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Time for a Unifying National Debate on the 'War on Terror'
by David DeCosse
What if, in the high political season of the next two months, we had a national debate about the ethical values at stake in the conflict with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda? A debate in which values weren't asserted, but argued for? In which valued ends were connected to appropriate means? We've heard a lot of political chatter, but we haven't had this debate yet.
Sure, we've had a few moments of open exchange before key congressional votes. But these have mostly been stage-managed affairs with a pre-ordained conclusion. Most of the time debate just stops, either silenced by an ad hominem attack on President Bush or evaded by a crazy allegation that supporting civil liberties makes you as dangerous as al Qaeda. A true debate would consider: What are the values at stake in this conflict? What are the best ways to protect and promote those values? How should America's voters make their way through the inevitable thicket of claims and counter-claims that would emerge? Here are a few tips for identifying the best answers in the debate that ought to happen.
Beware politicians who only argue ends: Ethics involves ends, to be sure. It also involves the choice of means. But, thus far, the question of means has been submerged in our discourse about terrorism. Instead, the internal American argument over what to do about the terrorist threat has more or less followed a story line that pits amoral liberal relativists, who don't get the nature of the fight that we're in, against a righteous vanguard, who are bravely defending America in the face of the evil of an unprecedented threat. The popularity of this false story line has had the very regrettable effect of dividing the American people and of silencing debate. Questions about means are shouted down as being questions that can't be asked without putting our American soul and survival in jeopardy. But is or is not the war in Iraq an effective means for the defense of American life and liberty and for peace and security in the world? It's likely that the national elections in the next months will ride on whether this question about means can even be asked.
Beware politicians who can't balance intellect and will: The best ethical choices are an exercise of practical reason involving a balance of intellect and will. Matters of the intellect -- evidence, perception of value, prudence, good judgment, openness to new information, keenness about likely consequences -- are one key component in such choices. Matters of the will -- bravery, toughness, decision, resolve, force -- are another. Too often today, what passes for the primary ethical imperative in the conflict with terrorism is the absolute importance of resolve, but with little rational purpose beyond not shirking some imagined, elemental test of wills. By insisting on this balance of intellect and will, we might start more openly exploring our ethical and policy alternatives in Iraq. We also might start re-thinking unquestioned staples of the "war on terror," such as the absolute ethical requirement not to appease terrorists. What does appeasement mean when we face terrorists who long for death, even want us to attack them and often seem to gain much needed political support under a barrage of our anti-appeasing bombs? Was launching the war in Iraq a laudable moment of refusing to appease terrorists? Or was it playing into the hands of Osama bin Laden, who, according to "The Looming Tower: al Qaeda and the road to 9/11," by Lawrence Wright, increased the scale of his attacks against the United States precisely to provoke an unwieldy war such as the one we now have?
Beware big abstractions: By now, the American people are accustomed to the conflict with terrorists being cast in the language of big ideological, moral, and historical abstractions. But the details are often left out and considered obstructionist in the face of the ethical requirements of such abstractions. Thus, invading Iraq was the "morally right thing to do" in a "struggle of good versus evil" -- damn the voluminous studies that said doing so would be far more problematic than the airy predictions of President Bush would allow. We are also told, in a more concrete but still too abstract phrase, that we are at war with "Islamic fascism." But those who use this catch-all abstraction gloss over such details as: Are the Sunnis and Shiites now murdering each other in Iraq really part of the same front of Islamic fascists with whom we are allegedly at war? On the distant American left, whose members recently marched in San Francisco to protest the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, this problem of abstraction cropped up in a foolish refusal to pay attention to Hezbollah's detailed and stated intention to destroy Israel. In ethical terms, all of these abstract ways of putting things convey a high but deceptive sense of moral purpose, bought at the price of a resolute disregard for facts. Ethics is not about such big abstractions, no matter how appealing the values or rhetoric. Rather, it's about the integration of values and concrete details.
The American people, united? A final paradox is in order. I noted earlier that the American people today are divided. The very idea of a debate also suggests division. A real debate, however, could unite the American people around a clearly articulated purpose. The great medieval theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, said that in wartime leaders are to "summon together the people." So let us hope that a real national debate might be one means toward the end of the requisite national unity.
Let us insistently ask in the debate that ought to happen: "How well does the candidate summon together the American people? How well does he or she articulate the values that all Americans share, defend and promote in the conflict with terrorism?
How well does he or she argue on behalf of the values enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution: a common defense, to be sure, but also a more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquillity, general welfare and the blessings of liberty?"
David E. DeCosse is director of campus ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. This article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 8, 2006.