Man's Inhumanity to Man: The Case of Political Terrorism
(Presented for the Flannery O'Connor House Lecture Series, 26 May 2002)

I appreciate this opportunity to share with you all some thoughts about political terrorism and the aftermath of September Eleventh. I'll be spending a few minutes talking about how I consider terrorism to be not simply a law enforcement and military problem, but also a philosophical problem. Within that philosophical problem lie logical contradictions and moral ambiguity, sometimes reducible to familiar phrases, that speak directly to the human condition.
Consider the following description of that hell on earth, Ground Zero, the night of September 11th:
There sighs, lamentations and loud wailings resounded through the starless air, so that at first it made me weep; strange tongues, horrible language, words of pain, tones of anger, voices loud and hoarse, and with these the sounds of hands, made a tumult which is whirling through the air forever dark, as sand eddies in a whirlwind.
These were not the words of a New York Times reporter or an International Herald Tribune correspondent. This is a passage from Dante's Inferno. Words for the ages applied here to an event for the ages.
But what of other words, much more recent words, words you've almost certainly heard, words attributed to Yassir Arafat: "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter"? What? The very same act can constitute terrorism or freedom fighting, depending upon who is doing the labeling of the act? This is perhaps a form of word play, but it's more: it's moral ambiguity.

Not long after September 11th, President Bush was criticized by a Congressman for hypocrisy when he authorized the killing of Osama bin Laden without reversing America's official policy of formally opposing Israel's practice of targeted killing – political assassination – of terrorist leaders. Moral ambiguity? Or, perhaps, in Tom Wolfe's mocking para-phrase of Woodrow Wilson, an example of "making the world safe for hypocrisy?"
Bush has also been roundly criticized for turning a blind eye both to Russia's war against the Chechyns it labels terrorists and to China's war against dissidents among its own Muslim minority in the Northwest it labels as terrorists in exchange for Russian and Chinese support in our war against terrorism. And, of course, Bush has been even more vociferously attacked for his administration's support of Israel's own self-proclaimed "war against terrorism" as carried out in the military invasion of the Occupied Territories ostensibly designed to destroy those it labels "terrorists." Many would label the respective Russian, Chinese, and Israeli action as state terrorism. It would seem that, just as one man's terrorist may be another man's freedom fighter, one people's war on terror may be another people's terror.
So, of course, Bush is himself routinely savaged as a terrorist by many in the Islamic world and by the strident anti-war crowd in the United States. Some of the latter are sincere pacifists who, presumably, would have on principle protested American military action against Germany and Japan following Pearl Harbor, but most seem instead to subscribe to the philosophy first identified by former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick as "Blame America First." Sounding very much like islamist propagandists, some of these people say we deserved September Eleventh – and worse – because of our long history of genocide, slavery, oppression, and, more recently, supporting foreign tyrants and despots. Now I personally cannot understand American citizens who think that, on balance, the United States has been more of a negative than a positive influence in the world, but my point is the moral ambiguity inherent in any assessment of America's history and role. Were the Minutemen and Boston Tea Partiers patriots or terrorists? Is, indeed, one person's terrorist another person's freedom fighter?
Thus we encounter what I consider the Great Irony of our current struggle. President Bush, other national and international leaders, and, I dare say, quite a number of us in this room, have characterized the September Eleventh terrorism as evil manifest. The rub is that Osama bin Laden and no small number of like-minded radical fundamentalist Muslims have characterized the West in general and the United States in particular as – you guessed it – evil manifest. The Great Satan.
With the introduction of profound religious sentiment as cornerstone to modern terrorism, we encounter a new variant of the "one-man's-terrorist-is-another-man's-freedom-fighter" refrain: "One man's terrorist is another man's just and holy warrior." With crystal clarity, both sides see the person, the acts, even the motivation. With crystal clarity, each side sees what the other side not only does not see, but is incapable of seeing. With crystal clarity, the two sides see and wholeheartedly embrace a mutually exclusive reality. It begins to seem quite surreal – good is evil, evil is good. Those fighting terror are terrorists. Talk about moral ambiguity!
The problem is that good can devolve into evil, if that good be perverted by excess. States fighting terror can become instruments of state terrorism. "Making the world safe for hypocrisy" is one large step in that direction. Another would be statements such as the famous one attributed to an United States Army Captain in Vietnam, "We had to save the village by destroying it."
This assertion, absurd on its face, demonstrates that there is yet another way that good can become evil in the fight against terrorism: liberal democracies can jettison crucial civil liberties of the people in the name of bringing terrorists to justice or in the name of preventing terrorism. Now, surely bringing terrorists to justice and preventing terrorism are legitimate goals. But I submit that legitimacy of goals is not enough in a liberal democracy, in a republic grounded in ordered liberty.
Foremost among moral constraints of government action is the notion that "ends do not justify means." The primary mechanism in our political and legal system to ensure that our government does not violate that axiom is the Rule of Law; this means that no one is above the law, not Richard Nixon, not Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush, but it necessarily means also that those who enforce the law must abide by it.
The Rule of Law protects against abuse of power by public officials, most notably executive excess in governing, excess that typically tramples on the civil rights and civil liberties of the People. Lord Acton famously observed that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Knowing this, the Founding Fathers incorporated into their Constitution both division of powers, i.e., dividing the powers of government between the central government and the states, and separation of powers, i.e., separating the legislative, executive and judicial powers, with checks and balances among them. But these structural, essentially political components were selected to complement a concept deeply rooted in the English Common Law, indeed one going back to Runnymeade and the Magna Carta; that concept? The Rule of Law.
The Rule of Law has a vitality that still has the capacity to surprise and inspire. Richard Nixon, who as President apparently thought nothing of leading a conspiracy to obstruct justice by orchestrating the Watergate cover-up, could very easily have destroyed the subpoenaed and highly incriminating audiotapes of conspiratorial Oval Office conversations. But he didn't destroy them – he turned them over, as ordered, albeit with a mysterious 18-minute gap on one tape. I submit to you that even Richard Nixon had felt the ethical tug of the Rule of Law, and so complied, though I concede that there may have been at work a more cynical force. To wit, H.L. Mencken's definition of conscience as "the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking."
Still, after Watergate, after Waco and Ruby Ridge, after Rodney King, after Richard Jewell, and, yes, after the Presidential election of 2000, the Rule of Law retains its vitality. And so it must, if we are truly to win the war against terrorism. For at stake are not only our security but our most precious -- and highly perishable -- civil liberties.
Civil liberties always take a back seat to national preservation. Our two most powerful presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, were wartime presidents, wielding more power that any others. And under their leadership, civil liberties from free speech to habeas corpus suffered mightily. Dissidents were jailed, Japanese Americans were interned in the name of national preservation. People still can argue over the necessity or justification for such actions, but such actions were in fact taken. When Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, it was generally agreed that illegal substances posed a threat to national preservation analogous to that posed by hostile world powers. This Thirty Years War has yet to be won, but it has surely taken its toll on civil liberties, most notably the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.
Now comes the war on terrorism – a war I fully support, by the way. Will we see a Congress that simply rubber-stamps dubious presidential demands for increased law-enforcement authority? Will we see a Supreme Court that simply rubber-stamps executive orders and Congressional enactments? Will we see our government adopt an "ends-justify-the-means" mentality in our war? It's simply too early to tell.
It is no longer unusual to run across an article or discussion debating the pros and cons of using torture to extract information from suspected terrorists. Indeed, it has been no secret that the FBI, frustrated that traditional interrogation techniques aren't working on those rounded up in the aftermath of September Eleventh, has not been averse to such a debate. It is undeniable that the FBI and other agencies are under immense pressure to arrest all those responsible for September Eleventh AND to prevent any more major terrorist massacres. Ah, ends and means, ends and means.
Meanwhile, let us remember, the President himself is under enormous pressure to ensure that September 11th never happens again – and, by the way, to secure his own reelection in the process.
Wiretapping and eavesdropping, ethnic profiling and both prolonged detention of noncitizens and summary deportation without judicial oversight. These are some of the elements of what some would call common sense efforts to prevent terrorism, but what others would call unconscionable violations of civil liberties.
Not a whole lot different from the moral ambiguities we addressed earlier, is it? One man's good is another man's evil. Christopher Dawson noted that "as soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil they set out to destroy." We need the Rule of Law to ensure that we never forget that ends do not justify means. The Rule of Law is our strongest bulwark against our morphing from state fighting terror to state committing terror, our best pro-phylactic preventing us from destroying liberty in the name of preserving it.

I've two conclusions to draw. The first is that we must prevail against terrorism, be it international or domestic, in order that our civilization and way of life endure. The second is that in this struggle we must continue to embrace the Rule of Law and the civil liberties it protects, again, in order that our civilization and way of life endure.
Winston Churchill noted that "a fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." Though humorous, it's an observation rooted in truth. In our war on terrorism, we're fighting fanatics. Let us be dedicated , untiring and unrelenting. But let us not be fanatics. Let us not destroy our nation in order to save it. LET US WIN THIS WAR! But as we do so, like our national symbol Eagle grasping an olive branch in one talon and arrows in the other, let us cling steadfastly both to the Stars and Stripes and to the Rule of Law.