From 9/11 to ISIS: Resolving the Paradox of the U.S. War on Terror

9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, June 24, 2014. M. Shcherbyna / Shutterstock.com

9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, June 24, 2014. M. Shcherbyna / Shutterstock.com

It’s been 14 years since our government declared war on terrorism. How are we doing? It feels like a disastrous game of Whack-A-Terrorist, doesn’t it? We kill one terrorist hiding in one hole, and out pops another one from another hole. Now we are facing the newest threat, a terrorist organization seeking to set up a nation-state, ISIS or IS, as its leadership prefers to be called. The Islamic State, at least, would be a concrete opponent. If they hold on to territory and establish a functioning government, we could at least declare war on a tangible target. Though regrettable it would at least make sense within the logic of war in which states fight other states.

In a recent article for Patheos.com, David French uses Christian Scripture as a justification for “responding to ISIS with wrath and vengeance.” French is a lawyer, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. He claims that, according to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, while individuals are called upon to love their enemies, there is no such call placed on governments. In fact, God has instituted governmental authority in order to execute his wrath against evildoers. And apparently, or so Romans 13 puts it according to French, to know who the evildoers are one simply needs to look at who governments are punishing. French quotes the relevant passage, Romans 13:3-5:

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. [Emphasis added by French.]

French concludes that American Christians should have no difficulty determining the correct response to ISIS. Why? By the fact of determining that justice must be executed against ISIS, our government has determined that their violence is not only an offense against American citizens (he names the beheading victims, journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff) but against God himself.

French’s analysis strains credulity. Doesn’t he realize that the Romans to whom Paul was writing were themselves victims of government persecution? Does he think that these persecuted Christians felt they were being justly punished? And what about Paul himself, a Roman citizen who was persecuted and executed by the Roman government? Doesn’t French realize that by his own argument, the Roman authorities were executing God’s judgment against Paul? And by his own analysis, French is a captain in a military force that is from its origins a justifiable target for God’s wrath. Why? Because the founding act of the United States was a rebellion against a government, and “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:2)

Is There a Nonviolent Response to ISIS?

Iraqis protest ISIS in Washington, D.C., Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Iraqis protest ISIS in Washington, D.C., Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Alarm and outrage has been growing over the mounting humanitarian crisis in Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Syria and the Levant) or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

Christians in the region are being forced to convert, pay tribute or die as the al Qaeda breakaway group sweeps into predominantly Christian villages and Hamlets in Iraq, sending tens of thousands fleeing for their lives. Other non-Muslim groups, in particular the Yazidi, who practice a faith that predates Islam, are reportedly considered as infidels by the fanatic Islamic State and targeted for extermination in what many are calling a genocide. The U.N. is still gathering numbers but it believes that hundreds of Yazidis have been killed while others, primarily women, have been abducted and taken into slavery. Around 40,000 Yazidis have fled into the mountains of Northwest Iraq where they face the prospect of starvation on mountain or massacre by the Islamic State militants below.

The news is devastating and overwhelming. The suffering and acts of brutal violence staggers the imagination. What would a nonviolent response look like?

Let's Tell the Truth About This International Madness

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Refugees Fleeing ISIS Offensive Pour Into Kurdistan, Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The horrible human costs and increasing danger the world is now facing in Gaza, Ukraine, and Iraq show the consequences of not telling the truth. And unfortunately, we seem to mostly have political leaders who are unwilling to admit the truth of what’s happening, deal with root causes instead of exploiting symptoms, and then do everything possible to prevent the escalation of violence and further wars. Instead we have politicians who are mostly looking for opportunities to blame their political opponents, boost their own reputations, and protect business interests. As people of faith, we are called to speak the truth in love.

It’s time for some truth telling.

Iraq: Humility Is the Best Option

Via The U.S. Army, Flickr.com

Via The U.S. Army, Flickr.com

America is stunned by what is happening in Iraq right now, and happening so quickly. We may be facing the worst terrorist threat to international security so far — despite all we have done and sacrificed. Both our political leaders and media pundits are admitting there are no good options for the U.S. now. But there is an option we could try for the first time: humility. Let me turn to two biblical texts that might provide some wisdom for both the religious and non-religious.

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:20–21)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

All nations use propaganda to tell half-truths and spread misinformation about their enemies, which should be honestly challenged. Even so, it is also true that we have real enemies in this world, as individuals, groups, and nations. To assume otherwise is foolish, from the perspective of history, certainly, but also in light of good theology about evil as part of the nature of the human condition. According to the Bible, even our faith communities will encounter enemies. Jesus’s teaching assumes that we will have enemies, and he teaches us how to treat them. In the passages above, Jesus and Paul the Apostle offer guidance for more effective ways of dealing with our enemies. It seems to be clear that our habit of going to war against them is increasingly ineffective. For the past several years, we have found ourselves in a constant state of war with “enemies” who are very hard to find or completely defeat.

Abducting Girls in the Name of God

by Michael Fleshman

Hudreds gather at Union Square in New York City on May 3 to demand the release of Nigerian schoolgirls, by Michael Fleshman

The brutal abduction of several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls has stunned and outraged the world. A violent organization called Boko Haram, and its leader Abubakar Shekau, took credit for the kidnapping more than 300 female students from their classrooms at gunpoint, from a government-run school in Chibok, on April 14. In his subsequent video, the smiling terrorist leader told the world they would sell the teenage girls “into the marketplace” or forced marriages; in his latest, he claims the girls have converted to Islam. Shekau has claimed that God told him to do all of this. That is a lie. It is an abomination. It is a blasphemy against God, and people of faith from all traditions should denounce his words.

Invoking the name of God to justify human barbarity is a painfully tragic and an ongoing occurrence. If hearing these lies about God breaks our hearts, we can only imagine they must also break the heart of God. As the Qur’an warns, “Who is more unjust than he who lies against God?” This kind of blasphemy often derives from extreme religious fanaticism that can be found in all of our faith traditions — those who pervert, abuse, and use the language of religion for fear, hate, and power. These self-proclaimed religious leaders must be utterly denounced as false and human abominations of religion and must be publically condemned and held accountable by faith communities around the world.

5 Reasons the 9/11 Museum Should Drop 'Islamist'

National September 11 Memorial and Museum, in August 2011. Photo courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim, via Wikimedia Commons

On May 21, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York is scheduled to release “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” a seven-minute film telling the story of the attacks. Full disclosure: I have not watched the film.

But last week, The New York Times reported how American Muslims were concerned that the film uses words such as “Islamist” and “jihadist,” leaving some viewers with an impression that Islam promotes extremism. And that is troubling for a practicing Muslim like myself.

Here’s why the 9/11 museum should drop these terms from the film.

The Boston Marathon Bombings: Lessons from Passover

Memorial at the finish line of the Boston Marathon after the bombing, RobinJP /

Memorial at the finish line of the Boston Marathon after the bombing, RobinJP / Flickr.com

My first marathon ever — 2003 in New York City — did not go according to plan. On the positive side, I would never have guessed that P. Diddy would be running the same marathon and at the same pace for much of it, providing an entertaining entourage to distract me from my exhaustion. On the negative side, my name, which I had taped to my tank top so the crowds could give me much-needed encouragement, quickly peeled off, and I was anonymous in the crowd. My plan had been to run that last mile to the mantra “you can do anything” or “you are power,” but instead, my legs barely moving and my husband and close friend no longer by my side, I chanted dejectedly to myself: “Never again, never again.”

I didn’t know what misery associated with a marathon really was, though, until I heard about the Boston Marathon bombings, which took place one year ago today. On this day, two young brothers set off two bombs at the end of the Boston Marathon. As we waited to understand the damage, I remember thinking about the juxtaposition of the runners’ feelings of accomplishment setting in just as shrapnel began to fly. Then I received the painful — even if relieving — news that my first cousin had been right at the finish line with her husband and baby (born a year ago exactly on that marathon Monday) and had escaped the violence only because the baby needed her nap. We eventually learned that three people were dead, hundreds were injured, and the two suspected perpetrators were associated with radical Islam. I felt disgust and horror.

Moments such as this challenge each of us to live up to the “better angels of our nature,” as President Abraham Lincoln put it. As has been borne out by various terrorist attacks around the globe, terrorism breeds fear — its intended consequence. Too often this fear becomes fear of a religious group. We, as Jews, know intimately the perils of a society surrendering to this type of fear.

In the Name of Security

THE SAD RECORD of human history shows that torture has more often been the rule rather than the exception—in criminal justice systems as well as in interethnic, intercommunal, and international conflicts.

The use of torture in such situations—and brutalities that might fall short of torture but are nonetheless brutalities—can have many motivations. Torture demonstrates absolute power. Torture wreaks vengeance. Torture intimidates. Torture punishes. Torture coerces behavior change. Torture harms, and sometimes the sheer (perverted) pleasure of doing harm is enough motivation. And yes, torture is sometimes deployed to elicit information, confession, or “actionable intelligence.” (This was the main ostensible reason why the U.S. tortured after 9/11. But other factors on this list should not be overlooked.)

Torture appears to come all too naturally to fallen humanity. That is a still quite useful theological term that conveys the belief that humanity was created good by a good God but has fallen into sin and thus has suffered disastrous individual and collective damage to its character. Fallen human beings and human communities resort easily to torture.

So one way to talk about the ethics of torture and brutality is to start exactly here—with the historically and theologically grounded claim that torture has more often been the rule rather than the exception in human history, a dark but pervasive aspect of the behavior of fallen humanity. But what if we turn the discussion of torture upside down in what might be a constructive way?

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

Drones and Terrorism: Is the U.S. Scapegoating Al Qaeda?

U.S. Drone, Paul Drabot / Shutterstock.com

U.S. Drone, Paul Drabot / Shutterstock.com

Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda? It’s an odd question, I know, but it reared its ugly head as I read about the new reports from Amnesty International and Humans Rights Watch on U.S. drone strikes. The scapegoating mechanism is a very precise instrument that accrues enormous benefits to the scapegoater. By accusing their scapegoat of wrongdoing, a scapegoater ingeniously hides from the reality of their own guilt. Now here’s the weird thing: a scapegoat does not have to be innocent to function as a scapegoat. Scapegoats can be evil, nasty, ruthless, amoral sons-of-bitches and still function perfectly well as a scapegoat. Which is why I ask the question: Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda to hide from its own guilt?

With that in mind, I invite you to read these few excerpts that raised the question for me, with key phrases in boldface:

[continued at jump]

In Kenya Attack, Weakened Al-Shabab Seeks a Foothold in Kenya

Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo /courtesy Chuck Hagel via Flickr Photo by Erin A. Ki

Chuck Hagel leads the Somali president through an honor cordon at the Pentagon Sept. 20. Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo /Flickr.com

The deadly mall attack in Kenya on Saturday is a sign that the al-Qaida-affiliated group that carried it out has been dealt a blow in Somalia and they are looking to generate headlines with more high-profile attacks in the region, a regional expert says.

The militant group that carried out the attack, al-Shabab, wants to establish an Islamist government in Somalia.

In recent years, however, African Union troops in Somalia have driven the militants out of most parts of the capital city of Mogadishu as a U.S.-supported government there has attempted to establish control over the country. At one time, al-Shabab controlled parts of Mogadishu.

The attack in Nairobi underscores al-Shabab’s organizational skills and their commitment to die for a cause, said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and a professor at George Washington University.

But it also highlights that the group has to rely on high-profile terrorist attacks that generate headlines because they lack popular support and have failed in any direct fights with African Union forces in Somalia.

“Increasingly, al-Shabab has alienated the average Somali,” Shinn said.