September 21, 2001
By MICHAEL WALZER
PRINCETON, N.J. -- There is an old Bill Mauldin cartoon in which two
elderly gentlemen are sitting in a gentlemen's club. One leans forward
and speaks: "I say it's war, Throckmorton, and I say, let's fight!"
There has been a lot of talk like that in Washington since Sept. 11.
And around the country, too: we all feel a little bit like Throckmorton's
friend. But is it war? And if it is, how should we go about fighting
Certainly we have an enemy, all of us, whatever our politics or religion.
Our lives and our way of life have been attacked everyone says
this, but it is true nonetheless. The attack may have had its most
immediate origins in the Persian Gulf war; it may have been fueled
by fervid and highly distorted accounts of the blockade of Iraq and
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But its causes go much deeper: resentment
of American power and hatred of the values that sometimes, at least,
guide its exercise. This is not, however, a "war of civilizations,"
since our enemy does not represent a civilization. We are not at war
with Islam, even if terrorists exploit Islamic religious fervor.
So is it a war? The word is unobjectionable so long as those who use
it understand what a metaphor is. There is, right now, no enemy state,
no obvious battlefield. "War" may serve well, however, as
a metaphor to signify struggle, commitment, endurance. Military action,
though it may come, is not the first thing we should be thinking about.
Instead, in this "war" on terrorism three other things take
precedence: intensive police work across national borders, an ideological
campaign to engage all the arguments and excuses for terrorism and
reject them, and a serious and sustained diplomatic effort.
What the police have to do is obvious, but there is work also for
religious leaders and public intellectuals, because the intellectual
climate in many parts of the world is insufficiently unfriendly to
terrorism. Terrorists are morally as well as physically harbored,
and the only remedy for that is political argument. And our diplomats
have a lot more to do than they did in building the coalition that
fought the gulf war. That was a jerry-built alliance, fit for the
moment but not for the long haul. The alliance against terrorism has
to be structured to last: it must rest on demanding and enforceable
But military action is what everybody wants to talk about not
the metaphor of war, but the real thing. So what can we do? There
are two conditions that must be met before we can fight justly. We
have to find legitimate targets people actually engaged in
organizing, supporting or carrying out terrorist activities. And we
must be able to hit those targets without killing large numbers of
Despite the criticism of Israeli "assassinations" by United
States officials, I don't believe that it matters, from a moral point
of view, if the targets are groups of people or single individuals,
so long as these two criteria are met. If we fail to meet them, we
will be defending our civilization by imitating the terrorists who
are attacking it.
It follows from these criteria that commando raids are likely to be
better than attacks with missiles and bombs. When the target is, say,
a small and scattered group of terrorists-in-training, a soldier with
a rifle is smarter than the smartest bomb. But what if the purpose
of our attack is to force governments that support terrorist activities
to surrender the terrorists or to stop financing them? That is certainly
a legitimate aim indeed a necessary aim of any alliance against
terrorism. But our coercive capacities in that sphere are morally
limited. We can't coerce governments by terrorizing their civilian
populations. In countries as desperately poor as Afghanistan, we can't
set about systematically destroying what infrastructure is left. Electricity
grids and water purification plants are not legitimate targets.
We can bomb government buildings, which will probably be empty. And
maybe if the bombing is spectacular and the pilots heroic, that symbolic
action will allow us to get on with what really has to be done. Terrorist
states have to be isolated, ostracized and embargoed; their borders
closed; their secret organizations penetrated; their ideological justifications
everywhere rejected. The greatest danger right now is that having
done sufficient damage somewhere we will edge away from
these tasks and the commitment of resources necessary to defeat terrorism.
We should pursue the metaphorical war; hold back on the real thing.
Michael Walzer is professor of social science at the Institute for
Advanced Study and co-editor of Dissent.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company