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How Should We Resist Terrorism? Some Ideas from Christian Ethics

Drottninggatan in Stockholm, Parliament Square in London, a Christmas market at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Three sites in the heart of Europe that any European citizen could have been visiting when the terrorists struck. Nobody should feel safe anymore – that’s the clear message from the attackers. They chose their targets deliberately. The terrorists want to prove, by the most brutal means possible, that open and free societies are vulnerable. And it seems to be working. Even though most Europeans know that their chances of falling victim to a terrorist attack are minuscule, the fear of terror – at least in Germany – became people’s most pressing fear in 2016. Transnational terrorism – sowing fear across borders and continents, causing deaths, disfigurements, and injuries, destroying people’s homes, and forcing them to become refugees – this is no longer somebody else’s problem. Now it is a problem for the so-called Western world, too. 

How should we resist terrorism? This question is one of the most urgent and pressing political and social issues of the present day. Loud voices are claiming that we have reached the “zero point of antiterror policy”1 – all attempts to contain, never mind defeat, international terrorism have failed. Even though efforts to track down the terrorists succeed every so often, many people probably share the view that we currently lack any convincing political response to the threat. 

Political reactions to an attack have become almost a reflex: step up surveillance of public spaces and introduce stricter controls. Tighten our security networks and store more data. Various restrictions on civil liberties are proposed, then accepted. All this is meant to guarantee greater security. A state of emergency is imposed – as in France – for months, and repeatedly extended, until there is a danger it will gradually become the norm. Radical political forces gain strength as they instrumentalize and spread fear among the population. Supported by populist forces, terrorism has poisoned the refugee debate and the welcoming culture toward migrants in Germany, for example. We have to admit that the terrorists’ ploy of exploiting refugee routes to make victims of war and terror victims a second time, now of suspicion and exclusion, has been a success. So too has Islamic terror’s stated intention of stirring up a general suspicion of Muslims in Western countries. 

Prevention is the magic word that will supposedly deliver Western societies from the im­pending terrorist threat. A suicide bomber who evades conventional anti-crime tactics and makes prosecution as a deterrent seem absurd, needs to be prevented from committing the act that makes him an offender. For this reason, we increasingly try to identify ­people who are a potential threat, before or regardless of whether they have actually committed any wrongdoing. Suspicion becomes emblematic of a society that feels under threat, where everyone is potentially a perpetrator. 

Meanwhile – as we can observe – the transnational terrorist calculation is clear. After every attack, people in the societies concerned declare they will not bow to terrorism. Following the November 2015 attacks in Paris, for example, the public was asked to make a point of going out to restaurants, bars, and theatres. Two days after the April 2017 attack in Stockholm, thousands gathered for a “manifestation of love” to show their rejection of terror and violence, and to honour the victims. Yet it’s hard to escape the feeling that these gatherings don’t really immunize us to the pernicious, delayed-action, destructive power of terror.

We should be absolutely clear about the fact that terrorists use two different weapons. The first weapon is the attack, intended to generate the greatest possible amount of uncertainty, fear and media attention in the attacked so­ciety. From the terrorists’ point of view, the more arbitrary and brutal an attack appears to be, the more successful it is. But the first weapon has one main purpose, and that is to make sure terror’s second weapon hits home. The more sensational and shocking the attack, the more effective this second weapon will prove to be. Why? Because terrorists expect that their violence will achieve its true destructive potential in the way that societies react to their attacks. Societies are meant to overreact, and so become the instrument of their own destruction. Fear among the population plays a pivotal role. It does so at the moment the population allows itself to be politicized – and thus becomes politicized. 

It would seem that we need a change of perspective in counterterrorism policy. The rest of this article aims to outline how Christian ethics can help to point the way forward, in a much-needed debate that is not conducted nearly often enough. First it is necessary to define the relationship between ethics and politics, and between ethics and the Christian faith. It is fair to say that moral categories cannot be easily transferred into the realm of politics. Ethical reflection on the fight against terrorism certainly should not set itself the goal of moralizing politics. So, a distinction needs to be made here between careful moral reflection and political action. The task of ethics is not to formulate specific policy guidelines. But it should play a role in supporting the political consensus-building process among citizens living in a democratic society, and in promoting and strengthening democratic structures. Ethical reflection from a Christian perspective starts with the belief that Christian ethics, too, is bound by rationality. It is not some kind of special morality that only people of faith can understand. In particular, the claim to universality is deeply inscribed in Christian ethics. Nevertheless, Christian ethics can perhaps offer “a salvaging formulation [...] for something almost forgotten, but implicitly missed.”2 It can reveal repressed perspectives, or emphasize certain aspects, such as the Christian understanding of man, which enable new ways of looking at contemporary questions. 

Two possible Christian ethics approaches are picked out and discussed below.3 In light of these approaches, alternative solutions to the problem of combating terrorism can be developed. It is undisputed that protecting people’s security is one of the paramount goals of political action. But this narrow perspective, with its fixation on security, needs to be widened. How would counterterrorism change if Western societies were more cognizant of the fact that terrorists are targeting not primarily the security of Western democracies, but their freedom? With an excessive fixation on security, there is a danger that the methods used to combat terrorism will end up harming democracy. Critical analyses of current counterterrorism measures examine this point in detail.4 Thus, a fight against terrorism that is obsessed with security measures ultimately proves to be counterproductive. From a Christian perspective, we can question the powers which counterterrorism of this kind asks us to put our trust in: Do prevention and security actually have the power to free us from terrorism? Does the use of violence have the power to protect us? 

An initial change of perspective comes about when we examine Christianity’s relationship with violence. It is beyond the scope of this article to trace the manifold contradictions in the interpretation and practice of this complex relationship in the Christian tradition. But let us simply recall one of the key points: the apparent teaching of passive tolerance of violence by others. In the Sermon on the Mount, we find the words: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39). Is Jesus saying that we should meekly surrender ourselves to violence – which today includes terrorist violence? For a long time, the passage was understood to mean just that, putting Christians in a difficult position they had a hard time explaining. Yet the long-prevailing interpretation of this verse possibly is not at all what Jesus had in mind. The explosive power expressed in this passage has failed to be recognized. There is something almost rebellious in the call to the poor and disenfranchised, to whom the sermon is given, to turn the left cheek. If a person who is hit turns his left cheek, the aggressor is unable to strike his inferior again using the back of his hand – as was the custom of time – and instead is forced to use his right fist: “but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.”5 So what this passage is actually saying is not that we should passively accept our enemy’s violence. Instead, we should resist. But – and this is the decisive point – we should do so with means other than those our adversary dictates. “Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition.”6 

This criticism of violence is bound up with the belief that evil must not continue as a result of our fighting evil. But how then can this vicious circle be broken? This question leads us to a second change in perspective. Our starting point here is the deep-seated anthropological assumption of vulnerability, which is (also) fundamental to Christian theology. This is not to assert that vulnerability is an exclusively Christian category, but rather that it is one of the basic constants of anthropology. In Christianity, however, this vulnerability attains an extraordinary dignity. Vulnerability is the means of expression chosen by God Himself to show Himself in His Son Jesus Christ – in the crib and on the cross. In other words: in vulnerability, man meets God.

Counterterrorism attempts to immunize us against the destructive forces of terrorism by preaching invulnerability. Yet if we deny or suppress our vulnerability, we are in danger of employing violence ourselves to enforce security. In the struggle with terrorism, this attitude led the US into so-called wars on terror in the wake of 9/11. 

By contrast, if we perceive ourselves as vulnerable, we acknowledge that others are also easily hurt. In Biblical and Christian terms, this can be expressed as a “mysticism with open eyes [...] which commits us to increased awareness of the suffering of others.”7 Only with open eyes trained on the suffering of others can we clearly see the dangers of dehumanization inherent in the fight against terrorism. More than that, the question of what terrorist violence is ultimately articulating comes to the surface, without us wishing to trivialize or justify it. Thus, we begin to focus on the question of what causes terrorism, and see that Western societies need to drop a widespread habit of self-justification. 

It is vulnerability that provides us with the scope for civil rights and freedoms to develop, and for democracy to be put into practice in our lives. This scope for enabling freedom and trust is what terrorism seeks to close off and destroy. It wants Western societies to become blind – blinded by fear. Therefore, it is important now more than ever to recognize that in the final analysis, awareness of our vulnerability is what protects us from the destructive power of terrorism. In the age of the so-called fight against terrorism, we need above all to consider the fragility and vulnerability of democracy as it faces the terrorist threat. Christian ethics can advocate and convincingly support this point of view. If we protect and value our vulnerability, we can ultimately feel secure – in the knowledge that we shall not succumb to terrorism.

1 Lau, Jörg (2016): “Fetisch Gewalt.” In: Die Zeit No. 26, ­November 16, 2016 (translated from the German).
2 Habermas, Jürgen (2005): “Faith and Knowledge.” In: ­Eduardo Mendieta (ed.): The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers. New York and London, p. 336.
3 For a detailed discussion, see: Klöcker, Katharina (2017): Freiheit im Fadenkreuz. Terrorbekämpfung als christlich-­ethische Herausforderung. Freiburg.
4 Cf. Klöcker, Katharina (2009): Zur Moral der Terrorbekämpfung. Eine theologisch-ethische Kritik. Ostfildern, pp. 155–218.
5 Wink, Walter (1998): The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York, p. 100 f.
6 Wink, Walter (1998): The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York, p. 102. 
7 Metz, Johann Baptist (1992): “Die Rede von Gott angesichts der Leidensgeschichte der Welt.” In: Stimmen der Zeit 117, vol. 5, pp. 311–320, p. 320 (translated from the German).

Author

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Dr. Katharina Klöcker is a theologian and journalist. In September 2015 she became junior professor of theological ethics in the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Ruhr University Bochum. After studying Catholic theology in Tübingen, Paris, and Münster, she worked at the Catholic News Agency (Katholische Nachrichten-Agentur, KNA) in Bonn, initially as a trainee, then as editor. During her training, she attended the Catholic journalism school (ifp) in Munich. From 2004 to 2012 she was a research assistant in the department of moral theology at the Faculty of Catholic Theology in Münster. In 2009 she published her dissertation on the theological and ethical aspects of counterterrorism – “Zur Moral der Terrorbekämpfung. Eine theologisch-ethische Kritik.” Between 2012 and 2015 she set up and developed the theology career network office at the University of Münster.

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