I hear a lot of questions from my students--questions like, What
could the United States have done to have provoked such a hideous
attack upon us? Surely, the thinking goes, there must be larger
grievances that lie behind this attack, such as U.S. foreign policy
in Iraq or the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. Another
idea I've heard is that what happened on September 11 was provoked
by global inequalities--the responsibility of American corporations
and their rapacious policies abroad--which caused poverty and then
caused people to commit desperate acts.
I'd like to respectfully submit that these are not the issues upon
which we should be focusing.
The people who committed the terrorist acts of September 11 are
not among the world's most disenfranchised people. Their leader,
Osama bin Laden, is, in fact, a man of phenomenal wealth, a man
who has used his wealth for his own purposes. He represents an elite
that can only exist by ensuring that the people in his part of the
world live in poverty. He has a great deal of interest in ensuring
that the regimes that protect him, like the Taliban regime in Afghanistan,
impoverish their own people.
Imagine just for a moment what would happen if suddenly Afghanistan
were to become a country that engaged in the normal process of economic
development and created an active middle class. There would be no
room for an Osama bin Laden in such a country. Osama bin Laden is
a man who preys off of the world's poverty. Many of his followers
are also enormously wealthy. This is not a mass movement. The perpetrators
of these desperate acts are themselves people who are perpetuating
Nor can it be that our foreign policy is the cause--that what we're
witnessing is a protest against the United States' support for Israel,
for example, or the continued desperation that Iraq has faced since
the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein. Osama bin Laden had no interest
in the Arab-Israeli conflict until he found it useful for rhetorical
purposes. Central to his concerns have been the moderate regimes
in the Middle East, regimes that do not accept him or his particular
interpretation of what the Lord requires for the religion that they
commonly share. He is a sworn enemy of many of the regimes in the
Middle East. He is, in fact, an enemy of Yasir Arafat and of the
Palestinians. The creation of a democratic Palestinian state in
the Middle East would be a far greater threat to Osama bin Laden
than the state of Israel ever would be.
It is not our cultural imperialism, our "McDonaldsization" of the
world, that Osama bin Laden is desperate to see exterminated. I'm
struck by the extraordinary familiarity with American culture that
the terrorists he sent to our shores manifested during their brief
visit in our country. They took full advantage of it, eating in
our fast-food restaurants, sleeping in our inexpensive motels, using
our efficient telecommunications system to communicate with one
another their messages of hate. These are people who, rather than
being in protest against modernity, find themselves in fact very
comfortable with a number of its instruments. Theirs is not some
statement about the Satanic nature of modernity.
I don't mean to deny that they hate us. It is clear that they do.
So what is it about us that they hate?
It seems to me that they hate about us what we Americans should
most love about ourselves. They hate the fact that we open our doors
to people--indeed to people from the very countries for which Osama
bin Laden attempts to speak. We welcome them into our society, and
when they're in our society, we offer them religious freedom. We
offer dignity and personhood to every member of the human race,
irrespective of whether they're male or female.
We say that people with different points of view not only can live
together, but should live together. We are a liberal, democratic
society, and that is precisely what we are fighting for. Now we
know that some people see the fact that we embody such principles
as an insult to themselves. Osama bin Laden recognizes that so long
as we exist, he cannot. And for him to exist, we cannot.
That is the nature of the conflict he has identified against us.
Because every time a woman in the United States of America smiles,
wears a dress, gets an education, becomes a doctor, his way of life
cannot be maintained. Because in the United States people of all
different religious views practice as they want, his conception
of the proper relationship between church and state cannot be sustained.
We are, in other words, a living insult to him.
I think it is already proven that the terrorists' efforts to disrupt
the American way of life and to sow discord among the American people
have failed. To be sure, I see no stifling of dissent in the United
States. On the contrary, I see the opposite. On America's college
campuses there have been active discussions, such as the series
that we're having here at Boston College, in which many points of
view are expressed.
But as I look back, it's hard for me to believe that as a nation
we spent so much time debating our racial and ethnic differences
in the last 15 or 20 years. It's now become so obvious that whether
you're black or white, whether you're gay or straight, whether you're
male or female, whether you're left wing or right wing, if you were
on an upper floor of the World Trade Center on the morning of September
11, Osama bin Laden could not have cared less what your sexual orientation
was, what your race was, what your political views were.
We have been brought together.
Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of
the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston
College. His essay is drawn from a talk he gave on campus on October
16, 2001. Wolfe's book Moral Freedom: The Impossible Idea that
Defines the Way We Live Now was published this year by W.W. Norton.
Excerpts appeared in the Summer issue of BCM.
The last time I was at Boston College, in 1967, had I announced
that my topic was fundamentalism, we would have met in a phone booth.
I would have described people who were dismissed as hillbillies
and holy rollers. They're dying out, I--and others in the academy--would
have said, you'll never see them again. We would have been wrong
Some features of fundamentalism do look like old-time religion.
And members of fundamentalist movements almost everywhere think
they are old-time religion. But they're not. Fundamentalism comes
after the Enlightenment in the West. It comes after the worldwide
spread of technology and industry and along with the earliest stages
of global economies. It is late-modern, and some people would say
it is postmodern.
Fundamentalism is a movement to fight back, and modernity is the
enemy. The term was born in a Baptist magazine in the United States
in July 1920, by someone who said (and I paraphrase), "Everybody
in our denomination wants to be conservative, but one thing about
conservatives is they don't fight back." He continued, "The battle
for the Lord is at stake. All that we count on is at stake." To
that movement to fight back he gave the name fundamentalism, because
it was to be a stand for the fundamentals of the faith.
To fundamentalists, modernity is a code word for a hurricane that
has disrupted former understandings of identity, gender, family,
and the education of children. (Almost every fundamentalist movement
starts its own elementary schools.) Fundamentalists have the feeling
their landmarks are disappearing, their moorings are going--the feeling
that once they ran things, and now they aren't so sure. Fundamentalists
don't like pluralism. It's challenging, as is its corollary, relativism,
which says "We're all equally true," meaning, "We're all equally
false." They also don't like another modern code word, humanism,
and the fact that some people believe it is possible to be a full
citizen without pledging oneself to a particular interpretation
of God. Fundamentalists everywhere in the world wish they could
have the whole polity to themselves, and that there wasn't this
jangle of opinions.
No pluralist republic, no liberal culture or liberal denomination,
turns fundamentalist. In Islam, as in Christianity, it is the conservative
movements--like the Wahhabi--that produce fundamentalist movements.
The difference is that conservative groups aren't reactive. They
don't fight back. I've never been grabbed by the lapel and asked
to be born again by an Orthodox Jew. The Amish don't block my path
with buggies so they can testify. G.K. Chesterton once likened being
a conservative to owning a white fence. If you want the fence to
stay white, you're a very busy person. Conservatives are busy tending
to what they have, painting the fence white. Fundamentalists start
In 1987, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences asked me to codirect
a comparison of fundamentalisms. The study ended up occupying six
years. It produced five big volumes, involved some 220 scholars,
and looked at fundamentalisms in 23 religions.
Comparing movements can be dangerous. As William James noted a hundred
years ago in his Varieties of Religious Experience, if you could
interview a crab, the last thing it would want would be to be classified
a crustacean. It would say, "I want to be taken seriously for myself."
But James also said that you can never understand a phenomenon without
cataloging, labeling, classifying, and comparing.
In every faith what is seen to be fundamental is different. For
Christian fundamentalists like the Communione et Liberazione in
Italy the conflict is over doctrine. For the Muslim Shiites it is
over law. For the Jewish Gush Emunim it is over story. What God
expects of us may be seen differently--but all fundamentalists believe
that there is a place, a perfect moment, a time, when the Prophet
was here or the Messiah was here or the first gathering was here,
and that they alone are keeping it alive and giving it momentum.
For this reason, it is very hard to be a fundamentalist in some
faiths. For Catholics there is no one moment; there is the development
of doctrine. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for instance,
has little anticipation in scripture. I've only found two movements
in Catholicism that go far enough to be considered fundamentalist:
one is Marcel Lefebvre's and the other is Communione et Liberazione.
Another faith where it's hard to be a fundamentalist is the Latter-Day
Saints, because they get new revelation. And that's why Pentecostals,
by and large, aren't fundamentalists, either. You rarely find a
fundamentalist in the African-American churches, for instance. I
once asked an African-American pastor: "You're evangelical; you
have the high view of biblical authority--why aren't you part of
the fundamentalist movement?" He said, "Well, it's because the way
we read the Bible, it's an unfinished plot and we're in it."
Yet, in their way--and on the basis of the old fundamentals--the fundamentalists
are very inventive. The theologian Karl Rahner talked about selective
retrieval. To fight back against modernity and do battle for the
Lord, fundamentalists pick certain elements and call them the fundamentals,
but these aren't necessarily everybody else's fundamentals. It doesn't
do a bit of good to talk about the Trinity, for instance, because
nobody's fighting about that. Modernity doesn't undercut belief
in the Trinity. But Modernity is going to change your way of life.
So when fundamentalists choose the fundamentals, they choose scandalous
and offensive ones. The Greek word skandalon means a trap, something
you trip over. Fundamentalist teachings are meant to keep out people
who don't belong and keep in those who do.
Thus, during the Iranian revolution, and now with the Taliban, you
may see the hand of the pickpocket chopped off, or the adulterous
couple stoned. These acts aren't hidden; they are brought into the
public square before 10,000 people to let all know the price. Similarly,
Protestant fundamentalists will say that it was a literal fish that
swallowed Jonah, and anyone who can't accept that can't be a Christian;
that's the test.
There is no middle. You've got to be in or out. Most hated, more
than the infidel, is the moderate. George Dollar, who taught at
Bob Jones University, one of the few true fundamentalist institutions
of higher learning in America, wrote a history of fundamentalism
in which he ended by saying that the man who is most dangerous to
fundamentalism in America in the last 50 years is Billy Graham.
Now, Billy Graham could sign onto any fundamentalist doctrine. He
believes in the Second Coming, he believes in the literal Bible.
But he's not separate. He'll share a stage with a Catholic cardinal,
an Episcopal bishop, a Methodist bishop, and a Presbyterian moderator.
He's dangerous because he holds the right teachings, but doesn't
It's impossible to totally escape modernity. I'd say fundamentalists
do jujitsu with modernity, the way a small woman thwarts a large
man if he comes at her with enough force, by turning the force around.
If fundamentalists can't keep the world at a distance because of
the mass media, they invent their own media. Fundamentalists enter
the public order, and because in many parts of the world that won't
work, they engage in military action. Most of the Islamic fundamentalist
groups we studied were fighting other Muslims, not the West. Look
at who killed Sadat in Egypt. In Iran we saw a partial exception,
but that was still primarily an internal battle, against the Shah.
Fundamentalists are out to purify their own public order. And failing
that, finally, we have terrorism.
Fifty years ago, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, in
his book The Irony of American History, said, "America is a gadget-filled
paradise suspended in a hell of international insecurity." The events
of September 11 cut that cord of suspension forever and dropped
us into the world that most people have always known. We would do
well to sustain our pluralism, to hold to our deep convictions,
and then to do what no fundamentalist can do, which is to converse
with, listen to, understand, and work with the other who is different.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service
Professor Emeritus at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.
He is the author of more than 40 books, including the multivolume
Modern American Religion. And he is the editor, with R. Scott
Appleby, of the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of
Arts and Sciences. His words here are drawn from a talk delivered
at Boston College on October 31 sponsored by the academic vice president's
office and the Boisi Center for Religion and American Life.
view that war can fit within the moral universe--and must always
be limited if it is to fit within that moral universe--has had to
adapt itself three times in the last 60 years. There was first an
adaptation to the nuclear age. There was secondly an adaptation
to the discussion of humanitarian military intervention during the
past decade, and now it needs to be adapted to address the question
During the nuclear age, the role of the ethic of war has been principally
to limit the use of armed conflict--to constrain it, to constrict
it, to narrow down the justifications that people use in order to
say that war is necessary. But beginning in the last 10 years of
the 20th century, we have been confronted by a very different reality,
where the withholding of military intervention can create a context
in which enormous human rights violations can occur within a state,
up to and including genocide, and people can hide behind the principle
of nonintervention and do nothing about it. Rwanda is a case of
genocide that the international community, including the United
States, did nothing about.
The new task facing us--to develop an ethic of war regarding terrorism--can
be understood in terms of agency (who acts), motive (why people
act), and method (how people act).
The agents, overwhelmingly, are non-state actors. So in a world
in which we have been taught to speak and think of international
politics as a relationship among states, we need a dramatic change
in thinking. We also need to think differently about motive. Beginning
in the 19th century and up into the 20th century, the motive of
terrorism was rather precisely defined as political goals. Now,
there's another kind of terrorism. You might call it ideologically
driven, and you might include religion under ideology. But ideology
here means a much broader framework of purposes and objectives than
narrowly political goals.
Finally, what distinguishes terrorists, regardless of their motive,
is that in most instances their methods consciously violate any
idea of appropriate limits on force. Not having armies, they seek
soft targets. They seek the kind of target that a small enterprise,
well directed and planned, can hit without having to field a major
military force. So the notion of war as a rule-governed activity,
which is precisely the way in which traditional ethics casts war,
runs counter to most instances of terrorism.
Since we are today at war with terrorism, the first question to
ask from an ethics perspective is, Do we have a reason to be at
war? Or to put it in its moral terms, is there just cause here?
My own judgment is that the nature of the attack, the scope of the
attack, the promise that there would be more, and the fact that
6,000 civilians were the target of the attack, means that there
is objective just cause. There is objective just cause in working
to prevent this from happening again.
Just cause, of course, does not give one the right to do anything
and everything. Charles Krauthammer, a national columnist whom I
read regularly and hardly ever agree with, has argued recently that
this is a war of "revenge and deterrence." Krauthammer needs to
be corrected, in moral terms. Revenge is not an appropriate moral
motive for war. Deterrence is. Bringing people to justice is. With
Augustine, we must remember that if we're trying to fit war within
the moral universe, we have to hold restraints on our deepest passions.
During the nuclear age, there were just causes that were not pursued
because pursuing them could have opened a war that would have been
without limit, disproportionate, and therefore wrong. The Gulf War
was debated in our society for three months before we went to war.
Just cause, by itself, did not answer the question of whether war
Once you get beyond the basic question of whether there is just
cause to pursue war, you have to examine the morality of the chosen
tactics. Here there has been a remarkable change of view since World
War II. In World War II, noncombatant immunity was violated on all
sides. Civilians were attacked directly. Today the U.S. government
makes an enormous effort to see that its war policy is insulated
from the charge that it directly attacks civilians. But civilian
damage occurs when other military targets are struck. And one cannot
simply say that there are always some mistakes in war, and we are
sorry. That is not enough. One has to learn from mistakes and make
appropriate policy changes. One must be willing to look at the question
of risk to civilians and to say that some targets that would be
desirable should not be pursued because the risks to civilians are
too high. One must be willing to say that some methods of carrying
on the fight should be restrained because disproportionate damage
can be done. Even if you don't attack civilians directly, when you
attack the infrastructure of a society, civilians suffer, and that,
too, is a moral issue that needs to be examined. That, in a sense,
is where I find myself in this war on terrorism. The cause is clear
for me, but the means need constant review, and I am already troubled
by some of them.
The future of this enterprise goes far beyond Afghanistan. I think
our government is right in presenting this as a long-term struggle.
But we are going to have to make distinctions along the way. Terrorist
organizations are not necessarily in cohesion with the state in
which they live. We must make that distinction. And if you find
a terrorist organization and a state that supports it, there will
always be a civil society that can't be simply swept into calculations
about the terrorist state or the organization.
Terrorism does pose a threat to us, and to the international order,
and it needs to be restrained, prevented, opposed. The opposition
to it can be political, economic, and may well need to be military.
But it is necessary, precisely when you're opposing something that
does not admit moral limits, that you oppose it within the framework
of moral limits. Otherwise, the other side has set the standard
for your policy. That is clearly not what we want, and not what
we should get from this war.
Fr. J. Bryan Hehir is a professor in religion and society and
head of the Divinity School at Harvard University. In 1983, as committee
staff director, Hehir was influential in the drafting of the Catholic
Bishops' Statement on Nuclear Weapons. He will depart Harvard at
the end of this year to become president and chief executive officer
of Catholic Charities USA. His article was edited from a talk he
delivered at Boston College on November 1, sponsored by the academic
vice president's office and the Boisi Center for Religion and American
from upper left: Pro-Taliban protesters in Karachi, Pakistan (AP
Photo/Bullit Marquez); a National Guardsman on duty in New York
City (AP Photo/Tina Fineburg); Union Square Park, New York City,
one week after the September attacks (Paul Fusco/Magnum); a hazardous-materials
team outside the U.S. Post Office building in Ewing, New Jersey
(AP Photo/Daniel Hulshizer).