My Turn:'If you desire peace, work for justice'

Posted: Monday, September 17, 2001

The disruption caused by the heinous events of Sept. 11 has, in one way or another, affected us all. Many have had their entire lives disrupted. Thousands will have disrupted lives for years to come due to the emotional and/or physical wounds inflicted upon them. For literally millions, this ugly event will probably lead to economic hardship. Some will know economic ruin. Of course, no inconvenience or economic hardship can be compared with the appalling and senseless loss of life that has occurred. It is almost beyond belief what the hateful actions of a few individuals have accomplished.

I have asked myself in these last few days, "What would lead a group of individuals to strike out with such hatred and in such desperation? What motive would require such a suicidal and senseless act?" It truly was an act of despair. An interview I watched on CNN provided me with some insight. It was an interview of a young Palestinian man who had been arrested on his way to blow himself up with 20 pounds of explosives at an Israeli night club. During the interview, he no longer appeared to be convinced that what he had planned was a correct course of action. When asked why he tried to commit a suicide bombing, he said that his friend had been shot by Israelis and that he was filled with vengeance. He also said he no longer wanted to live. Thus, he was prepared to kill himself in the act of killing Israelis. To do what he tried is not a reason for suicide bombings; it is an insight into the force behind hate. His decision to strike out flowed from a situation in which he experienced grave economic hardship, a lack of certain freedoms and the experience of violence toward those for whom he cared. This does not excuse his actions, but it does help provide some understanding.

What is particularly disturbing about last Tuesday, however, is that at least 18 and possible 24 individuals committed suicide in order to kill thousands of others at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as well as on the commercial airplanes. As well as sending a symbolic message to the world by attacking the financial, military and political center of the United States, it would cause a significant amount of chaos It appears that a considerable number of others, possibly even on the level of government, supported this insane attack. These were individuals without economic hardship, nor a lack of basic freedoms suffered by the young Palestinian man. While they may have known friends and countrymen who had suffered in their eyes as a result of U.S. policy, they were for the most part free from such harm. More than likely, as a commentator stated on National Public Radio, they were completely misguided individuals who had misused religion (i.e., Islam) to validate their actions. Sadly, no where does Islam countenance such actions. It is hard to comprehend how people can so misuse religion.

The question remains, "What to do and how to respond?" It is important that an appropriate response be made to the crime. It is also important that this not be a thoughtless reaction. An appropriate response will take time and patience. Merely to react would be to fall prey to the same hatred and vengeance that motivates terrorists and would do nothing but perpetuate the cycle of violence. I believe the patience the administration is demonstrating is to be applauded as it attempts to get to the bottom of this case. Our democratic principles require that we find out who actually was behind it, even though we may have credible suspicions. Any response we make as a nation must be proportionate and have a reasonable expectation that the response will prevent future attacks. It ought not to be merely for the sake of revenge.

A response must be made because justice demands it. Those who planned and/or implemented and supported these actions need to be called to account for their participation. This is not the same as revenge. It is a biblical concept and requires those who unjustly attack others to account for the evil that they have inflicted upon society.

A response must be made because society has a right to protect itself from the evil actions of terrorists. It is a sad fact, that cells of terrorists continue to exist and will certainly try to inflict more damage through other terrorist actions. Because of this, the United States will need to take the means necessary to prevent this from happening in the future. Whatever actions are done must be based on factual evidence and not speculation. Hopefully, in addition to the almost certain increase in clandestine activity as well as military activity, we will address the root causes. It is not enough to flex military might. The underlying reasons for the violence need eventually to be addressed, such as "What caused some people to strike out with such desperation and hatred in the first place?" and "What brought them to such a level of despair and hatred that they would do such horrible things toward innocent civilians?"

Stopping terrorism completely is difficult, probably impossible, especially when much of it comes as a result of the utter poverty and injustice that many people suffer in our world. Sadly, the United States is seen by many as the cause of their situation. Situations of poverty and injustice are a definite breeding ground for violence. Essentially, I believe this is at the root of the problem. It is why I believe the elimination of terrorism in our world today, in addition to immediate and forceful preventive means, will also require long-term efforts to eliminate the roots of such violence: abject poverty and injustice in the world. It is why the message of Pope Paul VI, "If you desire peace, work for justice," must yet be heeded. As long as some people lack what is necessary to provide them a dignified life, peace will remain a distant reality. In the meantime, we will be forced to fight a war we do not want to fight.

Michael W. Warfel is Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Juneau.

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