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Deny Them Their Victory
Published on Tuesday, October 16, 2001
Deny Them Their Victory
by Jim Wallis
Since the evil events of Sept. 11, the religious community has been clear and consistent in condemning the terrorists who brought violence to our shores. We have also said that a morally rooted response to this terror must focus on bringing the perpetrators to justice, rather than military reprisals that do harm to more innocents. A broad spectrum of religious leaders has expressed a strong determination to protect both the innocent lives threatened by further terrorist attacks and the innocent civilians jeopardized by military retaliation.

We believe there was wisdom in the restraint shown for almost a month by the U.S. government, in the building of an international coalition against terrorism, and in the fact that the developing strategy to root out terrorism included not just military but many other fronts. Now that the air strikes have begun, that multifaceted approach must not be lost in a widening war. We cannot simply wish away the questions to be answered and problems to be solved -- we must punish those responsible for the mass murders and prevent further terrorist violence. But we are now at a critical moral turning point between pursuing justice or waging a wider war.

The central importance of the defense of innocent lives must be made clear and compelling in the midst of the air strikes now underway. Already, we've seen tragic unintended results of U.S. bombing in the deaths of Afghan civilians. Despite clear efforts to avoid civilian casualties and apologies from the Pentagon for bombs that have missed their targets, experience shows us that bombing always results in the suffering of the innocent -- both through "collateral damage" and through civilian dislocation. The human crisis in Afghanistan of enormous refugee dislocation has been made worse by the bombings, and relief agencies are warning of a massive humanitarian disaster in the making unless ground shipments of aid are restored.

Now that the Taliban's "command and communication" centers and its military capabilities have been greatly diminished by the air strikes, it is time to shift strategies. The most effective and morally defensible strategy would be one focused clearly on bringing the terrorists to justice, fully utilizing the rule of law and international forces, and employing multiple tactics. We should undertake a police operation with special forces from many countries to vanquish the terrorist networks, instead of the widening war that continued bombing will bring. The U.S. should also urge the U.N. Security Council to establish a special international tribunal to try those responsible.

Such a focused and international campaign would not only be morally superior to an escalating U.S.-led war against the states that sponsor terrorism (with a heavy cost to their people), it would also be far less dangerous, and ultimately more effective in actually defeating the terrorist threat. It is imperative to prevent the scenario of an expanding American war in the Arab world, increasing the danger of more terrorist attacks in America and Europe, prompting more escalation, and thereby risking a cycle of violence that becomes more and more difficult to stop.

This strategy may take more time. But applying discipline, patience, and perseverance to cripple the networks, assets, and capabilities of violent terrorists is more likely to produce lasting results than massive military actions whose targets and consequences are increasingly unclear. President Bush's best action now would be to follow his own words of "patient justice."

Rev. Jim Wallis is the editor-in chief of Sojourners. Rev. Wallis is an initiator of the statement "Deny Them Their Victory: A Religious Response to Terrorism," now signed by over 3,500 religious leaders.


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