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Less Than Infinite Justice
Published on Tuesday, October 2, 2001
Less Than Infinite Justice
by Katherine Rose Hawkins
 
We have known it was coming, and now it is here. We are at war. The tentative title is "Operation Infinite Justice", though it is very unlikely that that is what history books will call it. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have united to support the President in this war, and now we are all asked to do the same. No matter what.

I cannot agree to that. In a time like this we owe as much support as we can give to our families, our friends, our neighbors, our soldiers, to anyone hurt by that horror last Tuesday. That support should be unconditional, or as unconditional as we can make it. The support we owe to our government is different. Not only can it be conditional; it must be.

In college, one of my political science professors told us that democracies often take on the characteristics of dictatorships in wartime. We jail people for political protests or their skin color; we kill thousands of civilians; we make alliances with evil people. Sometimes these things are necessary and sometimes they are not. The real difference between a free society and a totalitarian one, my teacher said, is in what we do when the war is over.

The trouble with this war is that there may be no end. We cannot just defeat our enemy and go home. We do not know who he is, or where he is. We will never succeed in killing every terrorist in the world, and even if we could there would be never be a guarantee that new ones wouldn't be recruited.

What is worse is that we could so easily make the situation worse. A limited strike has virtually no chance of success. A larger one would still be incomplete, and would almost certainly kill innocent civilians. This is not merely a moral consideration. If we kill too many innocents we will create new terrorists, and we will also lose allies whom we desperately need. Threats will only hold a coalition together for so long. Middle Eastern leaders know we cannot fight every country at once, and we need to buy our oil from somewhere. Ultimately they need their people's acquiescence more than they need us to be their friends.

We have announced that we will destroy governments that harbor terrorists. But what happens after? If we destroy the Taliban something will replace it; what will it be? Are we going to occupy the country? Are we willing to take the risk of destabilizing Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons? All this assumes that Afghanistan is the only country in the world that harbors terrorists, which we know very well is not true. I understand that we cannot do nothing, but doing the wrong thing might be much, much worse.

*******

I have learned many things in the past week. One of them is that I love this country far more than I thought I did. As far as I can tell there are four reasons for this. The first, and most important, is that it is my home. The others are a bit more complicated.

The fact that we are the most powerful country in the world does not make the list. I do not believe we are the most virtuous; several countries in Western Europe have had cleaner hands than ours for the past fifty years. But in a world where power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, our near-absolute power has not corrupted us anywhere near absolutely. I am not certain of this, but I believe that there has never been a moment in our history when the world as a whole was worse off for existence.

The third reason is that in our darkest hours there have always been citizens willing to step forward and denounce the evils around them. When this happens, they are ostracized and harrassed and not re-elected, but they are usually not imprisoned and they are not killed.

The fourth reason is that we have made all this from people that other countries did not want. We all learned the poem in fourth grade: "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores." We do not let everyone in, and we are sometimes pretty awful to the newcomers, and occaisonally we have closed our borders entirely. But we have been more open for a longer time than anyone else.

A war, especially this kind of war, threatens all these things. Some of us know this only from our history classes and some of us know this from personal experience.

I know very well that it is a threat that sometimes needs to be faced. It may need to be faced now; I am honestly not certain. But I am not willing to face it for revenge; or in a vain attempt to recapture a feeling of security that we already know is gone. I am not willing to face it because we know we must do something and we do not know what else to do. In the end, the only good reason for taking life is saving other lives, not only in theory but in fact.

Katherine Rose Hawkins, 22, graduated from Yale last year. She has been an intern and news reporter for The New Haven Advocate, City Limits magazine, and The Back Bay Courant. She now works for the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.

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