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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Disputing Volf on Pakistan

Miroslav Volf is a singular figure on the global religious map. His theological writings consistently display elegance, fairness, and profound meditative power. His personal narrative as a survivor of mental torture as a young man in Yugoslovia bring him added authority and authenticity when he writes about forgiveness, reconciliation and international law. It was then with great haste that I rushed to the Christian Century website when I heard that he had a blog entry on the bin Laden story. His entry contains the kind of global, Christian, informed comment I had hoped for. I could not agree more with his concluding paragraph:

The death of Osama bin Laden has not left Muslim terrorists in utter defeat, but it has significantly weakened them. They are losing ground in other ways as well. As the Arab Spring from Tunisia to Yemen indicates, among Muslim communities--especially the urbane young--democratic revolution is more attractive than the terrorist solution. The doors are open to pursue anti-extremism strategies more in line with the Christian faith than the "war on terror" has been. By doing this we can build on fundamental values that unite Muslims with many Christian (as well as Jewish and humanist) citizens of Western nations.

 I am however compelled to take issue with two other parts of his post. In one section he quotes without comment from an email from a British scholar and church leader:

How is God's justice advanced by foreign troops acting as vigilantes in someone else's sovereign territory? Whose justice? Which rationality? All my instincts were, and are, to sigh with relief; even, in a measure, to celebrate. But my mind warns that this is a dangerous precedent in principle and an extremely dangerous action in terms of possible unintended consequences.

Later, in the last of a series of bullet points outlining his own thinking on the strike, Volf says:

Osama bin Laden was killed through an action that instantiates American exceptionalism. We will never consent to grant other nations (China, as an emerging superpower?) the right to intervene in other sovereign states the way we just intervened in Pakistan. As believers in the one God, Christians are universalists. We should not ourselves exercise rights we are unwilling to grant to others. This basic principle of morality should apply to international relations as well.

Now I am someone who revels in tweaking American imperial power and challenging Americans to think about how their actions would seem if done by others. I am, after all, a former graduate assistant to Andrew Bacevich, who has contributed greatly to the anti-imperial movement in the United States and who has been calling for the kind of demilitarized anti-terror effort Volf yearns for. Yet I find in the quote from the British scholar and in Volf’s comment the kind of muddled thinking that can marginalize voices for change. We need to be clear about what has been done and why, and we need to steer clear of language like “vigilante” and overstatements about what the United States would or would not support if done by other countries.

For reasons that are not entirely their own doing, Pakistan has devolved into an extremely troubled state. It has been generally acknowledged in the international community for years that the Pakistani State has no real sovereignty over vast areas of the country, and those areas over which it exercises sovereignty it does so with a government deeply compromised by military and intelligence forces that regularly impede and frustrate the power of the civilian government. We need only remember the profound complicity of the military/intelligence establishment in the rise of the Taliban, the Mumbai terror attack and the assassination of Benazhir Bhutto in order to gain a sense of the disfunction that is the sad state of Pakistan’s internal affairs. Then let us also remember the broader context of the hunt for bin Laden. Quite apart from the excesses of America’s War on Terror, the international community has never questioned the right of the United States to exercise its sovereignty in order to bring bin Laden to justice. There was widespread support in the international community for the war undertaken in Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban for its complicity with al Quaeda and to dismantle the terror network that used Afghanistan as a haven to plan the overthrow of sovereign governments and the deaths of thousands around the world. It is now crystal clear that in the wake of that effort in Afghanistan, bin Laden escaped to Pakistan. It is further evident that while living in Pakistan for years bin Laden managed to comfortably house himself in living quarters directly under the nose of a major military installation. Is there any serious member of the international community who believes that if we had worked with the government of Pakistan over these years of investigation and fact-finding that led to Sunday’s raid, we would have been able to see the Pakistani civil authorities apprehend bin Laden? Seriously now, who believes that would have happened? And who believes that it is a premise of international relations that we must therefore allow the continued safety of a man who has broken international law thousands of times over because he lives in a sovereign state? What principle of morality equates the situation in which we were forced to act as we did to “vigilante justice”? I think that in the United States there would be widespread consent for China, or any other country that was seeking a terrorist of the degree of a bin Laden who had killed thousands of citizens of the given country and was hiding away in a country with elements of its leadership complicit in the terrorist's actions, to invade with the kind or precision of this action. In point of fact, we have supported those kinds of actions in the past. Except for extreme supporters of the idea of national sovereignty (such as China, it must be said), I can't think of any country that would argue against this kind of action in truly similiar situations.

These are confusing, bewildering times. There are so many thoughts passing through all of our minds and I mean no offense to David Gushee, who I challenged in an earlier post, or Miroslav Volf, who I have challenged here. These are remarkable writers and thinkers with moral courage to back it all up. I am in broad agreement with many of their goals. But I think they damage their arguments and moral credibility with some of their charges.


  1. Sorry, but what if the forces of Afghanistan decided to conduct a raid in the US at the home of Jeremy Morlock? That's essentially what we did in Pakistan and continue to do throughout the middle east through drone strikes and covert ops. I think that vigilantism is a perfect term here.

  2. For those that don't know, Jeremy Morlock is a soldier convicted of murdering three Afghanistan civillians who is now serving a 24 year sentence in prison. How that compares to Osama bin Laden living in relative comfort, continuing to lead a terrorist movement that has threatened the sovereignty of nations and the lives of thousands of individuals is beyond me.

  3. I am curious about "(Volf's) muddled thinking" as you put it. Are you really afraid his words, or those like him will "marginalize voices for change?" That sounds a lot like, "for voices for change to be taken seriously, we must fall in line." I hope I am wrong in my reading of your comment.
    With respect to the first comment, I am not sure what the issue is with the word vigilante. One of the many terrible by-products of the "War on Terror" is that the US can commit acts of state sponsored terror wherever and however it chooses, with no regard for international law. We are not in a "legal" war with Pakistan. The killings we continue to commit in Pakistan are outside of international law. I believe, by definition, that is vigilantism, the meting out of extralegal punishment. If not, it is illegal at best-- unless Pakistan has sanctioned it, of course they did not. Many, perhaps a majority in the world will use the same word to describe our actions.
    I take issue with some of the comments you make to support your point of view with respect to Volf's comments in this post. You write, "the international community has never questioned the right of the US to bring OBL to justice." True, but I am not sure it is implicit that that support included showing up wherever he may be and shooting him in the face. Just because Pakistan is "wild west-like" does not make for a moral act. If we had done this in Russia, it would not go down so well. Is the take-away our actions are moral depending on the local code? Should police officers in tough urban neighborhoods beat suspects because crime rates are high, but take care in nice suburban neighborhoods? Shouldn't we take the high ground?
    As for complicity on the part of Pakistan regarding the rise of the Taliban, how far are you willing to take that narrative back? To the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? To the replenishment of OBL's charities after the BCCI seizures? The US has been as complicit in the rise of AQ as anyone. We got the ball rolling. Not to mention, how many governments (populations) does the US regularly impede? Honduras 2008 comes to mind.
    Also, many Pew and Gallup polls show that in 2001, that the majority of countries preferred extradition and trial to a war. (I get the distinction between countries and people.)
    Bush and his cronies started, and now Obama continues to perpetrate state sponsored violence via an illegal war by international law standards. Are they legitimate targets for an Iraqi hit squad? The Hague appears as likely to commence with a war crimes trial as Pakistan did to put effort into catching OBL, does that mean these actors are free game since we as a country are complicit in their freedom? Or does a uniform make all the difference?
    To many Cubans and Venezuelans, we are "Pakistan," as we harbor the likes of Luis Posada Carilles, admitted bomber and hijacker. Think of the SOA and death squads we trained in Central America, and the original 9/11, in Chile. The terrorists participated there often had homes in the US, were trained by the US, or in allied countries. If Cuba or the USSR had taken out these terrorists it would have been quite ugly. I simply cannot buy your assertion that US would stand by quietly while one of our terrorists got killed, precisely or otherwise.
    I believe that "voices of change" must speak truth to power, however idealistic and naive that may seem. Dissent is patriotic, much more so than chanting U-S-A. We must not roll over and pretend like state sponsored terror does not come with a bill, that bill will be due someday. We paid a heavy price on 9/11, yet I feel we continue to rack up more and more "invoices" to continue the metaphor.

  4. I think it's interesting that you make the "fatal flaw" of assuming that just because the international community is not in disagreement with an action that the action is the correct one. The key is that the US went outside the bounds of international law by going into Pakistan. I suppose that does have some degree of vigilantism to it by the definition of the term vigilante. Just because the rest of international community is willing to turn a blind eye doesn't make the action right.

    As an aside, I would also like to ask what the point of criticizing Volf's characterization of the US military's actions against bin Laden? It doesn't seem to me that you proved much of anything, nor contributed to the conversation. But that's just my opinion.