Distributed September 28 2001
Copyright ©2001 by P. Terrence Hopmann and Nina Tannenwald
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 1,000 Words


P. Terrence Hopmann and Nina Tannenwald

An act of war or a crime against humanity?

The way we interpret events, especially traumatic events like the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, will have an impact on the options we consider for responding. Rather than interpreting this tragedy as an “attack on America” – a war – it would be better to frame it as “a crime against humanity.”


In his speech on Thursday, Sept. 20, President George W. Bush framed the tragic events of September 11 as a war, echoing the analogy with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor that has so often been evoked by our nation’s media during the last 10 days.

There are alternative ways to see this situation, however. The way we interpret events, especially traumatic events like the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, will have an impact on the options we consider for responding. Rather than interpreting this tragedy as an “attack on America” – a war – it would be better to frame it as “a crime against humanity.”

There is much confusion about whether this is really war. Traditionally, war is something that takes place between two or more states seeking political or strategic objectives or, in the case of a civil war, between two factions fighting for control of a government. But no country attacked us here, rather it was a group of individuals.

Although the attack was appallingly destructive, there are costs to treating this situation as “war.” Doing so applies an outdated model, which pits one country against another, in this case the United States and Afghanistan. In reality, terrorism is a new kind of threat which endangers all nations. Terrorist networks and cells are based in many countries and cannot be eliminated simply through bombing raids.

The “crime against humanity” was defined in the 1998 statute establishing the International Criminal Court, now signed by 139 nations, as a “widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” The political philosopher Michael Walzer has defined it as an act that “shocks the conscience” of humanity. Certainly the barbaric act of using civilian aircraft loaded with passengers as guided missiles to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon constitutes such a crime against humanity.

Viewing the issue this way does not deny that the terrorist strike was also an attack on central symbols of American wealth and power and on innocent Americans. But the World Trade Center in particular had employees from some 60 countries, and the victims of this tragedy hailed from all corners of the world. They represented a wide range of ethnic groups and virtually all of the world’s religions.

A “crime against humanity” entails a different response than an act of war. The pursuit of justice should take precedence over retaliation against an aggressor. By declaring “war on terrorism” and preparing for a major military assault on Afghanistan as a country, President Bush risks killing many innocent civilians. Committing one act of injustice in response to another does not produce justice. By committing the United States not only to bringing Bin Laden and his associates to justice but also to declaring war against Taliban rule in Afghanistan, he risks creating a much wider war that could involve other countries of the region such as Iraq and Pakistan.

Furthermore, the United States risks further alienating the desperate people of this region and creating even broader support for terrorism. Retaliating in “eye for an eye” fashion, however satisfying at first sight, could inflame new cycles of terrorist violence.

By viewing the attack as a “crime against humanity,” on the other hand, we lay the foundation for a truly global rather than unilateral U.S. response. We should ask the U.N. Security Council to declare the September 11 attack a “crime against humanity” and seek U.N. authorization to bring the terrorists to justice. Given the worldwide condemnation of these events, it is likely that the Security Council would pass such a resolution, probably unanimously. This would serve as a signal that the entire international community finds these acts to be totally unacceptable.

In collaboration with other nations, we should seek to capture those responsible and bring them to trial at the International Criminal Court in Rome or a similar ad hoc tribunal. That court can try individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The United States has signed but not ratified the treaty for this new court, but use of this court would send a message to the entire world that the United States believes in a world of justice and non-violence rather than retribution for its own sake.

If we have to use force to capture Osama bin Laden and his associates – and it may be necessary – we should use whatever force necessary to do the job. However, it should be proportionate to the goal of bringing the criminals to justice, and it should be in concert with other nations. We must exercise restraint in order to avoid the excessive use of military force that would kill even more innocent civilians, contribute to the further growth of terrorism, and alienate many other countries whose support is necessary to achieve our primary goal of bringing an end to the global terrorist threat. We should avoid widening the war to include toppling governments we do not like.

The United States currently enjoys unprecedented sympathy from around the world. We must seize this moment to solidify the global commitment to the struggle against terrorism, and build a foundation for a cohesive global response over the long run. By showing that it is not just the United States but the entire international community that condemns these crimes against humanity, we would also send a message that the international community will not tolerate horrible acts of this magnitude anywhere on this planet no matter who commits them, and regardless of who the victims may be. In such a world, terrorist organizations will have nowhere to hide and nowhere to receive the sustenance and support they need to survive.

We cannot end terrorism if our response to this tragedy is framed as a war by the United States against Afghanistan. If we are truly to end the scourge of terrorism, the entire international community must stand united against those terrorist organizations that operate within countries and across national borders and threaten the very core of global civilization when they commit acts that do indeed “shock the conscience” of all humanity.


P. Terrence Hopmann is professor of political science and director of the Global Security Program at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Nina Tannenwald is the Joukowsky Family Assistant Professor (research) at the Watson Institute.

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