This war is not just

Boston Globe
By James Carroll,

IN RECENT DAYS, sage editorial writers, religious leaders, politicians, liberal pundits, and admired columnists have joined in the Donald Rumsfeld-Condoleezza Rice chorus praising the American war in Afghanistan as "just."

The Taliban are described as all but defeated. The "noose" around bin Laden grows ever tighter. Afghans are seen rejoicing in the streets, and the women among them are liberated. All because the United States turned the full force of its fire power loose on the evil enemy. Anyone still refusing to sign onto this campaign is increasingly regarded as unpatriotic. Next, we will be called "kooks."

Not so fast. The broad American consensus that Bush's war is "just" represents a shallow assessment of that war, a shallowness that results from three things.

First, ignorance. The United States government has revealed very little of what has happened in the war zone. Journalists impeded by restricted access and blind patriotism have uncovered even less. How many of those outside the military establishment who have blithely deemed this war "just" know what it actually involves? It is clear that a massive bombardment has been occurring throughout Afghanistan, but to what effect? And against whom? Is the focus on the readily targeted Taliban, in fact, allowing a far more elusive Al Qaeda to slip away?

The crucial judgment about a war's "proportionality," central to any conclusion about its being "just," simply cannot be made on the basis of information available at present. And how is this war "just" if the so far unprovoked war it is bleeding into - against Iraq - is unjust?

Second, narrow context. The celebrated results that have so far followed from the American war - collapse of the Taliban, liberation of women - are welcome indeed, but they are relatively peripheral outcomes, unrelated to the stated American war aim of defeating terrorism.

And these outcomes pale in significance when the conflict is seen in the context of a larger question: Does this intervention break, or at least impede, the cycle of violence in which terrorism is only the latest turn? Or, by affirming the inevitability of violence, does this war prepare the ground for the next one? By unleashing such massive firepower, do we make potential enemies even more likely to try to match it with the very weapons of mass destruction we so dread? Alas, the answer is clear.

This "overwhelming" exercise of American power has been a crude reinforcement of the worst impulse of human history - but this is the nuclear age, and that impulse simply must be checked. This old style American war is unwise in the extreme, and if other nations - Pakistan, India, Israel, Russia? - begin to play according to the rules of "dead or alive," will this American model still seem "just"?

Third, wrongly defined use of force. This war is not "just" because it was not necessary. It may be the only kind of force the behemoth Pentagon knows to exercise, but that doesn't make it "just" either. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 could have been defined not as acts of war, but as crimes. That was the first mistake, one critics like me flagged as it was happening.

As perhaps the most savage crimes in history, the terrorists' acts should have been met with a swift, forceful response far more targeted than the present war has been. Police action, not war. The criminals, not an impoverished nation, should be on the receiving end of the punishment.

Instead, a massive war against a substitute enemy leaves the sprawling criminal network intact - perhaps in Afghanistan, certainly in major cities elsewhere. Meanwhile, because of the war, the rule of law at home is being undermined. Because of the war-driven pressure to be "united," the shocking incompetence of US domestic security agencies goes unchallenged.

Early in the war, the highest US officials, including the president and vice president, encouraged the idea that the anthrax attacks were originating with the bin Laden network. The understandable paranoia that consequently gripped the public imagination - an enemy that could shut down Congress! - was a crucial aspect of what led both press and politicians to accept the idea that a massive war against an evil enemy would be both necessary and moral.

Now, the operating assumption is that the anthrax cases, unrelated to bin Laden, are domestic crimes, not acts of war. But for a crucial moment, they effectively played the role in this war that the Gulf of Tonkin "assault" played in the Vietnam War, as sources of a war hysteria that "united" the nation around a mistake. In such a context, the more doubt is labeled disloyal, the more it grows. The more this war is deemed "just," the more it seems wrong.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.