After the death of 13 U.S. service members and nearly 200 other people in the terrorist attack on the Kabul airport on Aug. 26, President Joe Biden made a speech in which he sent a direct message to the perpetrators: “To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay. I will defend our interests and our people with every measure at my command.” In the following days, the United States executed two drone strikes: One on Aug. 27, which the U.S. military said killed two members of ISIS-K, and another on Aug. 29 that targeted what the military claimed was a vehicle containing explosives and an undetermined number of occupants.
On Sept. 1, Christopher Braun wrote an article for America, “Is violent revenge against terrorists moral? Just war theory says no.” The following responses were submitted shortly after the article was published, but before an investigation by The New York Times suggested that the Aug. 29 drone strike had killed civilians by mistake. On Sept. 17, the Pentagon acknowledged that it had indeed killed 10 civilians, including seven children, after initially suggesting that the strike was necessary to prevent another attack on U.S. forces.
Christian Braun asks, “Is violent revenge against terrorists moral?” He responds that Catholic social teaching does not support retribution. It does, however, support an active defense against terrorism.
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, St. John Paul II responded there is “a right to defend oneself against terrorism” (2000 World Day of Peace Message, No. 5). Violent retribution is impermissible, but defense against terrorism is not only a right but a duty of public authorities. I take the president’s words as a mistaken rhetorical choice that is not borne out by his careful policy.
For myself the more disturbing sentences in President Biden’s speech were: “We will not forgive. We will not forget.” While St. John Paul allowed for defense against terrorism, the burden of his argument was that forgiveness was essential to the just conclusion of war. “No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness” was the formula he left us. Pope Francis has insisted, too, that forgiveness and mercy are the heart of the Gospel life. On that point, the president’s rhetoric entirely missed the mark.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.
Former editor in chief of America and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Human Development at Georgetown University
I understand the statements of the president sounded vengeful. However, he was angry and deeply felt the pain of the loss of those soldiers.
The president knew that another attack was imminent. He was reporting this constantly during the 36 hours preceding the drone strikes, and intelligence sources accurately knew who to strike to prevent it. Therefore, the drone strikes were justifiable self defense to prevent another attack in which more U.S. soldiers and innocent civilians could have died.
Lydia Isabel Bobes
I agree that targeted killings for retribution or vengeance are wrong. And President Biden’s comments were wrong and I believe politically motivated in the heat of the moment.
From what we know, it would appear that the destruction of the vehicle [Aug. 29] was a clear case of self-defense to prevent the slaughter of more innocents at the airport. Without knowledge of the [Aug. 27] bombing, it is unknown if the two killed posed an imminent threat. If so, it would fall in the self-defense category. Sometimes things can be very blurry. In this case, we don’t know.
With regard to the drone attack which killed members of ISIS, I presumed that President Biden was working to save lives. If he had not reacted, can you guarantee that ISIS would not have mounted deadlier attacks on the airport? The Taliban had agreed to Aug. 31 as the deadline for American departure. The intervention of ISIS clearly escalated the risk to both Afghans and Americans. Are you saying it would have been better to file a complaint with the U.N.? Sometimes diplomacy works; but in an unwarranted attack, you have to act swiftly in a manner that says, there are deadly consequences for you if you cross this line.