On November 26th I attended a meeting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a group of religious leaders including Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Franklin Graham, and Chuck Colson.
The purpose of the afternoon, Rumsfeld said, was to listen to our concerns and get our advice. But at the end of the meeting, when asked what we could do to help the war effort, the Secretary urged us to “be informed and tell the truth about the war on terrorism.”
Rumsfeld was clearly frustrated with the coverage of the war in Afghanistan. “Why does the media grant moral equivalence to what the Taliban says and what we say?” He gave a typical example of the Taliban fabricating a story about civilian casualties based upon the simple transfers of stretchers from one building to another. He asked why the media keeps treating Taliban stories as credible “when they have been proven to be liars.”
That’s a good question. The media bloodhounds who have sniffed for bad news first with civilian casualties, then military failure, and now Ashcroft’s detainees are an obstacle that the Pentagon must spend precious time and energy trying to contain. Watching Rumsfeld handling the media has been one of the few delights of this unfortunate episode in our history, and has further exposed the partisan bias of most press.
As Rumsfeld said, “This will be the least violent change of power in the history of Afghanistan,” but it is highly unlikely that you will hear that on the evening news.
Chuck Colson, who is not a Catholic, came to the meeting fresh from reading St. Thomas Aquinas on the principles of a just war. He commended Rumsfeld on the concern for proportionality expressed in the meeting and shown on the battlefield.
The Secretary responded to Colson by addressing the issue of preemptive action against terrorists in other countries. He argued that it is self-defense to capture or kill terrorists – “to defend you must preempt!” Rumsfeld carefully added that other means – political, diplomatic, police – should be pursued before taking overt military action. He reminded us of the 1981 Israeli bombing of Iraqi nuclear facilities, and the outcry it caused. “When Americans saw those facilities after Operation Desert Storm it was clear that without Israel’s preemptive strikes Iraq would have developed a nuclear capability.”
There was one moment of confusion when Rumsfeld said that preemptive action would not extend to “local” acts of terror, that is, confined to national boundaries. Franklin Graham asked if this meant that terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah operating against Israel were exempt from preemptive action. Rumsfeld replied that those organizations obviously do
operate across national borders.
As we were leaving, Cardinal Bevilacqua commented how much he appreciated the meeting, “We learned with Vietnam that a country cannot fight a war without the support of the people – talking directly to religious leaders is crucial in keeping that support.”
With the media tirelessly infusing suspicion into the American people, perhaps religious leaders can and should play a greater role as honest brokers of American intentions in the war on terrorism.