Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Responsibility and the "War on Terror"

by David DeCosse

From the fiery, azure horror of September 11, 2001, to millions of Iraqis braving death to vote in the January 30 election: How, ethically, did the United States get to where we are now in the conflict with Islamic terrorists? And where, ethically, do we go from here?

In short, we arrived where we are today in this conflict via a sound, initial instinct for justice that has been undermined by too great a reliance on ethical absolutes. We do not live in a world of absolute abstractions like evil, freedom, war, and terror. Rather, we live in a world where men and women choose evil; make free choices; are always responsible in war; and choose to shrink from or sink into terror. Accordingly, we should proceed in the conflict with terrorists with a much greater focus on the concept of responsibility. This emphasis would include but go beyond our fundamental responsibility to defend ourselves and to destroy Al Qaeda. The moral philosopher Michael Walzer articulated the nature of this emphasis: "The moral theorist…must come to grips with the fact that his rules are often violated or ignored — and with the deeper realization that, to men at war, the rules often don't seem relevant to the extremity of their situation. But however he does this, he does not surrender his sense of war as a human action, purposive and premeditated, for whose effects someone is responsible."

It is not surprising that we reached for ethical absolutes in response to the attacks of September 11. How many of us, watching the World Trade Center towers implode in dust and death, did not feel the deepest sorrow and greatest rage? Walzer has said that terrorism in itself is characterized by extremes: The erasure of all moral limits; the random murder of the innocent; and the targeting of a whole people simply because of who they are. Attacked on such a huge scale by men of such amoral intent, Americans understandably turned to ethical absolutes like evil and war to comprehend the enormity of what we suffered. Only such absolutes seemed to capture the moral seriousness of what happened and of how we should respond.

But we have failed to recognize the ethical perils in appealing to such extreme categories. On the one hand, such categories restrain little because they justify everything — think here of Justice Department justifications of torture in the name of war and the resulting shamelessness of Abu Ghraib. On the other hand, such extreme categories obscure as much as they reveal. Imagine from the start if the invasion of Iraq had not been motivated by dreamy ideals of liberty but by hard-headed assessments of the requisite conditions for the exercise of civic responsibility in a fledgling Iraqi democracy. A great deal of death and destruction could have been avoided on the road to the Iraqi vote on January 30.

But if absolute ethical concepts like evil and war have guided us faultily to this point, how can the concept of responsibility be a better ethical focus for the future? I would like to appeal to responsibility as a flexible concept that integrates obligation, moral complexity, and character. Here I am using the concept of responsibility in conjunction with claims made by Michael Ignatieff in his recent book, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror.

First, in the conflict with terrorism, we should appeal to the responsibility to be truthful — to name things as they are. Ignatieff underscores this point by saying that at times, to prevent the "greater evil" of our demise, we may need to do a "lesser evil" like the suspension of civil liberties. However, when we do so, we should continue to say that whatever good such actions serve they nevertheless retain a measure of evil. By assuming this responsibility for truth, we can restrain the way that war readily lends itself to an inflated and self-deceiving moral purpose.

Second, in the conflict with terrorists, we should appeal to responsibility as an ethical concept that requires the exercise of prudence amid moral complexity. Ignatieff rightly argues in the face of terrorism: "Neither a morality of consequences nor a morality of dignity can be allowed exclusive domain in public policy decisions." Rights are not trumps, Ignatieff says. But, then again, neither is security.

Last, we should appeal to responsibility insofar as we each are responsible for shaping our character in the course of choices we make during this time of a terrorist threat. We cannot stop asking what our actions in this conflict are making us — as individuals and as the American people. It's not enough that we become less afraid and more safe. We should also become more just.

In November, a Marine in a mosque in Fallujah was shown on camera throughout the world shooting a bullet into an injured Iraqi prisoner. To be sure, the immediacy of conflict to that Marine is a world away from the reflective repose of Silicon Valley. But even here, in our spirits if not always our bodies, we bear the marks of a conflict being undertaken on our behalf. We are determined, angry, afraid, brave, just, vengeful, free, perhaps feeling hair-trigger — and in all of this as responsible now for this conflict and for our character as that Marine was in that fatal moment in Fallujah.

This article was originally published in The Santa Clara on February 17, 2005.

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