Fighting the Cancer of Terrorism

Now, perhaps, we fear terrorism even more than we fear cancer. Like a cancer, terrorists strike without warning, attack from within, avoid our defenses, and use our strength against us. And like cancer, terrorism is deadly. Yet, seeing these parallels may help us resist terrorism, because we have learned a great deal about fighting cancer. We know that fighting cancer not only involves the weapons of modern medicine, but also our resolve, our hope, our sense of humor, and our faith. And these aspects of our character, these virtues, are in turn strengthened by our relationships with those who help us take responsibility for our own lives.


If this parallel is apt, then fighting terrorism means not only using weapons of modern warfare, but also taking responsibility for our lives, our communities, our religious institutions, and our nation.


To fight cancer we need not rely only on the weapons of modern medicine. We may also resist by strengthening our immune system, by living healthy lives, and by expressing ourselves creatively. Similarly, we may fight terrorism by doing what we know is right, by respecting the rights of others as we responsibly exercise our own rights, and by living with hope and humor no matter what.


Some choose to fight cancer without using the weapons of modern medicine, and some will resist making war in order to fight terrorism. If we disagree, nonetheless we ought to respect their convictions. They remind us that using the weapons of modern warfare cannot ensure our safety and may well lead to our own downfall, even as using the weapons of modern medicine against cancer cannot ensure our survival and may only prolong our suffering.


As with cancer, most of us will support fighting terrorism with all the weapons at our disposal. Yet, we should pause to assess the risks, when we hear the President of the United States say that our country will do "whatever it takes" to end the threat of terrorism.


An attack on a cancer must be carefully targeted on the cells that are destructive in order to avoid damaging the organs necessary for continued life. Certainly, attacking terrorism must also target only those who support terrorism, and must carefully avoid destroying innocent people and the cultural, political and economic systems that are necessary for the life of communities and nations.


However, there are other risks as well. Even as cancer grows within us and uses our bodies as a host, terrorism feeds on the strength of its target. The claim of terrorists that America is using its power unjustly make sense to many. If American power is not used justly as well as judiciously, then terrorists are right to claim that America is more concerned with power than with justice.


If we begin to think of terrorists as cancer cells, we have taken the analogy between cancer and terrorism too far. Yet, the parallel between our own health, in resisting cancer, and the health of our society and nation, in resisting terrorism, is worth pondering. Certainly, the resolve of the American people to care for Americans who have suffered because of terrorist attacks is a good indication of the nation’s health and strength. Moreover, the American sense of fairness has thus far resisted the fearful attempts of a few to depict all Arabs or all Muslims as enemies.


But we should expect more of ourselves. We should be prepared to learn that many non-Americans, who are opposed to terrorism, are nevertheless critical of American arrogance and the heavy-handed use of American power. We should be skeptical of all rhetoric about the war on terrorism that portrays the taking of innocent lives as merely "collateral damage." And we should hold our leaders accountable to the "just war" principles that are part of our heritage.


Limitations on warfare intended to curb the injustice of war are an achievement of Christian culture in the West. In Challenge of Peace Catholic Bishops in the United States remind us that in this ethical tradition war must meet all the following criteria to be just:


1. Probability of success: To kill people is wrong even for a just cause, if the cause will nonetheless be lost.

2. Just cause: War may be fought only to protect innocent life, preserve conditions necessary for decent human existence, and secure basic human rights against real and certain danger.


3. Last resort: All peaceful alternatives must have been exhausted.

4. Just authority: War may be declared only by those with responsibility for public order.

5. Just means: War must not directly attack noncombatants, but only military targets.

6. Cost/benefit proportionality: The cost of the war to people and to the international community must not exceed the good that can reasonably be expected, if it is fought.

7. Just intention: The purpose of war may not be conquest, enslavement, revenge, or an ideological crusade, but only the pursuit of peace and justice. Unnecessarily destructive acts or unreasonable conditions, such as unconditional surrender, must be avoided.

8. Announcement: The intention to make war and its just causes must be clearly announced by the legitimate authority, so that the adversary is aware of the seriousness of the situation and of what it must do to avoid war, and so that the people can judge its justice.


On September 11, 2001 the United States was attacked, and its response to this assault and continuing attacks meets many of the criteria of the just war tradition. Yet, serious questions must be addressed.


Just means: Has the war in Iraq meet the requirement of not attacking noncombatants? War will always involve civilian deaths. But if warfare is directed at civil institutions and civilian centers, because these are "harboring" the enemy, then civilian deaths will be a direct consequence. Attacking cities to make life more difficult for soldiers is not just and cannot be justified as "collateral damage.”


Moreover, we cannot justify bombing civilian centers or destroying the infrastructure of a society necessary for the survival and health of its people. If bombing destroys power systems, disrupts water supplies, and makes it impossible for people to feed themselves, then we should resist such warfare as unjust and a form of "terrorism.”


Cost/benefit proportionality: Will the cost of fighting the war exceed the good to be gained? The American government has made its decision, yet the American people must continue to evaluate whether or not the waging war against terrorism will do more harm than good. The obvious fact that terrorism is evil does not mean that the war, as we are fighting it, is just.


Calculating the costs and benefits of this war is complex and may seem callous. Yet, we cannot avoid this responsibility. We must expect our government to assess the consequences of its actions. What is the price for the support of other countries? What will be the result of basing American military forces in Islamic countries with fundamentalist organizations that oppose collaboration with the West? What loss of freedom at home will come from efforts to increase security in America? What might be the long-term consequences of this war?


Just intention: Is the purpose of our war on terrorism the security of the United States? This is certainly a just purpose. Yet, some have suggested that we are fighting for the American way of life — not simply for ourselves, but for all peoples. This would be an ideological purpose, or a "crusade," that violates to the principles of the just war tradition. Our war on terrorism should not seek to make the world over in our image. Such a purpose blinds us to the fact that the unjust use of American power has fostered deep resentment among many of the world’s peoples.


Finally, in addition to holding the American government accountable for a just war, Christians also have a special calling to pray for their enemies. There is no clearer commandment in the New Testament. Even if we wage war against our enemies, as citizens of a nation under attack, we should also pray for our enemies.


We are called to remind our nation that its past enemies are now friends, that the peace we seek requires justice and not merely victory on the battlefield, and that our purpose is not the death of our enemies but an end to terrorism. Remembering the humanity of our enemies, by praying for their welfare, is a contribution to the health and strength of our nation that perhaps only the church in America can make.


Fighting terrorism is like fighting cancer. It is best done carefully. We need to take care in targeting our weapons, so that we destroy only what threatens us. Moreover, we need to maintain our moral, spiritual and emotional health, as the threat we face is not merely physical but involves our whole life. Fear is no help in fighting cancer or terrorism. Violence, by itself, is not an answer.


To preserve our lives and our way of life, we need to defend not only our physical security but also our traditions of freedom and justice. To defeat terrorism, we need to be more just than terrorists. To win the hearts and minds of other peoples, we need to live by the laws we would recommend to others and apply the criteria of the just war tradition in evaluating the American war on terrorism.

 bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016