Two Weeks Post-9/11: Careful Policy, Not 'War'

J. Bryan Hehir

From “What Can and Should Be Done?” vol. 30, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2001)

J. Bryan Hehir
J. Bryan Hehir, 2016. Photo: HDS photograph.

To write about September 11, 2001, is to know the paucity of one’s vocabulary and literary skill. The words are so disproportionate to the tragedy that the temptation is to stop trying to describe it. . . . But two weeks removed from the terror it is necessary also to consider its political significance for the United States and the world. It is by combining the human, the moral, and the political dimensions of September 11 that we can ask what can we do and what should we do as a nation to respond.

“Can” and “should” yield a multidimensional response: personal, social, and global responses are needed—and all have begun. . . .

The personal response will intensify and continue as the inevitable need to memorialize and bury the dead by the thousands will face the nation and its religious communities. . . . This kind of response is intense, concrete, and specific. . . .

The social response is also deeply personal and particular but in a different way. The challenge between the pastoral and social is this: as we draw together as a country in response to tragedy, how we avoid doing so by isolating or ostracizing or victimizing a few as “the other.” . . . The primary imperative of the social response is to protect Arab-American citizens, visitors and students from the Middle East, and Muslims generally from any kind of labeling, guilt by association, covert or overt discrimination or harassment. Beyond protection is the equally important public recognition that communities of Arab descent and Muslim faith are productive, loyal, contributing citizens in this land. . . .

. . . On the whole the nation has a better record on ethnic and religious pluralism than it has had on racial equality and integration. The future, one shaped by a world of fluid boundaries and borders, requires doing better on all fronts of religious, racial, and ethnic pluralism. Crises often remind us of deep, paramount truths; the social response to September 11 will test our commitment to e pluribus unum.

By this writing the global response has moved to center stage, and it is the most complex of the three in analytical terms. . . . The first press calls I received wanted to know if military action would be permissible under traditional “just war” teaching. That is a crucial but very narrow question. To answer it without acknowledging its constraints is to set the whole policy discussion off in the wrong direction. . . . I think there is some value in questioning an idea that seems to have widespread support, namely that a policy response to terrorism should be defined as a war. . . . The language and imagery of war mobilizes a population in a unique fashion. Recognizing this, even if one believes that an effective response to terrorism requires a military dimension, it is better not to locate the whole effort under the category of war—better to forfeit the rhetorical bounce that derives from invoking war and define what should be done more precisely.

How [do we] achieve this precision and why is it important? Because ideas and language shape the logic of policy and promote public expectations here and abroad. Even those espousing the language of war quickly acknowledge this will not be like other wars. . . . The target of this effort is transnational in scope and non-governmental in character. . . .

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described the attack as a crime against humanity. But just cause alone does not yield the conclusion that resort to war is necessary, prudent, or legitimate. Other issues of a measured response, understood morally, must be tested and answered.


J. Bryan Hehir was Chair of the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Divinity at HDS from 1999 to 2002. At his request he was not called “Dean” to signal that he had ecclesiastical responsibilities with the Roman Catholic Church during his tenure. This article appeared first in the October 8, 2001, issue of America: The National Catholic Weekly, and was reprinted with permission in the Summer/Fall 2001 Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.