In this week’s episode, the editors discuss 9/11.

Rough Transcript

Tooley: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. On our minds today is the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Providence is hosting a conversation this evening, Friday evening, with two distinguished persons giving their reflections on 9/11, moderated by Marc LiVecche. We’ll hope to post that video. But first, let’s talk among each other in terms of 9/11’s impact on America and the world as viewed through the prism of Christian realism. I will recall that only a few days after 9/11, I attended a press conference with three Christian ethicists to reflect on the attacks. who were Jean Bethke Elshtain, Stanley Hauerwas, and James Turner Johnson. Hauerwas, of course, being a pacifist, and who I found to be, at least at that event, very unimpressive with a series of quips and one liners and no serious reflection on what 9/11 meant ethically, morally, spiritually, much less geostrategically for the United States. Jean Bethke Elshtain, who was of course a just war scholar among her other qualifications and accomplishments, was superb, and showed tremendous resolve backed up by James Turner Johnson, himself a distinguished just war scholar. Of course our own Marc LiVecche was a student of Jean Bethke Elsthain. If I had one reflection to contribute to today’s conversation, it’s that most of us or nearly all of us at the time assumed that the world had been completely transformed, and that for the rest of our lives we would be contending with the paramount threat of militant Islam, a multigenerational paramount threat. And of course that threat continues, but perhaps not to the extent that we envisioned in the emotions and passions of those initial weeks and months after the attacks of 9/11, which is itself instructive. If you’re old enough, as I am, to recall the Cold War, we had assumed that it would be permanent, and that it ended so abruptly was shocking to many of us. A reminder that in the providence of God, evils have their day, they conclude or recede, only to be replaced by other evils. As the Scriptures say, one demon is expelled only to be replaced by sometimes many others. But Marc LiVecche is composing a piece for us today on 9/11, so Marc, share a few thoughts from your impending article.

LiVecche: Yeah, thanks for your own Mark. I think those are well said and spot on. 9/11 sealed, for me, the recognition that pacifism, whether it’s secular or it’s a Christian version or any other, is ultimately morally inadequate, and I think ultimately incoherent in addressing the realities of the day from a Biblically infused perspective. So, my article that I’ll write is written in pure Elshtain-ian rhythms, with a Christian realist accent. I’m pushing against some articles that have been coming out lately that argue that the just war tradition is incompatible with things like a desire for retribution. There was an article that was recently published in I think America magazine that presses the contemporary Catholic notion that just war is all about a presumption against war, rather than in its historic and classical grounding, a presumption for the existence of justice, or for the preservation of justice in pushing back against injustices. So I make a place for punishment as one of the focal points of a justified war. I use 9/11 as the lens through which I see that. I recall the emotions of the day and that I, and probably most Americans, experienced an anger that bordered on rage. But it wasn’t, in most cases, a directionless rage. It was intensely focused. When George W. Bush talked about the people who knocked our buildings down are going to hear from all of us soon, and his focused campaign in Afghanistan to try to bring justice to Osama Bin Laden and those who perpetrated the attacks, all of that was well supported by classical just war thought. So I just make an attempt to remind people of what that is, of the importance of vindicated victims, of requiting injustices, of pursuing peace. Not an antithesis to forgiveness, but the first step that is always going to be required in reconciliation. People have to be brought to an awareness of what they’ve done. They have to repent, and if those things are in place, then forgiveness has an opportunity to be had. But, meanwhile, there’s a lot of work to be done.

Tooley: It seems to me there’s a tremendous amount of judgement and harshness aimed at the leadership of 20 years ago, that the last 20 years were all a mistake, grievous, wasteful, misguided, a terrible legacy, and not a lot of appreciation for the mystery and threats that the leadership of 20 years ago had to contend with. And would anyone else have made decisions much differently? And the fact that yes, there has been tragedy and loss over the last 20 years, as the recent events in Afghanistan remind us, but also the fact that the United States has avoided any major attacks on the nation itself, which was a tremendous accomplishment, and we continue as the paramount superpower of the world, obviously now with China competing with us and having superseded the threat that we see from radical Islam. But would you agree, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton, that many critics are too harsh on the leadership 20 years ago?

Melton: I mean there’s always a Monday morning quarterbacking, looking back in history and criticizing people. Like, I do this in Christianity in Crisis where we’ll share articles and I critique how they approached different foreign policy and things, and that’s obviously through the long hindsight of 75 years. But looking back over 20 years, historical policymakers, or you know people who are considering policies through a historical lense, need to understand that you’re dealing with rapid developing events, you’re dealing with a lot of fear, and so whatever policy mistakes are made, I tend to have a sense of grace or leniency on any mistakes that are made. I think Eric Patterson does a good job in some of the stuff I’ve read from him where he is arguing that these people who are sitting in the White House, sitting in the Pentagon or elsewhere, are dealing with a lot of stress and have to make decisions very quickly. So yeah, I’m not very harsh on the decisions, the immediate response to 9/11. And that’s one of the things that people who lived through this — I was in my early high school years when 9/11 happened — just how the community responded. Like just the different prayer events, that is probably the peak of American unity as seen in my lifetime, was seen in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. To see 3,000 Americans killed, or roughly 3,000 Americans killed, is going to galvanize the American people. If you look at the four schools of thought that Walt Russell Mead brings up, the Jacksonians are going to be — which, where I was from, I think everyone was Jacksonian in their foreign policy, there were basically no Wilsonians where I came from — those Jacksonians rose up and were ready to go to war. And I think that, going forward, if we were to have another terrorist attack like that, I think that would rise up again, and I think if you asked the American people, which would you prioritize, preventing the invasion of Taiwan or preventing another terrorist attack, I think most voters would say preventing another terrorist attack would be their number one, to prevent another 3,000 Americans dead on American streets would be the priority for them. Even though there can be other issues and other challenges. So to criticize the Bush Administration for its immediate response, if they didn’t respond like that they wouldn’t have won reelection in 2004.

Tooley: Perhaps Stanley Hauerwas deserves some credit for having shared at least one accurate sentiment or perception at the time, which was that 9/11 didn’t change the world, Golgotha changed the world. That sounds glib, but I think maybe just at the time imagining the horrors of that day and completely changed the current day, but it was just one more horror and tragedy adding to a history of thousands of years of horror and tragedy. But it was unique as an attack upon the United States, unparalleled since Pearl Harbor obviously. But Marc LiVecche, aren’t we all humans prone to exaggerate the events of our own time, as somehow unparalleled?

LiVecche: Oh, absolutely, very much so. 9/11 was a horror, but sort of the grim news is that it’s just, as you’ve said, one more horror in the long cyclical series of horrors that make up human history. At the same time, while 9/11 was a horror, was a tragedy, it also brought out in people all over the globe, some of the best of humanity. And so that’s not to say that we welcome it because some people get an opportunity to shine as human beings, as moral human beings. But it is to ask for a certain kind of perspective. I experienced 9/11 somewhat retrospectively. I was in Turkey, so ahead of us in time zone, and travelling in a remote part of Turkey when I was with an embassy official, and we got word that there had been an attack of some kind. He had to take certain security measures. We turned on the radio and it was all in Turkish, and we had one woman with us who spoke Turkish, and she was saying that the buildings in NYC had been destroyed, and we were angry because she was a German woman, so we figured from her translation to Turkish through her German native tongue back into English, the word destroyed was an exaggeration. Only to discover of course that it hadn’t been. I say all this to say, the place we were travelling to in Turkey was the seat of a lot of the Kurdish separatism, and they have lost upwards of tens of thousands of people to terrorism over the decades. And when we arrived at the location of a nonprofit agency that we were going to support, the work that it did with street children, they said that they were surprised to see us there because they thought we would simply turn around and go home. But that started a long conversation about their own experiences with terror, and almost every person that was there had experienced it or lost a loved one to terrorism. So they knew something about what we were going through, which put into perspective that, however horrific the events of 9/11 were, America has been remarkably preserved from a lot of the horrors that much of the rest of the world has faced. And just to put a fine point against the Stanley Hauerwas’s of the world, however horrific 9/11 was, it was those kinds of horrors that had been limited to the degree that they had been limited by men and women who take up arms against evildoers. So, again, for the pacifist who desires peace, in human experience it’s an impossibility, the pacifist tends to only insist that violence in practice be practiced against the innocent, because those who defend the innocent are permitted to use violence. So they never allow real choice between violence and nonviolence, just that violence will only ever be used to victimize and never be used to rescue victims, and I think that’s morally reprehensible.

Tooley: Well I recall on 9/11 being on the metro unaware of what was happening, and our car was stopped before the Pentagon metro station without explanation. The passengers said there was a bomb at the Pentagon, and eventually we passed through and when crossing over the bridge, the 14th Street bridge, we looked back and saw the smoke rising up from the Pentagon. Quite eerie, everyone was silent, what could you say? Later a passenger got on the train and said that both towers had collapsed, which, like you Marc LiVecche, everyone said that’s impossible, that’s an exaggeration. So quite the day, being in downtown D.C., and yet looking back I must also say it was reassuring the continuity of our government. It never occurred to me that the United States would not survive, would certainly prevail and our government would continue even if the terrorists, God forbid, had taken out the Capitol as they perhaps intended to. The U.S. government and the constitution would have continued because of the habits and traditions of our people. And sometimes we underestimate and forget don’t we, Mark Melton and Marc LiVecche

Melton: Yes!

LiVecche: One of the stirring moments for me as I was sitting in a Turkish hotel room, rifling through the webpages trying to figure out what happened, was at some point, Andrew Card, then White House chief of staff, was asked “what did you guys do when you realized that America was under attack?” And, as I recall, he simply sort of shrugged, and said “we got on with doing our jobs,” which seems about the best we can ever do.

Tooley: Well, in conclusion, what would Reinhold Niehbur have said if he was alive during 9/11? I suspect he would have said something somewhat similar to Jean Bethke Elshtain at the National Press Club several days later, in that he would have supported a vigorous military response, but he would have also cautioned against hubris and overconfidence and distorting or exaggerating the threats against us that would justify an overreaction, don’t you think Marc LiVecche?

LiVecche: Yes I think that’s true, and I also think he would be willing to ask the then unpopular question, and unpopular because it came too fast on the heels of the attacks. But Niehbur would also want to speculate why it is that particular groups of people in the world hate us as a culture and as a people. And he would invalidate a lot of the reasons that they hate us as their problem, not ours. But he would also want to know what are the things that we do intentionally or unintentionally to make American power and Western power unnecessarily burdensome to those who are beneath it. It’s a question, I think, that is perpetually worth asking, but you have to get the timing right.

Tooley: I recall that Osama Bin Laden had explained that he assumed America would not respond vigorously to 9/11 because we always withdraw in weakness, citing the 1982 withdrawal from Lebanon, the 1993 withdrawal from Somalia, et cetera et cetera, and future Osama Bin Ladens would also cite the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as a citation of American weakness. And they will have been mistaken in that America will of course respond with strength and vigor when its interests are truly at stake, and we withdraw when we perceive that our interests are not at stake, that the lives of our young people do not merit further exertion. Would you agree, Mark Melton and Marc LiVecche?

Melton: So I mean like I mentioned earlier, the Jacksonian response is very strong in the American public, where, if there’s going to be 3,000 dead in America, then we’re going to exert a lot of force to prevent that from happening again, and I think that’s the responsibility of our government to do that. Reading about some of the different plots that were being planned that were thwarted, it could have been horrifying. And it is, I think we have a much better government to prevent those types of things, but I think if it was to happen again I think there would be another strong response.

LiVecche: I think there’s something in Osama Bin Laden’s miscalculation that’s worth investigating, because if America, and we seem to do this regularly, if we miscommunicate our willingness to strike back with resolve and to punish people who harm us, whether our interests or our values or both, we’re doing something of a disservice to our enemies. And so it would be nice to be able to find a way to make clear, to articulate, without confusion, what it is that will stir us up and get our dander raised, so that people have a chance of avoiding sort of the American fist. Because you know, there’s an old joke told about a Mennonite or other kind of pacifist who hears a noise in his downstairs at night, and he goes downstairs with his hunting rifle, and he chambers a round and he says, “excuse me brother, but thou standest where I’m about to shoot.” We allow others to miscalculate our resolve at their peril, but I think there’s more we could be doing to make very plain what those red lines are that, if crossed, we will fight back. That seems morally incumbent upon us. And that’s best done through a position of strength, not positions of weakness, which I think 9/11 ought to have taught us, I’m not sure that it has.

Tooley: America’s enemies should be properly warned of the consequences that will befall them. On that note, Marc LiVecche, Mark Melton, thank you for this reflection on 20 years since 9/11, and for this latest episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.