McGowan: Terrorism, War and Diversity

October 18, 2023

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

My family has felt the horrors of terrorism. Years ago, when the First Officer of Egypt Air Flight 990 piloted the aircraft into the north Atlantic while repeatedly muttering “I rely on God,” 217 people perished. Among those who were killed in this perfidious act were two of my relatives, an uncle and a cousin.

Years after that, and three weeks before he left Indianapolis to do humanitarian work in the Mideast, my son’s friend, Peter Kassig, visited. They sat in Tyler’s living room talking about Peter’s upcoming trip and the aid that Peter hoped to bring to the Middle East. But in 2014, terrorists, thugs in other words, captured Peter, tortured him and beheaded him.

May he rest in peace.

President Barack Obama, noticing the increasing violence in the Middle East, had this to say: “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” His remarks accurately recount what occurred several centuries ago.

Today, when we look back on the Crusades, begun by Pope Urban II in 1095, we think appropriate descriptions of that warfare involve words like “immoral,” “savage,” “barbarian.” The words are appropriate for many of today’s acts — beheading people who do humanitarian work, burning people alive in cages, kidnapping hundreds of girls and abusing them, members of Hamas riding hang-gliders to bomb young people at a music festival.

Did Shakespeare have the correct understanding of war when he wrote that “fair is foul and foul is fair” (Macbeth I.i). May “All is fair in love and war” be correct?

If we revisit President Obama’s words, we know he got the matter right: the Crusades are a blot on the history of Christianity in the same way terrorist behavior stains Islam. President Obama’s intuition is correct and longstanding: thinkers have, for ages, thought that rules apply to warfare and violence.

The philosophical work on the “Just War Theory,” especially the thought of Augustine (354-431), has several components. Jus ad bellum (justice in going to war) requires a just cause, i.e., a clear aggressor, demands war as a last resort, expects the likely good outweighing the harm, and is fought with the right intention, where the goal is peace and stability. Jus in bello (justice during the war) requires discrimination, in that non-combatants and non-military sites are not permissible targets; the inevitable harm caused to the non-involved is outweighed by the greater good of violence’s use; and only force sufficient for the military objectives is used. The ideas found in the West regarding the permissibility of using violence are commonplace and universal.

The Hinduism of India, found in the “Bhagavad Gita,” offers rules to govern violence — cavalry can only fight cavalry, chariots can only fight chariots. Non-combatants, the wounded and the defenseless must be respected. Sikhs must heed the words of Guru Gobind Singh that “When all efforts to restore peace prove useless and no words avail, lawful is the flash of steel.” War can only be a last resort. The Quran says “If anyone slew a person unless it be for murder or corruption of the land, it would be as if he slew the whole people,” (Quran 5:32) suggesting the primary use of jihad in the Quran involves “exerted effort” for the sake of spiritual development, not for the slaughter of innocents.

As is obvious by the events in Israel, the classical tenets of Just War Theory are no longer followed. Further, as my colleague, Mark Franke, correctly observed this week, students, professors and administrators on many college campuses did not condemn the inhuman and genocidal savagery of the Hamas terrorists, as if the students, professors and administrators are disgracefully ignorant of Just War Theory and are indifferent to savagery.

Yet, campuses today are all about diversity, inclusion and equity. To make “diversity” work, though, people must recognize other people as beings like themselves, as beings worthy of “dignity and respect,” to quote Kofi Annan. If there is to be peace in the Middle East, people who live there must recognize the essential humanity of their neighbors. The indiscriminate slaughter of people by Hamas adherents represents their inability to see people who are diverse as human beings. Is that wise? Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said, “We need to revolutionize our religion . . . We ourselves are bringing it to perdition.”

He is correct. The philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain argued that terrorism is moral nihilism. She is correct, too.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University.


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