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Bishop William Morris, Acting Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, has urged the Australian community to slow down and think more clearly in order to foster true justice and peace rather than feeding a spiral of injustice and violence.

His statement on behalf of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council regarding the terrorist crisis follows:

We have all been shocked and saddened by the terrorist attacks on the USA.  We have mourned with the friends and relatives of the victims.  We too have felt anger and confusion.  As we gain a little distance from these initial emotions, we must ensure that the response of the world community is not hasty, vengeful or a cause of further injustice and suffering.

There has been much anger and violent talk.  The use of violence has been threatened.  Actual violence and intimidation against people of Middle Eastern background and Muslims in general has occurred.  To our shame, such violence has also occurred within the Australian community.  Fear of a violent response is driving thousands of innocent civilians from their homes in Afghanistan.  They are fleeing the oppressive regime believed to have harboured the terrorists.  In a cruel irony, they are included among the asylum seekers and refugees being prejudged in the public mind as responsible for the presumed acts of their own persecutors.

We must not descend to the level of terrorists.  Our responses must not inflict suffering on any other innocent civilians.  Let us reflect on how the international community should respond, and on the moral requirements for a principled and legitimate use of force.  It is time to slow down and think clearly if we are to foster true justice and peace rather than feed a spiral of injustice and violence.

According to the Catholic tradition, for the use of force to be justifiable, a number of conditions need to be met simultaneously:

  1. It must be an act of self-defence against an unjust aggressor
  2. The action must be initiated by a legitimate authority
  3. It must be the last resort after all non-violent means have been exhausted
  4. There must be a reasonable chance of success
  5. The action must not cause greater evil than that which it sets out to address
  6. The action must not harm innocents

These criteria are collectively known as the just war tradition.  They have evolved from moral reflection on centuries of experience of conflict and efforts to cultivate true peace.

The starting point of the Catholic tradition’s approach to this question is a fundamental commitment to respect for life.  That is why the Catechism’s reflections on war and peace start with reflection on the commandment: you shall not kill (n 2302).  Respect for human life, and its flourishing, need peace.  True peace and security come from respect for the dignity and rights of both individual people and whole communities. As well as meeting the criteria relating to legitimate recourse to the use of force, all action during conflict must respect the criteria relating to how force may be used.  Not all actions in war are fair; they must be marked by the utmost respect for human life.

Force may only be used in self-defence against an unjust aggressor.  The harm caused by the aggressor must be lasting, grave and certain before the use of force in self-defence may be appropriate.  Even then, only after all other non-violent means of self-defence have been exhausted may the use of force be contemplated as a last resort.

Have all other means of putting an end to terrorism really been exhausted?  We must ask ourselves what can really defend communities against terrorism, whether internal or international.  We have seen that nuclear weapons, missile shields and large armed forces have failed to provide peace and security.  Wealth and influence have failed to provide security.  We must look to the causes of terrorism and address them at their roots.  Are we really doing enough to address poverty and inequality?

Self-defence is different from revenge, retribution or punishment.  Can we really say that there is a clear, identifiable, grave and immediate danger of serious harm to the common good at the moment?  What exactly is it?  Who is it?  If the use of force at this time is really retribution rather than self-defence, then we must reject it.

For the use of force to be appropriate, we would need to have compelling proof of who was responsible for the attacks, and evidence that there was an immediate danger that such acts were likely to be repeated.  This is yet to be demonstrated.

It appears that the culprits in this case were non-State actors.  This then was not an act of war.  This is a case of international criminal activity.  The appropriate course of action is to bring the culprits to justice before an international criminal tribunal.  The United Nations, rather than any other grouping of nation States, is the appropriate body to authorize action to this end.  Australia should not be supporting any use of force that is not authorized by the United Nations Security Council.  Anything else would be international vigilante action.  As the Bishops’ Committee for Justice Development and Peace recently said, “the promotion of international criminal justice in this age of globalization is essential”.

If it is decided to use force, are there in fact serious prospects of success?  Even the opinions of military analysts appear to be divided on this question.  The long guerilla war that eventually pushed the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan should give those in favour of military intervention pause to think.  The presence of weapons of mass destruction in the region should also weigh heavily in this calculation.  Furthermore, the real measure of success is the extent to which peace is established, not the capture of one suspected criminal.

Would the use of force produce more suffering and evil than it sets out to eliminate?  Already we have seen the flight of many ordinary Afghanis. We have also seen the departure from Afghanistan of aid organizations providing the emergency relief that has barely kept the civilian population alive.  Many will die as a result.  Most will be women and children.  Neighbouring Pakistan, already in a precarious situation prior to the crisis, is in danger of polarization and complete destabilization.  Members of minority communities and moderate groups are particularly vulnerable.

As concrete plans for response emerge, we must keep asking if they distinguish between combatants and civilians.  How could those who have lost loved ones in a terrorist attack feel vindicated by the deaths of other innocent civilians?  This would only feed a spiral of injustice and violence.

At this time we call on the Catholic community to:

  1. Pray: for the victims of terrorism around the world, and for their families; for world leaders that they will respond to terrorism with wise and principled action for the common good; for true justice, peace and security for the whole human family.
  2. Support members of the Australian community being victimized at this time.  Speak out against such violence and intimidation against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern background.
  3. Urge the Australian Government to reject any use of force that does not meet the criteria outlined in this statement.
  4. Encourage world leaders to cooperate to bring those suspected of being responsible for these acts of terrorism before an international criminal tribunal.

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