Responding to Wright on the War on Terror

I am not yet a convinced pacifist, and, after reading Wright’s piece, “Where is God in ‘The War on Terror’?“, (thanks to The Ivy Bush for calling my attention to this article) I don’t think I’m as far down the road as he is.

He offers two solutions at the end of his presentation:

“First, we must work from every angle either to enable the United Nations and the International Courts of Justice to function as they should, or to replace them with something else that can do the same job better.”

Beyond the empirical problem of not seeing much promise in the way the actual UN has worked in the past, there is also the (equally empirical) difficulty that however much we talk about “United” Nationa or an International Court of “Justice,” the nations and their peoples lack anything like a common concept of Unity or Justice. Sure, we project our own concepts on to the world as a whole, whether we’re Americans projecting our understanding of an impartial rule of law that allows individuals to do whatever they want to make money as long as they don’t break the exact letter of the law, or if we’re Islamists seeking the peace and justice of the World Caliphate.

While Wright recognizes that evil “runs through the heart of each of us,” I don’t think he allows enough for that evil to run through the heart of the Internationalist class that runs the UN, ICC, etc. While some of the American opposition to participation in the ICC may be due to wanting to have freedom to do things with no oversight from anyone else because we always know better, I think the bigger reason is fear based on the recognition of sin in others. Since there is, apparently from the way the world now works, no impartial and universal standard of justice, they (we) fear the imposition of a justice they (we) do not recognize as such.

The pursuit of a shared concept of justice sounds like a good thing. I suppose that’s why philosophers have been seeking it so long. The best I can tell is that all concepts of justice (and peace and other large sized goods) come embedded in cultures and narratives. The only way I see (and of course I’m fairly ignorant about most of the practicalities of international relations) making progress on these issues to to step back from them. Since we all agree what peace and justice are good things, yet don’t very much agree on what they mean, it’d be better to step back to a level of cultural engagement where we clearly disagree, where we know we don’t see eye to eye. If we can engage at the level of our disagreements, then perhaps we can gain some ground.

So what happens in the meantime? Do we keep killing each other because our narratives and cultures fail to mesh enough to gives us a shared understanding of Peace and Justice? I don’t think we need to concede that much to our failures and weaknesses. While we might not be able to find a shared concept of peace, perhaps we can find reasons, if only reasons internal to our own cultures and narrative constructions of life, to eschew killing each other.

Wright offers a second part of the solution:

Terrorism arises principally and obviously because individuals and groups sense themselves to be alienated from ordinary process, unable by any imaginable means to effect changes for which they long, locally or globally. The roots of present terrorist movements have been much studied, and they are more complex than politicians and the media often imply. But the way to make sure that the causes of terror are diminished and if possible eliminated altogether is not – of course it is not! – to drop bombs on potential terrorists until they get the point. That is to fight one kind of terror with another, which of course not only keeps terror in circulation but tends to stir up more.

I see two problems here, the first rooted in the second. Wright’s analysis of the genesis of terrorism sound much like the idea that “people are terrorists because they’ve had hard lives and see no way out. We should feel sorry for them and help them feel better so they won’t feel they need to do bad things to get attention/what they want.” While this kind of account seems to fit some situations – I think of the plight of the Palestinians – it doesn’t seem to fit Al Qaeda. When we look at the Palestinians we see a people who have suffered, both from the hardships brought by Israel, but also through the cupidity of their own leaders. They seem to have the choice between Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s notoriously corrupt (at least under Arafat) organization, or Hamas, an organization bound and determined to see the eradication of Israel. While the current status of the Palestinian people is inextricably bound up with the statusof the Israeli people, the alternative responses of wallowing in victimhood (Fatah) or violent eradication (Hamas) seem to necessitate either continued frustration, or, possibly if Hamas gets its way, an evil of the sort the UN and the ICC theoretically exist to prevent (see point #1 above).

But what about Al Qaeda? Is Osama bin Ladin suffering the oppression of not getting enough millions from his father? I think not. From what I see of Al Qaeda their frustration (Sure, I’ll call it a frustration, but that doesn’t legitimate it) is that Islam isn’t ruling the world. Islam is a religion about extending God’s rule over the whole earth. Through the weakness of corrupt Islamic leadership and the power of the Great Satan, Islam has been held in check. But no longer. If we are to relieve the frustrations of Al Qaeda the options – from their point of view – are conversion, dhimmitude, or death. If those are my options, I have no desire to help them “effect change” to relieve their terrorism causing frustrations.

Wright goes on to speak against “fighting terror with terror.” Sounds like a good idea to me. But is every use of force an act of terror? Is every negative consequence/happening an instance of terror? The level of abstraction here is what I see as the second problem in his second proposed solution. Of course, I can’t blame Wright for that. With a “Global War On Terror,” with the counter suggestions that poverty, disease, lack of education, access to internet, cable TV or public transportation are also acts of terror, the concept became an almost useless abstraction before Wright arrived on the scene.

He continues:

The way to eliminate the causes of terror is to seize every opportunity to work together, to talk together, to discover what makes people tick within worldviews quite unlike our own, and in short – as has been said within Iraq, but without much visible effect – to win hearts and minds not necessarily to a Christian worldview, certainly not to a modern secular western worldview, but to a shared worldview of common humanity, incoporating what the great majority of human beings want, genuine justice and genuine peace.

I’m not sure how to answer this. The talking together, the mutual exploration – I’m all for that. In fact I think it’s essential. That’s one reason I blog and read the blogs of people in other parts of the world. “Winning hearts & minds.” Again, sounds great. But not to a Christian worldview? Not to a “modern secular western worldview?” Just where do we find a “worldview of common humanity,” a worldview that (apparently unlike all these other worldviews), finally tells the truth about “what the majority of human beings want” and accurately pictures (again, unlike all the other worldviews out there) “genuine justice and genuine peace?” The whole lot – “what everyone really wants,” “peace,” “justice” are all abstractions here. We only encounter them embodied in a narrative or culture.

I find myself in the context of a Christian worldview. Having read most of Wright’s stuff, I know he inhabits such a worldview also. The Christian worldview offers us pictures of peace and justice. From what I know about Muslim worldviews (and I know enough to know that there is not a monolithic Muslim worldview), they also offer pictures of peace and justice (and “what everyone really wants,” for that matter). While from the point of view of not wanting to see anyone hurt, and being able to get on with our lives with a minimum of worry and interference, assuming we can start with abstracted versions of peace, justice and “what everone really wants” seems like a huge jump to me.

So where do we start? I have no power in international affairs. The only times politicians have asked my opinion, they’ve always framed the questions so they can be sure to get the answers they want. If I have to refrain from living out of my Christian worldview (with its Great Commission outlook shaping my relations with outsiders), then the best strategy I see is playing Socrates: Confessing my ignorance and seeking understanding. While it might not build our self-esteem, strategic ignorance may keep us from being blinded by abstractions and the deceptions they bring.


Andy McCarthy at The Corner notes a similar reliance on abstractions by the Bush Administration:

It is a fact that the Bush policy is based on assumptions that (a) freedom is the universal desire of all mankind; (b) given the opportunity, Islamic countries are sure to choose democracy despite aspects of their own culture(s) which regard democracy (or enlightened liberty as commonly understood) to be depraved, or at least un-Islamic; and (c) a country is a “democracy” if it holds a few elections and has a constitution, notwithstanding the dearth of democracy’s cultural underpinnings (not least which is a people’s perception of itself as a single body politic of equal citizens sharing a common destiny).

These assumptions are all highly questionable.  And if they are wrong, perfect implementation would not salvage the policy.

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1 Response to Responding to Wright on the War on Terror

  1. Pingback: Two Tack’s Thoughts » Blog Archive » Wright on Terrorism

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