Despite all the diversity that their hometown seems to afford them, New Yorkers – those transplanted from other places as well as the born and bred variety – tend to have a fairly insular outlook on things. Many believe that just about anything that is important – in life, in the arts, in fashion, in finance, indeed in the whole world – finds it’s epicenter in the heart of the city in which they reside. After all – it’s not for nothing that Times Square is called the “crossroads of the world”, and as we learned in the recent financial fiascos of the past two years “as goes Wall Street, so goes the world”, and on a lighter note there is a particular fan of one of our hometown baseball teams here at Catholic Charities who shall go nameless who makes a particular point of asking the rhetorical question of “why do they call it the World Series when it is always played in the Bronx.” – (except, sadly, for this year!). In a little bit of self-revelation, I have to admit that I too sometimes fall prey to this “New York Centric” view of reality; for good – and sometimes for ill – it does seem that things that happen within the confines of the 5 boroughs of New York have an outsized effect on the rest of the world– none as profound as the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent “war on terror” that proceeded from it. Many commentators on that day, and the days that came after, stated that “everything changed” on that dreadful day, and in many ways this has proven prescient: Ground Zero remains an open wound in the psyches of many Americans – a marker of our vulnerability from which we have not fully recovered.
Living and working in such close proximity to the place where the world changed forever gives one the opportunity to reflect on where we began this current journey, and where we find ourselves now. Of course, in the days and months that followed that terrible day, those of us effected – and indeed all people of good will around the world – were outraged at the senseless slaughter of thousands of innocent people in an act of unprecedented terrorism. When our nation responded to those tragic events by undertaking military action in Afghanistan to bring to account the perpetrators and planners of the terrible acts committed in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania – and their protectors in the Afghani government – there were few who questioned the justice of this cause, nor the obligation the United States had to defend the common good against mass terrorism. As a nation attacked, the United States had the moral right to respond to the unjust aggressor, to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden and the leadership of Al-Qaeda, and to insure that their protectors in Afghanistan did not allow such a cancer to grow in their country again. Many in the media in fact were using the traditional language of the “just war” teaching in Catholic social thought to justify these actions, assuring us that if ever there could be a “good war”, the military intervention in Afghanistan was one.
Today, as we look back over the 9 years that have passed, much of the clarity of the actions of that time have been lost in the fog of not one but two active wars that continue still; the intervening years have included not only those two wars, but also: two administrations, almost 5,000 American war dead, 30,000 wounded veterans, over 150,000 Iraqi deaths (80% of which are civilian casualties) and an as of yet uncounted number of Afghani war dead, as well as over $1 trillion dollars of our nation’s treasure in combined combat operations. In retrospect, perhaps a more careful reading of Catholic teaching on war and peace might have prevented some of the consequence of the decisions to go to war that we are still dealing with today http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm#III. After all, although the Catholic Church’s teachings of the requirements that must be met before any military action is undertaken – including provisions that military action for legitimate defense must always be undertaken as a last resort, that there is a serious prospect for success, that the use of arms must not produce evils greater then the evils to be eliminated, and that non-combatants must be protected – is known as it’s “Just War” doctrine, we should recall that the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes these provisions in the section having to do with “Safeguarding Peace” and “Avoiding War”. In analyzing conflict, it is sometimes this tremendous presumption against the use of armed intervention that is overlooked and not given its proper weight. Even back at the time that the Afghanistan War began, in the aftermath of the events of September 11th when the desire to right the terrible injustice done to our nation that day was most strong, our American Bishops in their pastoral message “Living with Faith and Hope after September 11th” http://www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp/sept11.shtml cautioned that “true peacemaking can be a matter of policy only if it is first a matter of the heart. Without both courage and charity, justice cannot be won.” While in their statement they acknowledged the “right and the duty of a nation …to use military force if necessary to defend the common good by protecting the innocent against mass terrorism”, they additionally acknowledged the equally important work of “maintaining and fortifying our efforts to do everything possible to address the long-standing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan”, to address the incredible need in what still remains after almost 10 years of intervention one of the world’s poorest countries http://www.unohrlls.org/en/ldc/related/62/ .
To some, such advocacy of increased development may seem dreadfully naïve, or at the worst completely impossible given the inept and corrupt Afghan government and a resurgent Taliban. But to me it seems that this was very good advice, almost prophetic for the time. In the intervening years since the war in Afghanistan began, I have had the opportunity to travel to the developing world with Catholic Relief Services and to witness for my self some of the struggles that people living there – in my case, Sub-Saharan Africa – encounter on a daily basis. The people that I encountered were from a different culture then I was, spoke a different language then I did and many were of a different religion as well -yet overwhelmingly while on these travels, I have to say that those I encountered were tremendously grateful for the assistance that they received in their struggles – be it food, water, medicine, or shelter – through the good offices of Catholic Relief Services, USAID and other charitable groups acting on behalf of brother and sisters from across the ocean. Despite the external differences between us, it was our unity in one human family made manifest through concrete assistance that broke down potential barriers of mistrust and replaced them instead with social cement of mutual esteem. It’s my belief a similar effort could work wonders with the Afghani people as well.
Several weeks ago, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan’s guest on the JustLove radio show was Professor David Cortright , the Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace at Notre Dame University; on the show he and Msgr. Sullivan iscussed prospects for peace on the approach of the 9th Anniversary of the United States military campaign in Afghanistan on October 7th. The conversation was lively – as always – and well worth a listen, but what I was most struck by was Prof. Cortwright’s statement near the end of the discussion that war – once begun – is a monster that will devour everything around it. I have to be honest and say that I had never quite thought about war in those terms before, but this graphic description seems very apropos for the situation in which we find ourselves. Perhaps this is why the Church in the wisdom of her social teachings discusses the use of military action for legitimate defense – or “just war” doctrine – as less of a tool to justify the force, then as an enclosure to contain it. For it seems that once the beast that is war is set loose, it is not too long before it sets its fangs upon its masters as well.