphasized key changes in the international order in the last 50 years. Between the 16th and early 20th centuries, the dominant model of international order was founded on the concept of sovereignty, in which states were seen as independent and self-determining actors who entered into relationships with other states. One of the key assumptions governing this order was the absolute right of each state to protect its sovereignty by going to war. The last 50 years, Hehir argued, have seen the emergence of the United Nations as a structural framework above individual states. There have also been challenges to sovereignty in the form of human rights claims against states and the deepening integration of national economies into a larger international economy (globalization). Finally, the rise of transnational actors—as exemplified by IBM, the World Bank, and the Jesuits—has changed the terms of international order.

Hehir next addressed the question of ethics and war, and focused on the just war tradition as a way of thinking that seeks to place war inside the moral order. In contrast to pacifism and realism, both of which, for different reasons, place war outside the moral order, the just war tradition seeks to influence public policy debate about the use of force by providing moral guidelines and to offer individuals a personal framework of conscience. While the tradition grants that some uses of force are acceptable, it seeks to limit that use in terms of purpose, method, and intention. In the 20th century, the just war tradition has faced a number of challenges: 1) nuclear weapons, which raised the question of unlimited catastrophic violence and the related question about the morality of threatening such violence, and 2) humanitarian intervention, which posed the problem of whether it was just to violate sovereignty in order to prevent genocide. Terrorism poses a third challenge to just war deliberation, in that it involves not states but transnational actors guided by religious or secular ideologies. Of particular concern is that these agents consciously violate a sense of the limits of force by targeting civilians.

According to Hehir, the decision of the United States to take military action in response to the events of September 11 highlights the challenges terrorism poses to ethical reflection about the use of force. In spite of his conviction that there is just cause in this case, Hehir expressed some reservation about the intentions behind the effort and the methods being used to pursue it. Talk of “revenge,” for example, or “ending terrorist states” falls outside appropriate moral categories and represents a disproportionate response. For Hehir, questions about risk to civilians and the morality of destroying infrastructure need to be constantly at the forefront of military deliberations. Moreover, it is just as important to make the distinction between terrorist organizations and the states in which they operate, as it is to have concern for the civil society in states that are widely considered terrorist. In sum, Hehir asserted that in the present “War on Terrorism,” the cause is clear but the means need constant review.