Jewish World Review Oct. 5, 2001 / 18 Tishrei, 5762

Michael Medved

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Pointless rage vs. moral war --
ALL WARS are bloody and ugly, but not all wars qualify as immoral. The American people feel that the Islamic terrorist war that has been launched against them counts as uniquely evil, but it's important that we understand why it deserves such a harsh designation.

It's not simply the targeting of civilians that makes the war against America so horrifying and immoral. As Osama bin Laden himself pointed out in a 1998 interview with the Western media, the United States deliberately killed civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we do not remember World War II as an unjust struggle.

In fact, that war, from the American perspective, still stands as a prime example of a moral conflict. In fighting Japan and Germany, we defended ourselves from hostile, aggressive, expansionist powers, and winning the war conferred a profound benefit on the American people, providing increased security and the advance of freedom's cause. It's possible to debate whether specific wartime decisions, such as the firebombing of Dresden or the atomic-bomb attacks on Japan, effectively and appropriately served our purposes in the struggle, but it's not possible to deny that our fight involved the welfare - indeed, the very survival - of our nation.

Any war that advances or defends a nation's interests can be justified in some sense as a moral war, but a struggle waged merely out of hatred and irrational destructiveness cannot.

Hitler's "war against the Jews" (to use historian Lucy Dawidowicz's phrase for the Holocaust) serves as the leading example of such immoral killing. That bloody campaign not only involved unimaginable cruelty against non-combatants, it also conferred no conceivable benefit on the German people - or anyone else.

As a matter of fact, historians now agree that Hitler's obsession with killing Jews actually harmed his nation - diverting precious manpower, materiel and railroad facilities at crucial moments of the war. The Holocaust stands as uniquely evil because it served no practical purpose for Germany: It involved an utterly pointless expression of bloodlust and hatred.

The same can be said of other holocausts of the 20th century - including the Turkish slaughter of more than a million Armenians in 1915-1916, or the Cambodian communists' killing of nearly 2 million of their own countrymen, or the recent Hutu murders of some 800,000 Tutsis in central Africa. No moral justification can be suggested for any of this butchery, because it advanced the practical interests of no nation.

Radical Islam's war against the West has yet to achieve the massive impact of these other instances of crazed mass slaughter, but it already shares with them an immoral core: its utter pointlessness.

The horrors of Sept. 11 brought unforgettable harm to the United States, but whom did they help? Are Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or Iraq or the Palestinian Authority or Islamic peoples in general stronger or richer or closer to some important goal because 19 suicidal killers hijacked four jets and killed thousands?

In a bloody and horrendous struggle, it's not possible for both sides to win, but it is possible for both sides to lose - for all of the sacrifices to count for nothing.

The importance of fighting for a positive purpose involves an ability to bring the struggle to an end. If you're battling for territory or economic advantage or to defend your nation against aggressive assaults, then the war will, sooner or later, come to an end - either through negotiations and compromise or through the achievement of your predetermined war aims.

The history of the Gulf War demonstrates the advantage of this approach. The United States and its allies fought to liberate a nation that had been invaded and occupied by its neighbor, and to secure the West's essential supply of energy. Having achieved those aims and thrown Iraq out of Kuwait, our coalition went home.

Immoral wars, on the other hand, offer no natural point of conclusion. Can anyone imagine leaders of European Jewish communities trying to negotiate with Hitler to try to end the Holocaust? The killing stemmed from impassioned, unreasoning hatred rather than the service of some practical purpose, and so allowed no chance for compromise or peace.

By the same token, the terrorist war of the moment threatens to last for many years precisely because it bears so little connection to discernable, rational aims. Most of Sept. 11's suicide warriors lived in this country for months or years and patiently planned an operation that not only claimed their own lives but also crushed and burned thousands of strangers. Would some changes in government policy suddenly cause such people to reconsider their rage, to smile at their host nation, shake hands with Americans and desist from their murderous schemes?

Islamic fundamentalists view the United States as a source of moral pollution and pernicious temptation for their own children, and a threat to the medieval, hierarchical faith they fanatically embrace and impose.

The truth about our current enemy may prove painfully difficult for Americans to accept. Islamic fundamentalists don't want America to change; they want America to die. That's why they strike out with no goals in mind, with no lists of demands, with no suggestions of how and when they and their colleagues might be placated.

In responding to such unfocused but ferocious hatred, we must provide a demonstration of moral combat, pursued with clearly articulated purposes and with levels of force commensurate to achieving them. Demands for "justice" or "revenge" or "punishment" have little place in the shaping of an ethical conflict, and a struggle launched on that basis threatens to devolve into the same sort of angry, aimless and implacable fury that characterizes our country's enemies.

The American people must pursue prevention and protection, not punishment. The point of this struggle is to defend the nation and its citizens and to reduce, as far as possible, the danger of future terrorist attacks. Every aspect of this new war must be judged according to its ability to advance this righteous purpose.

If we apply that standard, we will conduct a moral conflict and avoid the evil excesses of pointless rage that consume our adversaries.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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