Words of war

Posted: Sep 14, 2001 12:00 AM
In his first speech on September 11, President Bush called the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center "cowardly acts." By that evening, however, he was calling them "evil, despicable acts of terror," and his second speech contained no reference to cowardice. Presumably, the president's speechwriters realized that flying a jumbo jet loaded with fuel into a building was not the act of a coward. A fanatical mass murderer, yes, but not a coward. One could argue that someone who believes his self-sacrifice is a first-class ticket to paradise is not really being brave when he carries out a suicidal attack. But his determination to serve his cause with no regard to his own personal safety certainly looks brave. The appearance is unsettling, because bravery is usually considered a virtue, and we are talking about men who committed horrendous crimes. Or did they? Again and again, the pundits and politicians have told us that the destruction of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon should be viewed not as crimes but as "acts of war." One goal of using that phrase is to suggest that the U.S. government ought to have more latitude in responding to these attacks than police and prosecutors do when they pursue a murderer. There needn't be an arrest, a trial requiring proof beyond reasonable doubt, or a sentencing in which a carefully weighed punishment is imposed on specific individuals. If we are indeed at war, we can't afford such niceties. The Israeli government has made much the same argument in defending its policy (criticized by the United States) of hunting down and killing terrorists, both to punish them for past attacks and to prevent them from striking again. Once you dispense with the procedures of criminal justice, of course, it may be hard to convince other people that the guy you shot or blew up really was a terrorist who deserved the death penalty. And as Israel has shown on more than one occasion, there is always the risk of accidentally killing the wrong person. Yet Israel's pre-emptive killings, widely condemned as illegal and immoral, are surgically precise compared to anything the United States is likely to come up with. In response to previous attacks, our government has dropped bombs on or shot missiles at other countries, killing innocent people while trying to destroy the will, the assets, or the personnel of terrorist organizations. Declaring war is supposed to be a license for that sort of "collateral damage." The rationale is that when an enemy aggressor hides among civilians, he is responsible for the innocents killed by the retaliation he has provoked. Needless to say, this sort of reasoning does not apply to ordinary law enforcement. A cop who fired his gun at a murderer he was chasing down a crowded street, injuring or killing several bystanders while bringing down the perpetrator, would receive a prison sentence, not a medal. While the language of war gives the United States more room to maneuver, it also makes a troubling concession to the terrorists. They, after all, consider themselves at war -- holy war, no less -- with us. Should we dignify that claim? To say that we're fighting a war suggests a fundamentally political conflict about which people may disagree. Should one's view of the carnage in New York and Washington hinge on whether U.S. troops ought to be in Saudi Arabia, or whether Israel treats the Palestinians fairly? The correct answer is so obvious that Yasir Arafat, a pioneer of terrorist hijackings, pronounced himself appalled by this new twist on the technique. And while thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets to celebrate, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority appeared on the Fox News Channel to insist that the jubilation was limited to 50 or so "teenagers." The deliberate killing of nonaggressors is supposed to be so clearly beyond the pale that it cannot even be viewed as a form of warfare. It is, instead, a war
crime -- precisely the sort of behavior for which specific individuals are pursued by police and prosecutors. The impulse to call the homicidal hijackers cowardly, thereby denying them a trait associated with soldiers, reflects this understanding. But calling the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon acts of war undermines the point that even in wartime, certain kinds of killing are murder, plain and simple.